How could Rafael Palmeiro be so stupid? Why would he take steroids on the way to the Hall of Fame? I have an explanation. Palmeiro has an addiction. No, not to steroids. This addiction is even harder to shake. He’s addicted to adulation. Success. Love. His ego.
When Marilyn Monroe returned from entertaining the troops overseas, she described the cheering crowds to her husband at the time, Joe Dimaggio, “You can’t imagine what it was like.” “Yes, I can,” he replied.
For athletes, entertainers, politicians and a billion or so wannabes, that love from strangers is an elixir that never gets tiresome. And when age and wear-and-tear start to slow the reflexes or weaken the swing, athletes look for a way to regain the magic. They work harder, but after a while, that is not enough. The temptation to find a way to turn the boos into cheers must be overwhelming. Mark McGwire gave into it. Barry Bonds gave into it. Those are the ones we know about it. You don’t have to be Jose Canseco to know there are more.
Look at Hollywood. How many actresses and actors use plastic surgery to reverse the natural effects of age?
It’s interesting to compare the outrage people are directing at Palmeiro to how people feel about Hollywood. Is plastic surgery cheating? If the Actors Guild bans plastic surgery, should we take away the Academy Awards and Emmies from those who used silicon and collagen and botox in the past to get what some might call an unfair advantage?
At least to get the benefit from steroids you have to work hard lifting weights. I know. There’s a rule against steroids, now. But there wasn’t before. How can you keep Rafael Palmeiro out of the Hall of Fame, knowing so many others were also looking for an edge?
The response is that it’s not fair to those who decided that steroids is cheating. After all, even when it wasn’t against the rules of baseball, it was still illegal in the United States to take a drug without a prescription. But presumably it wasn’t illegal to have taken steroids if you took steroids outside the borders of the United States in a country where they aren’t banned. Does that change your judgment of Palmeiro and the others?
Let’s look at one of those players who didn’t risk his health and stayed within the letter of the law. Shawn Green is a fine player  whose career numbers are just short of Hall of Fame performance. He has a body that suggests he has never taken steroids. Evidently, he decided the health care risks weren’t worth it. Or maybe the illegality bothered him. A talk show host, in the middle of the McGwire and Bonds revelations asked, “How does this make Shawn Green feel?” One possible answer? Grateful.
The talk show host was implying that Green was punished for being a good citizen. But there are compensations. Shawn Green avoided the health risks of steroid use. But he still benefited from steroids. Dale Murphy played before the steroid era. Murphy, a fine player who is also not quite a Hall of Famer, made
just under $2,000,000 when he was 31. Because of the resurgence of interest in baseball fueled by Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, salaries in baseball are now much higher than they were when Murphy played. Last year, Shawn Green at 31 made $16,000,000. There are worse deals in the world.
I’m not sure a rule against steroids and human growth hormone and whatever else is coming is possible to enforce fairly. If that is the case, the just solution may be to let the athletes make their own choices. Shawn Green will make one choice and Rafael Palmeiro will make another. Is that so bad? It may be better than condemning those who are caught while letting those who escape detection bask in the love of strangers.