Are Fans Losing Interest in Steroids?

One of the underreported stories of the post-season has been Jhonny Peralta's return to the Detroit Tigers lineup. To the extent this has drawn any interest at all it is based upon Peralta playing out of position in left in some games so that Jose Iglesias, the superior defender, can play shortstop. Some Tigers fans have compared this to Mickey Stanley moving to shortstop for the 1968 World Series. That case is not entirely analogous, but it is still an interesting anecdote.

Peralta, however, is not returning from an injury, but from a suspension because he tested positive for PEDs. It was only a few months ago that it seemed that all of baseball wanted Alex Rodriguez to be banned for life for steroid use, but Peralta's return to the Tigers lineup has been smooth and relatively uncontroversial. Just last year, the San Francisco Giants faced a similar choice with suspended left fielder Melky Cabrera, but decided to leave him off the post-season roster altogether, at least in some part due to concern over their image.

The most likely explanation for why Peralta's return has received comparatively little attention is that PED use is only damaging for players who either have bad media relations, like Rodriguez or Barry Bonds, or who while on steroids perform significantly above their established level of performance, as was the case with Cabrera in 2013. This would be consistent with the capricious approach to policing steroid use that we have seen from MLB for years, most recently this past summer.

There is also another and much more intriguing explanation for why Peralta's PED background, or for that matter that of David Ortiz who hit the dramatic grand slam in game two of the ALCS, has attracted so little attention. Perhaps fans, journalists and others around baseball are tired of the steroid debate and the moral sanctimony and caprice from all quarters that has been a poor substitute for rationality and consistency with regards to PEDs.

The discussions and debates around PED are getting close to being more damaging to baseball than the PED use itself. Baseball is approaching a point where an entire generation of its greatest stars, with a few exceptions, will be barred from the Hall of Fame, many records and milestones will be viewed with suspicion, and the specter of guilt will continue to cling to players from this era for decades to come. This is due not only to the lack of a comprehensive steroid policy, but also because baseball has allowed the notion that PED users are cheaters doing something unprecedented in baseball history and that PEDs and steroids are the only explanations for the extreme high offense environment from roughly 1993-2008 to be broadly accepted conventional wisdom.

Baseball, and steroids, are more complicated, and less dramatic than that. The offensive increases of recent years are also attributable to newer and smaller ballparks for many teams, evolving strategic approaches, and other factors less exciting than steroid use. Moreover, the evidence that steroid use directly effects performance is not as clear as many assume. The line between steroids and medicine is also not as clear as many assume. Medical mores evolve over time as views on treatments change. Similarly, cheating has always existed in a grey area in baseball with reactions including anything from lifetime bans to election to the Hall of Fame.

The point here is not that steroids do nothing or that PED use should be legalized, but that the discussion itself may be approaching, or already reached, a tipping point where many fans simply do not care so much anymore. Steroids may be moving towards becoming an issue like gambling, against which baseball also has rules, but is not something fans spend a lot of time debating. The question of whether or not Jhonny Peralta should, in some abstract moral sense, be allowed to play in the ALCS may simply not very interesting to most fans. Perhaps fans would rather discuss the resurgence of Justin Verlander, or the question of Miguel Cabrera's health. These are more interesting questions for the millions of Americans for whom baseball is a hobby or passion but not a question of morality or good and evil.

Unfortunately, some baseball players are going to continue to use PEDs and MLB's enforcement policies will, at best, be erratic and incomplete. There is not a lot that fans, journalists and analysts can do about that, but it is possible that in recent weeks fans have gotten tired of the issue and are ready to leave it behind. If this is true, MLB will also change its policies as there will be no constituency for the witch hunts and scapegoating which have made baseball so unpleasant in recent years.