The Media, Mark McGwire, and Chew

By David Roher

Mark McGwire may have taken steroids, but he didn’t get the mileage out of them that Mike Lupica has.

Lupica benefited from the 1998 home run chase, publishing a book about it a few months after its conclusion. Unlike McGwire and Sammy Sosa, however, Lupica isn’t under any scrutiny for his ’98 output. Few question the media’s lackluster effort to discover the performance-enhancing drug problem. Rather, the steroid era continues to provide material for his columns. Whenever there’s any PED-related news, Lupica is bound to say something. He didn’t disappoint after McGwire’s belated admission yesterday. Absent, as usual, was any hint of contrition about trusting Mac in the first place.

The most damaging aspect about Lupica’s and others’ take on steroids isn’t the selective memory, though. It’s their myopic focus on the benefit of the drugs. There’s a lot of anger that McGwire wouldn’t say that steroids helped him hit home runs. I admit that this is a dubious claim, but the fact is that we don’t know for sure about how many extra home runs he hit as a result. I would guess that the addition of two expansion teams in ’98, which decreased the average talent level across the league, inflated home run totals more than steroids did. (Roger Maris hit 61 in an expansion year as well.) A change in the composition of the ball itself, a popular theory at the time, still hasn’t been ruled out.

Steroids are illegal and wrong not because they are helpful, but because they are harmful. There are plenty of legal supplements and methods that athletes use to increase their muscle mass and reduce their chance of injury. If anabolic steroids only did that, if they only helped baseball players hit more home runs, if they didn’t cause violent behavior, depression, suicide, heart attacks, liver damage, and giant heads, we’d encourage their use.

The media performs a great disservice when it treats steroids as miracle drugs. Every time we link PEDs to McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens, we link steroids to success that had very little to do with drugs. It’s like featuring the Beatles as the center of an anti-pot campaign.

For every star (or even every starter) that tests positive for PEDs, there are many more who test positive without any major or even minor league success. Young athletes would be less likely to try steroids if they knew the risk, and they’d be much less likely to try steroids if they didn’t think it would help in the first place. But people like Lupica have made that impossible.

If there’s a real cause for anger in the steroid controversy, it’s not a misguided desire to keep the record books “clean.” Raw numbers never reflect the difference between one era and another, and they never will. Records have been held by players of questionable integrity long before steroids were even invented. Instead, it’s cases like Taylor Hooton’s that we should care about. People of all ages and backgrounds have taken steroids because they’ve seen it “work” for baseball players. The players who took them are to blame, sure, but so is the coverage.

Along those lines, I’d like to bring attention to a similar problem: chewing tobacco. While smoking advertisements have been banned from TV for decades, a little kid can still tune in and see star baseball players with dip in their mouths. These days, it’s more likely to be gum, but a large number still use chew. Unlike PEDs, dip use is widespread among teenagers: according to the Center for Disease Control, 13.4% of male high school students and 4.1% of male middle school students are current users of smokeless tobacco. It’s highly addictive and causes many health problems, including oral cancers (which killed Babe Ruth). And among major sports, it’s a problem pretty much exclusive to baseball.

No one deserves a whole lot of blame for that fact; chew’s been a part of baseball long before its dangers were discovered. But given all that, baseball scribes ought to be focused on chewing tobacco as much as they are on steroids. Major League Baseball certainly is: all tobacco products have been banned in the minor leagues since 1993, and there are anti-tobacco presentations in Spring Training every year.

If we spared a fraction of our collective indignation over the steroid era and applied it to chewing tobacco, we’d be doing a lot more good.

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