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THE STATE OF THE GAME

Might Doesn't Matter
By Robert Nishihara

Jose Canseco is the Oracle of Truth.

At least, that's what members of the sports media nationwide would have you believe. Media pundits everywhere have used Canseco's recent allegations about steroid abuse in Major League Baseball as the genesis for a rather ill-conceived and wholly unsubstantiated campaign tying anabolic steroid use to increased home run production.

Unfortunately, sensationalism appears to override journalistic integrity in most sports reporting these days, the sizzle now trumping the steak. And, clearly, there is no more appropriate individual than Jose Canseco, poster boy for outrageous hyperbole, to serve as the seed from which this hype-laden baseball story springs.

As corroboration for Canseco's charges, former Houston Astro and San Diego Padre Ken Caminiti was sought out and featured in a cover story for a major national sports publication. In it, Caminiti revealed that he took steroids during his 1998 MVP season with San Diego. He also cited an outrageously high percentage of major league players he believed to be steroid users. Almost as soon as the story came out, however, Caminiti recanted his comments, claiming he was duped into making them and that whatever he said was taken out of context. Strangely, this public contradiction did little to damage the credibility of his original statements.

Thus armed (though from two fairly dubious sources), the media has taken to scrutinizing the increasing number of home runs being hit in the major leagues in recent years. The reasoning (or lack thereof) goes something like this: steroids help a player get bigger and stronger, and being bigger and stronger helps a player hit more home runs. Bingo. Steroids are responsible for the dramatic surge in home run production. Even though this seems a ridiculously simplistic rationale, the steroid connection has become a given in all the latest commentary devoted to explaining the home run explosion in recent years.

The one question not being asked, however, and, frankly, the one that would appear to be at the heart of the issue is this: How exactly does taking anabolic steroids help a major league player hit a home run that he ordinarily would not be able to hit?

No less a source than Ted Williams, considered by many the greatest pure hitter of all time, cites three key elements to hitting a baseball effectively (from his book The Science of Hitting): A good hitter must identify a pitch to hit; know enough about the pitcher and the game situation to give himself the best chance to succeed; and put hands and hips into motion to drive the pitch. Nowhere does Williams mention that muscle mass aids in any of those critical elements. Of course, Williams himself was rail-thin, and yet he managed to crank out 521 career homers.

Barry Bonds, he of the all-time single-season home run record (and now being unfairly scrutinized for that landmark achievement), has publicly echoed Williams's sentiments. He has said in many press conferences since the Canseco story first broke that hitting a baseball is primarily a function of hand-eye coordination. When you watch Bonds hit, the first thing you notice is the quickness of his hands.

Added muscle mass may indeed increase the distance a player is able to hit a baseball, but what negative effect does that added mass have in altering the fluidity of the player's swing and thus his ability to hit the ball in the first place? A popular baseball refrain cautions fast players who have deficiencies in the batter's box that one cannot steal first base. Similarly, a power hitter cannot hit a home run if he cannot hit the ball. And hitting a baseball is a unique skill in the world of sports. It is a powerful act that does not require extraordinary muscle strength. Instead, it is primarily dependent on technique, reflexes, and hand-eye coordination. That's the correlation that so many people are failing to make these days.

Frankly, I'm inclined to believe the last player to hit .400 in the majors and the single-season home run record holder when they talk about what is required to hit a baseball effectively. The fact that most members of the sports media seem unable or unwilling to do the same is troubling. Further, the very idea that they can dismiss observations from the likes of Ted Williams and Barry Bonds in favor of publicity-laced gossip from Jose Canseco and doublespeak statements from a troubled guy like Ken Caminiti says more about the current state of sports reporting than I care to know.

I don't doubt that some major league players are taking steroids, but I do doubt the pervasiveness of this problem and the relative value of such usage. Without question, steroid use is wrong and dangerous. However, the media's primary focus on this issue has been to emphasize what effect steroid use has on the statistical results of the game—and that the majors are rampant with bulked-up players who can master the game's most difficult tasks with ease. The media would be better served emphasizing the inherent health risks taken by players who use steroids for what would seem to be marginal performance advantages.

This connection between extraordinary physical strength and home run hitting ability seems a fallacy to me, and I am disheartened that so much of the sports world seems to take it as gospel. The longball prowess of football-player-sized sluggers like Mark McGwire (who admitted using the drug androstenedione during his record-setting 1998 season) may lend credence to the idea that excessive bulk is a key factor to driving pitches out of the ballpark, but how, then, does one explain the home run hitting exploits of Luis Gonzalez? Gonzalez, who is built more like a safety pin than a strong safety, cranked out fifty-seven homers in 2001. And what of Hank Aaron, the man who sits atop the all-time homer list with a mark that only a handful of active players have even an outside chance of approaching? During his playing days, Aaron stood six feet tall and weighed 180 pounds, hardly a gargantuan individual.

The sooner all of this talk about tying steroids to home runs fades, the better. Major League Baseball has far more serious problems afoot, and focusing the media spotlight on some of those issues would be a much more constructive exercise than the one currently being played out. Ending the media circus will not only allow the public to forget the image of Jose Canseco as sage, but also force the man to shamelessly pander for his yet unwritten book in anonymity.

—EFQ

 

ROBERT NISHIHARA is a lifelong baseball fan, diehard San Francisco Giants partisan, and freelance writer who resides in San Mateo, California. He believes that baseball is bigger than any of the individuals who have tried to prove otherwise over the years.

© 2002 Robert Nishihara

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