24 May 2007

Steroids #1: Barry Bonds

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
May 13, 2007

Barry Bonds deserves recognition for being one of the best players in the history of baseball. The hysteria and hypocrisy accompanying Bonds is simply unbelievable.

Barry Bonds took performance-enhancing drugs. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, authors of Game of Shadows provide a strong case in support of the claim that Bonds took a wide array of drugs, including human growth hormone, designer and run-of-the-mill steroids, a women’s infertility drug that helps a steroid user produce testosterone again after taking steroids, insulin, and a stimulant. The persons who supplied him and others with the drugs, BALCO owner Vic Conte and Vice President James Valente, and trainer Greg Anderson were all convicted. Conte got four months in prison and four months of home confinement. Anderson was found guilty of steroid distribution and money laundering and got three months prison and three months of home confinement. Valente was found guilty of steroid distribution and got probation. After taking the drugs in 1998 and pumping iron, Bonds went from hitting one home run every 16.1 at bats in his career to one every 8.5 at bats (through 2005).

Bond is also a bad guy. He is described as a menacing bully and invariably foul-tempered. For example, in 2003 his mistress Kimberly Bell claimed that he put his hand on her throat, pushed her against the wall, and threatened to kill her. He is also disliked by his teammates, a tax cheat, an adulterer, and subject to fits of rage. Even if these are private matters, the overall pattern is not pretty.

Bonds is also one of the greatest players ever. As an offensive player he is by far the best offensive player of the recent era. He won seven (count `em, seven) MVPs. He won three home-run titles (and was second five times), two National League batting titles, and twelve Silver Sluggers (the best offensive player in his position). Perhaps the best measure of offensive production is OPS (On-Base Percentage + Slugging Percentage adjusted for park and league variables) and according to BaseballReference.com, Bonds was the OPS leader an incredible ten times (and second an additional three times). He also led the league in walks 12 times (and was second four times) and was a potent base stealer (second among active players). To top it off, he is a hall-of-fame defensive player with eight Golden Gloves (the award given to the best fielder in his position).

Nor was this merely the result of steroids. He won three MVP Awards, four OPS crowns, seven Silver Sluggers, eight Golden Gloves, one home-run title, and six base-on-ball titles before he used drugs.

Here is a principle for recognizing greatness. When a player does what his competitors were doing, does not harm anyone else, and is light-years ahead of his competition, his accomplishments should be recognized. Bonds’s competitors were also on steroids. Former MVP Ken Caminiti told Sports Illustrated that more than 50% of players were on steroids (he later reduced his estimate to 15%). Former star Jose Conseco estimated that 85% were. In addition, large numbers of players took speed to improve their defensive game. It is reputed that speed was so common that pitchers used to get mad at players who didn’t take it. Other players took drugs that were legal and permitted by baseball but functioned just like steroids. For example, Mark McGwire took a testosterone precursor. Even if steroids are dangerous when properly used, and this is controversial, they only endanger the user. They are thus like Botox or liposuction.

Bonds followed the established rules of the time and we shouldn’t expect standards among athletes that bear no relation to how we would behave in their shoes and how the rest of society behaves. Would you go into a boxing match without supplements when your opponent was likely on both steroids and speed? Of course not. As a defense lawyer, would you aggressively try to keep out legitimate evidence if the police were lying in to get it in? Yes. How many of you puff up accomplishments on resumes or in interviews, overstate the abilities of those you recommend, illegally download software, or pay workers in cash to avoid paperwork or taxes? The shoe fits.

Some critics claim that Bonds’s steroid use gives him a leg up on his historical competitors and hence his records should receive an asterisk. Babe Ruth didn’t face black competition. Any guess as to whether they would have made him less productive? Hank Aaron competed before the league was awash with talented Latin American players. Think that he would have done so well against today’s crop of Hispanic aces? Comparison across eras is guesswork and controlling for one factor (steroids) while ignoring others (Hispanic pitchers) is intellectually bankrupt.

Many of Bonds’s critics have a double standard that amounts to blinding hypocrisy. When it comes to politics, they celebrate campaign- and election-cheats like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Bill Clinton. Clinton, for example, knowingly took big bucks from illegal Chinese donors (the conduits were all convicted of this--don’t believe me? look it up). In schools and on Presidents’ Day, we celebrate adulterers (Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Clinton) and piss-poor Presidents (Herbert Hoover, Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter). Other Bonds critics enthusiastically support a dirty politician like Hilary Clinton (she collected $100,000 from highly suspicious cattle-future trades, conveniently lost records with regard to shaky real-estate deals, and was probably in on the pardons-for-dollars scandal).

When it comes to sports, fans lionize alcoholics (Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle) and adulterers, drug addicts, and rapists (see Michael Jordon, Lawrence Taylor, and Mike Tyson respectively). Given this, why all the venom directed at Bonds? Dayne Perry of Reason Magazine points out that given the hatred of Bonds, it is odd that little was said when Gaylord Perry was inducted to the Hall of Fame despite being well known for relying on an illegal spitball pitch.

We don’t have a duty to celebrate anyone. Celebrating someone is up to the celebrator’s discretion. Americans fasten on to some personalities and not others. For example, fans love Mickey Mantle more than Ted Williams, even though the latter was a better player. What is behind the hatred of Barry Bonds is probably in part his personality and in part the schoolmarms’ campaign against drugs. Neither should stop us from acknowledging the fact that Bonds is the greatest baseball player of our era.


The Objectivist said...

The making of players like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire into villains is pure packaging. Imagining Congressional lowlifes like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) or Rep Tom Davis (R-VA) grilling these people for doing what most of us would have done is nauseating.

First, do they have nothing more important to do? Social security and medicaire are going under, they give no oversight on Bush's war, but these "heroes" are focusing on what's important.

Second, does the Constitution give the federal government authority over this issue? They might claim it on the basis of the commerce clause or on the basis of baseball's so-called monopoly exception.

If this were correct, then Congress would have jurisdiction over whether professional golf should allow cart-riding. It would also have jurisdiction over whether baseball used current or retro uniforms.

The Objectivist said...

When has this country turned into a place run by day-care workers? Players can't put themselves at risk via steroids. What next weight requirements? Mandatory periods on the injured reserve in order to protect players who might try to get off the injured reserves and keep their starting spot.

The combination of the left's love of government coercion with the right's hatred of anything outside of the mainstream is a dangerous combination.

Worthy of special contempt is Orrin Hatch, who increased the penalties for steroids based on the need to protect children. This justication has clearly become the last refuge for soundrels.

The Constructivist said...

It seems to me private associations like the PGA and MLB have the right to set their own rules. Those who don't like them are free to form their own leagues. So if MLB wants to define its rules so that steroid use is not permitted under them, they have the right to do that.

I agree that the hatred of Bonds is irrational. I don't like the guy, myself, but he is a great baseball player. If taking steroids alone guaranteed greatness, every high school loser OD-ing on them now would be surpassing Bond's records in a couple of decades. Won't happen.

I'm fuzzy on when MLB instituted its anti-steroids rule. Did Bonds take them when it was against the rules to do so? Because if so he deserves whatever punishment from the league he got/gets.

The Constructivist said...

O, a co-author at Mostly Harmless (and a Giants fan) has this to say in re: Bonds.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:

Bonds took steroids when they were against league rules. If they can prove it, then they have the right to punish him. However, given Conseco's and Caminiti's estimates, many people were taking steroids. Even if the estimates aren't as high as they suggest, the perception was that a substantial number of competitors were doing so. In addition, I take it that it's relatively uncontroversial that many players were taking speed.

It's hard to blame Bonds for doing so given that he has to compete against these men.

The Objectivist said...

The article by Mostly Harmless is a good one and worth reading.

I also thought it was worth comparing Bonds to Hank Aaron who is now every one's favorite.

Here are a few points in comparison. Aaron's figures in first, Bonds's are in parentheses.

OPS Titles 3 (10)
MVP 1 (7)
Golden Gloves 3 (8)

I could go on. There's no comparison.

John said...

I will be teaching a face-toface class tomorrow and will definitely use the mantra in preparation. I will be teaching a face-toface class tomorrow and will definitely use the mantra in preparation.