Asteroids

by Russ Roberts on February 10, 2005

in Sports

With the baseball steroid controversy in the news again, people are asking whether Roger Maris should get the single-season home run record back, whether Barry Bonds’s record should have an asterisk and who should or should not be in the Hall of Fame.

People like to point out that when Maris broke Ruth’s record in the longer season of his day (162 games vs. 154), there actually was no asterisk attached his record.  But of course there was and is.  There’s one in the mental record book that is in the mind of the fan.  We understand that it’s a little easier to break the record in a longer season so we discount it accordingly.  We also understand it’s harder to face pitchers who have a slider and a slurve and a cutter and all the pitches they didn’t have in 1927 or 1961.  Or the nutrition advantages that cut both ways.  And the smaller parks.  And on and on and on.  We also understand that Bond’s record may or may not be due to steroids and discount it as well.

The whole steroids thing is a bit bizarre.  Should players who lift weights have a mental or actual asterisk next to their records?  I like Allen Sanderson’s observation:

When the gains to finishing first in business or pleasure increase
dramatically, as they have for professional athletes in the era of free
agency and television, it is not at all surprising that competitors
reach for the medicine chest and phone book, even if it could entail
some risks and long-term consequences. Others of us choose to work long
hours, lead stressful lives and follow unhealthy dietary routines to
further our careers—and force our colleagues and competitors to match
us hour for hour and calorie for calorie or fall behind. When the
stakes get high enough, cutting corners and taking chances become more
appealing. (If the NFL were really concerned about steroids and the
impact these substances could have on athletes’ health and longevity,
in addition to having their players provide a urine sample, why don’t
the coaches weigh them before every game and not let anyone over the
300-pound mark suit up? A hundred extra pounds has to be far more
injurious to a lineman’s longer term health than anything he might
ingest.)

It’s just sports.  It’s a game.  It’s a game a lot of us care about, but it’s a game—a game where every winner produces a loser and every home run punishes one team and helps another.  We don’t get further from a cure for cancer if a baseball player takes steroids.  We don’t lower our standard of living.

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