Friday, February 27, 2009

Baseball's steroids scandal, and a modest proposal to resolve it.

Baseball season is here again -- and with it comes the latest flair-up of the endless baseball steroids scandal. The game's highest-paid and arguably best player, Alexander "A-Rod" (now "A-Roid" or "A-Fraud") Rodriguez, has been outed as a user of steroids.

If you're a baseball fan you know how this whole steroids issue has been a disgrace to everyone involved -- the players, the team owners, the players' union -- bringing a torrent of well-earned bad publicity to the game, year after year...

The bizarre thing would be if it was all over nothing. And the ironic fact is that there's really no proof that steroids improve performance on the field at all -- and there's a lot of evidence that they don't.

There are no controlled studies of the effect of steroids on baseball performance. That means one has to look around for what second-class evidence one can find, and it is conflicting at best.

On the one hand, there is the story of Barry Bonds, baseball's indicted all-time home run king, who somehow or other improved his performance *after age 35* like no other player in the game's long history.

Yet the very singularity of Bond's performance argues against steroids being its cause -- because if steroids produce such results, during the "steroids era" one would expect to see a flood of such unprecedented performances. But they are not there. Bonds could just be the outlier likely to be found in any data set. One anecdote does not a proof make.

Studies of actual baseball performance generally find no evidence that steroids improve it. For instance, a study of all the players identified as users in the Mitchell Report "suggests that in most cases the drugs had either little or a negative effect". [NY Times]

And broad studies of all players by era find no general improvement in performance in the "steroids era" that is attributable to steroids (as opposed to other factors such as league expansion, changes in equipment and rules, etc.). So the bottom line may well be that Major League Baseball, the baseball players and their union may have inflicted all this damage on themselves for ... nothing.

Nobody knows.

Think about it: Players have been indicted ... the owners have damaged the reputation of their multi-billion dollar business ... the players union has publicly hardballed in defense of wrongdoing members and been credibly charged with violating both a court order and its contract by warning players about drug tests ... Congress has held hearings and theatened government intervention ... yet nobody knows if steroids actually work. (Rodriguez, one of the world's highest paid atheletes, says he took steroids on the expert advice of his cousin Yuri, his "personal driver and lackey".)

How to find out? Easy!

A modest proposal: Run a long-overdue controlled, double-blind test on the effects of steroid use on performance in pro baseball. Take, say, 100 players and give them as much juice as they want (legally, with a doctor's prescription) -- but with only half of them getting the real juice, the other half getting a placebo, and nobody knowing who's getting what, not even the testers. Let 'em all play a season and then tally up the results. They'll be easy to compute. (If you don't want to do it in the major leagues, do it in the minors. The results would be just as clear. )

Then everyone would know the truth, once and for all -- and have a much better picture of the integrity of baseball's records, and of what does and doesn't need to be done to protect the game going forward.