The recent revelations of steroid abuse by baseball stars Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds has not been surprising as much as it has been affirming. Bonds began the 2000 season at age 36 with a new body and new power. At an age when even superstars typically find themselves on the decline, the Giants’ left fielder would begin the most prolific four-season run in the history of baseball. And despite Bonds’s offers (“They can test me any time they want.”) and claims that he had built his body by working harder than anyone else, the public looked on with as much suspicion as awe.
After reports of Bonds’s admissions made it to the public, we are left to cast a skeptical eye on his new claims.
- He didn’t know that he was taking steroids and other illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
- “If it’s a steroid, it’s not working.”
It would be a stretch to believe that a man who has made a living — even before beginning his steroid regimen — by keeping his body in tip-top condition would not know what he was putting into his body. This is a man, who by most accounts, practically lived at the gym, hired a personal chef, and vigorously defended the privacy of his workouts for fear of sharing his weight-training secrets with other players. Although it’s not out of the realm of possibility, it’s well beyond the confines of probability. Besides, this is the same Barry Bonds who, for many years, insisted that he was clean. For a bit more on this excuse, check out Dave Anderson’s piece (and some of my father’s thoughts) in The New York Times.
To accept Bonds’s declaration that the steroids he took had no positive effect is to accept the fact that he hasn’t look in a mirror in several years. A well-conditioned athlete who trained and ate like he did would be fairly close to his genetic potential. How does one explain the addition of more than 40 lbs (almost all of it muscle) at an age when athletes experience a physical decline? The correct answer is likely the simplest one: steroids work.
There are those who argue that Bonds’s homerun numbers can be explained by his illegal performance enhancement regimen, but that his other improvements as a hitter are attributable solely to his natural ability. “Steroids don’t enhance your eyesight,” they say. No, but they can raise your batting average. For simplicity, let’s dismiss the fact that some long fly balls have turned into homeruns. Hitters typically enjoy their peak years between the ages of 28 and 31. At this age, a player has “figured things out” and is still in his physical prime. After this period, the decline in physical prowess begins and usually happens at a greater rate than the increase in mental acumen. Put plainly: a hitter can know what he wants to do, but lack the physical skills to do it. The use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs turns back the physical clock; a player can essentially have the mind of a seasoned 40-year-old veteran and the body of a 28-year-old slugger.
Baseball, like sprinting, is a sport where fractions of a second are significant. Just as the 100-meter dash can be decided by hundredths of a second, the success a hitter has at the plate hinges on his ability to strike a round, moving object that covers 60 feet in the blink of an eye. In fact, a hitter has but .4 seconds to see the pitch, decide whether to swing, and then get the bat to the hitting position. A hitter who can wait an extra 4/100s of a second would actually have 10% more time to calculate the type and location of the pitch. Of course, such a hitter would have to be strong enough to get accelerate the bat head so it’s in the right place at the right time. So the more explosive power one has, the longer one can wait before swinging. That means swinging at fewer bad pitches as well as greater success with pitches in the strike zone. The consequence would be a higher average.
It’s frustrating, but we’ll never be able to accurately quantify the effect of steroids on the performance of baseball players. There are just too many variables. What we do know is that the statistically aberrant offensive numbers posted in the last decade can now be viewed with more than suspicion. Indeed, dismay is probably the appropriate word.