Reality Bats

The use of performance-enhancing substances by baseball players and other athletes raises ethical, legal and medical questions aplenty. Angry sports columnists like this one are having their say, as are athletes past and present. But commissioner Bud Selig’s announcement that baseball won’t be modifying its record books based on revelations about steroid use reminds us that this is an existential matter as well.

If someone cheats and sets a home run record, it isn’t quite like cheating at poker. The artificially enhanced slugger really did hit that many home runs, unfair advantage or no. Should we simply consider steroid and hormone use as an evolutionary change in the game, like harder balls or smaller ballparks, as Mike Schmidt seems to be suggesting? A pitcher who pitches in a hitter-friendly ballpark, for example, is going to give up more homers. That’s an accepted reality of a game that doesn’t have standardized ballparks, and it’s just too bad for that pitcher that his circumstances will be reflected in his record; analysts and fans will note it informally, but the record books won’t.

Using steroids is unfair in a fundamentally different way, however. If you take steroids, having bigger muscles than the other guy isn’t a matter of luck any more than it’s a matter of hard work. It’s clearly cheating. What a Pandora’s box would be opened, if authorities like Selig decided that record books should be rewritten! But what an open sore of unfairness remains if they’re not! We will always have seen the games we’ve seen, but what was their meaning? What reality will the record books, not to mention our memories, reflect?