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Bill James: PED Takers Were "Pioneers"

Bill James has never been confused as a conventionalist. The pioneering baseball statistician cut his cloth by openly bucking traditional opinions, basing his baseball philosophies on the numbers he saw, not the opinions of more accepted talking heads. In the process, he changed the way coaches, team executives and fans viewed statistics, eventually landing as a special assistant to Boston General Manager Theo Epstein.

Well, now James is trying to change the conventional ways that people view steroids in baseball, and just like his statistical views, which James crafted while working a night shift in a Kansas City factory, his feelings about steroids are nothing short of radical.

Essentially, James's belief is that steroids will eventually be considered negligible when considering whether players should be elected to the Hall of Fame. James bases the claim on one major claim: That players used steroids not to get better, but to elongate their prime. Taking that into account, James contends that you can't fault a player for trying to stretch out their strongest years, since they were only doing what the rest of us do on a more conventional scale with preventative medicine.

"It means that steroids keep you young. You may not like to hear it stated that way, because steroids are evil, wicked, mean and nasty and youth is a good thing, but ... that's what it means. Steroids help the athlete resist the effects of aging. Well, if steroids help keep you young, what's wrong with that?"

To his credit, James does address precisely what's wrong with that: the trickle down that leads to steroid use among kids and "non-athletes". Of course, James goes on to minimize the impact of that use, saying that eventually everyone will use steroids for exactly the same reason that baseball players used it: to stay young. That's why James sees baseball's steroid cheats as "pioneers."

Obviously, I'm not in agreement with James, and I doubt many are. To say that steroid use will eventually become commonplace overlooks the significant health risks they cause, issues that should be highlighted, not mitigated, by the deaths of Ken Caminiti and Taylor Hooton.

Could steroids improve, making those side effects less pronounced? Hey, anything's possible. But even then, it's hard to see steroids becoming legal, let alone commonplace. Society has deemed that enhancing one's performance through illegal methods is wrong in all cases. It's hard to see a universal shift in course on that issue, isn't it?

As is often the case, opinions of James's piece are already deeply split, with some like the New York Daily News' Bill Madden calling James "off-base" and the L.A. Times' Jon Weisman citing James's arguments as "quite persuasive."

What do you think? Has James crafted a reasonable defense of the use of steroids in baseball? Or did the ultimate stat geek go way too far in defending a tarnished era in baseball history?

By Cameron Smith  |  July 27, 2009; 2:32 PM ET
 | Tags: Bill James, statistics, steroids  
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Are you really willing to attribute the death of Ken Caminiti -- didn't he die with cocaine in his system? -- to steroids?

Posted by: Uncle_Teddy | July 27, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Why not? Player use artificial methods to increase their abilities all the time--eyeglasses, contact lenses, and Lasik surgery to name just a few. True, they don't cause long term physical and mental damage like steroids, but athletes who use them are no longer purely "natural." What will the various sports say when artificial body parts (knees, elbows, hips)become more useful and commonplace for competitive athletes rather than retired athletes?

Posted by: ramgut | July 27, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Selig must have a very strong opinion that Rose won't get into the hall based on the veteran's committee vote. Otherwise, I don't think he would consider it.

If Rose gets shot down by the VC, this gets Selig off the hook as being the bad guy and keeping Pete out.

Even still, it would be nice to see Pete have a shot. Everyone knows there are players in the hall with far worse moral character and crimes more serious than what Rose did. He has done his time.

Posted by: PhilliesPhan | July 27, 2009 4:43 PM | Report abuse

Taking PEDs to heal faster is something I could accept.

It's the unfairness that bothers me. If you are taking PEDs to improve performance it is unfair (that is what the acronym stands for afterall). Somebody not taking PEDs would be at a competitive disadvantage.

I could personally be okay with a system that somehow allowed PEDs for legitimate medical reasons. But you'd have to have some way of preventing people from abusing them for performance enhancement. And how the heck do you do that?

I think for the time being there is no alternative but to ban them. This is a case where the unfairness of creating a system where you have to use PEDs trumps a player's right to extend his career. I think either everybody should be able to use them or nobody until some kind of policy can be established.

Maybe there should be some research into acceptable drugs--ones that promote healing but don't enhance performance.

Posted by: anubis_lab | July 28, 2009 5:52 AM | Report abuse

there's already a system in place that allows PED use for medical reasons. There are several current major leaguers who are allowed to take ADHD meds to correct a "medical" imbalance. This is accepted, commonplace and no one accuses people like Scott Eyre of being PED users -- but aren't they enhancing their "normal" performance? what is the difference between Eyre "correcting" an imbalance and another pitcher correcting for old age?

As for the criticism of James that steroids are harmful...first of all, I trust him more than any other baseball analyst out there. He usually ends up being right. Secondly, pitching is far more dangerous than steroids, yet not only do we embrace pitching (obviously), every few years there's another advancement that allows pitchers to continue to destroy their bodies -- I'd think that numerous surgeries are far more dangerous to the health of a person than medication.

This isn't to say that steroids should be legal, but maybe if the media paid attention to the statistical analysis of the steroid era kids and young people would understand that it won't actually help them all that much and you first need the talent.

Posted by: noahthek | July 28, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

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