Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What really ruined baseball

With the baseball season opening, there's naturally talk of steroids. As J.C. Bradbury, an economist and author of "The Baseball Economist" notes in this recent NYT op-ed, "The news media has focused on steroids because of the way the game has changed over the last decade, particularly the frequency with which batters hit home runs." But Bradbury thinks "the reason may be more innocent," noting that "In the two years since baseball instituted mandatory steroid testing with suspensions, the rate at which players hit home runs has stayed roughly the same." And more than half of those who have tested positive for steroids are pitchers.

Bradbury thinks the reason for the explosion of home runs was the expansion of the league. MLB grew from 26 teams in 1990, to 30 by 1998. "The influx of inferior talent filling these new roster spots fundamentally altered the competitive environment: he writes. "It allowed elite players, especially hitters, to excel, though he notes that ace pitchers excelled too, as measured by strikeouts.

Bradbury makes a persuasive case. There seems to be little doubt that some players used steroids, and it may well be (all right, probably is) that they played a role in the McGwire-Sosa-Bonds phenomenon. But as is often the case, there's a tendency to want to place all the blame on demonized drugs (not that I'd think of taking steroids considering the risks, but I've never been a professional athlete). I'm still not convinced MLB and other sports leagues were correct to ban various drugs, and I certainly don't think it's justified for the government to control them so tightly. Adults ought to be able to decide for themselves what risks they want to take.

According to this Slate piece, the latest villain, human growth hormone, which Gary Matthews allegedly ordered by mail a few years ago, doesn't even help athletic performance, though it does make you look more "cut."

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