Friday, August 18, 2006

Guest Columnist: The Steroid Snowball Effect

by A.Y. Park

Stop blaming the players. It’s not their fault. Yes, it appears many players have used performance-enhancing drugs over the course of the last decade. Yes, it is considered cheating and morally questionable. Yes, every sports site you look at has at least one columnist sitting on his high horse, talking about how disgusting these cheaters are for using steroids, and how Barry Bonds should be banned from the Hall of Fame. But can we really blame the players?

Despite the fact that most fans are appalled at the "tainting" of their beloved sport by rampant steroid use, I do not blame the players. Who do I blame? Technically, I blame the league for not setting up a system to prevent this from happening. However, I doubt the league could have had the foresight to prevent the current situation from occurring. The truth of the matter is steroid use is purely the results of economics (or Freakonomics for those who read Stephen Levitt’s book) and incentives.

Jose "The Chemist" Canseco claims he was the pioneer of steroid use and that over 80% of major leaguers have used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Whether or not you believe Canseco’s statistics (I’m sure he sat down and ran a comprehensive analysis, thoroughly checking his numbers...), the home run production increase in the last 16 years have been staggering.


From 1989 to 2004 (excluding 2005 because of stricter testing), there had been a 77% increase in home run totals. From 1994-2004, home runs have risen by 65%. Whether or not you believe 80% of players have used steroids, the percentage increase points to the fact that, yes, a significant portion of players must have been on the juice if steroids is the primary cause of the increased home run production (I do realize there are alternative factors which could have contributed to the home run explosion – expansion, park effect, etc.). Even Barry’s monster 73 homers would only account for about 1% of the total home runs that year. So for those skeptics who believe that it’s only big name superstars – Bonds, Sosa, and McGwire, etc. – who used steroids, think again, because the numbers tell a different story.

So what’s your point, you ask? We know players use steroids and it disgusts us, you say. It hurts the game of baseball.

Maybe. But if a majority of players are using steroids, do they all lack ethics unlike the rest of us? Why would so many players engage in this activity if they know it’s wrong?

Well, let’s use an analogy to give us insight into a player’s decision-making process. Let’s assume you are applying for a job, and you have to take an exam to be hired. Your employer wants to see how naturally smart you are and has forbidden the use of any caffeinated substances (he considers it a mind-enhancing drug). Furthermore, your employer has informed you that your grade on the exam will determine your annual salary. Knowing how you’ve performed on practice exams, you expect that you will score well enough to earn $50,000 a year. But, you also know that if you drank a little coffee before taking the exam, your mind will be sharper and you could score higher. High enough to earn close to $250,000. And guess what? Nobody will test you for caffeine, so you can get away with it. Besides, you’re already naturally smart and gifted, and a little caffeine just makes you a little more alert during the exam. On top of this, you have two kids and a wife to support. All of a sudden, this situation creates a strong financial incentive to “cheat”.

This is basically what transpired in baseball. In 1990, the average salary for a major leaguer was $579,000. In 2005, it was $2.6 million, about 4.5 times the salary in 1990. As players became stronger and hit more home runs, salaries started to skyrocket. Everybody was performing well, and owners were rewarding them for their production. In fact, let’s look at the correlation between total home runs and total payroll over the last fifteen years.


Correlation does not necessarily mean causation, and home runs is definitely not the best performance metric, but the graph still makes a strong statement. As players hit more home runs and performed better, owners took notice and rewarded them, believing that the money they were shelling out was for above-average performance. What they didn’t realize was that on average, the whole league was hitting better.

Not a good enough reason, you say. Just because cheating means you make more money doesn’t justify it... even if you have two kids. Plus, aren’t these guys aware of the health risks?

Fine. But there are more important factors that create incentives to use steroids.

Going back to the caffeine example, let’s say that you found out that your friend used caffeine and earns $250,000, while you took the moral high ground and tested without mind-enhancing drugs. Your resulting salary was $50,000. Great, you have a clean conscience and that’s what matters to you. But now let’s say the firm has announced that they’re restructuring your division, and only the top performers will stay with the company. Now, not only are you paid less than your friend, you must compete with other hungry young professionals for a job. And as far as management is concerned, your friend is a top performer.

This is where game theory comes in. If you and five other people are fighting for two job openings, and you suspect that three of them are going to cheat and use caffeine, you have to make a difficult decision. Do you cheat to keep a job, or do you stay clean and possibly find yourself without work?

In baseball, this is the equivalent situation that fringe major leaguers find themselves in during spring training. And this is where the real problem in steroid use begins. These fringe players, who are desperate and are uncertain about their future, are the ones who cause the steroid problem. It’s less about the superstars. In reality, the steroid snowball effect begins with the little guy and works its way to the superstar.

The fringe major leaguers are the ones with the most to lose. If they don’t get a job coming out of spring training, they have no work (or go back to the minors), which means no or little pay, which means they can’t pay the rent, and which also means they can’t get hot girls (a major perk for major leaguers). Also, even though major league players get paid more than most of us, we must remember that baseball players’ timeframe to earn income is much smaller than ours. Players do not work until 65 and retire. A vast majority of them have less than seven years to secure themselves financially for the future.

As a result, the fringe major leaguer almost has to cheat. Hence, the bar for performing has been raised. In fact, most fringe major leaguers on steroids surpass other more talented players, and as a result, the more talented players have become the new fringe players, who now find themselves competing for a job. Now they must cheat in order to level the playing field. Confusing? It becomes a vicious cycle, and soon, everybody and their grandmother are cheating. Thus, the steroid snowball effect works its way through the league.

OK, you say. Maybe these poor fringe athletes dope to survive. But what about superstars? Kids look up to them, and they’re already talented. They don’t need steroids. Why do they cheat?

Because even superstars are affected by the actions of the little guy. This is why I call it the steroid snowball effect – it snowballs through the league to the more talented players. It may start with the little guys, but as they begin to perform better, the superstars are impacted in two ways: ego and money.

If you’re a talented superstar that can put up 35 home runs a year, and you turn around and see a once-scrawny outfielder, who packed on 20 pounds of muscle one off-season, hit 30 home runs, your ego starts to hurt. Furthermore, you turn around and you see a clearly less-talented player, who you suspect is on steroids, hit 60+ home runs, becomes a media darling, and captures all the best endorsement deals. It makes you mad. You know they’re cheating and that’s the only reason they’re that good. But you have talent. Now imagine what steroids can do for you if you’re talented.

This is the Bonds story. Game of Shadows writers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams claim that Bonds became incredibly jealous of all the attention McGwire was getting for hitting home runs during the 1998 season. He knew McGwire was cheating and Bonds’ ego couldn’t handle the fact that a less talented player was getting great press coverage and fan adoration. So he did what any megalomaniac would have done. He cheated (allegedly).

The second reason superstars roid up is money. Simple economics tells you that the more supply there is, the less you can charge for it. So what happens when you go from a league where there are 10 players who can hit 30+ home runs to a league where 30 players can hit 30+ home runs? The home run hitting player’s market premium has been diluted by all these cheaters. Granted, owners are paying more for all these 30+ home run players than in the past, but if you’re a superstar, you should be paid an even higher premium than these cheaters. As a result, the true home run hitter wants to become a 50+ home run hitter to earn his true market value. This results in him cheating.

In summary, you can’t blame baseball players for what they’ve done. Yes, the game of baseball has been hurt by the scandals. Yes, steroids set a bad example for kids. And yes, using steroids is cheating. But the truth of the matter is, the incentives to use steroids were great, and the system was setup so poorly, that cheating was inevitable.

The spread of steroids was a snowball effect, resulting from one little guy wanting to keep his job for a full season. In fact, I believe Canseco’s admission was very similar to this. He didn’t believe he was naturally talented, and needed steroids to help him compete. But once one person cheats and the system lets him get away with it, you have one of two choices. You can choose not to cheat but be prepared to suffer the consequences when your relative performance versus other players drops. Or you can cheat, stay competitive, maybe become a star, get paid millions, and have adoring fans cheer for you. Most players choose the latter and I can’t blame them.

Agree? Disagree? Let A.Y. Park know what you feel about his guest column by emailing him at ballard7@gmail.com.

Rob Hyman's column, "The Weekend Warrior", usually appears on alternate Fridays and will return in two weeks

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Mets in a No-Win Situation

by Scott Silversten

The next important game for the New York Mets does not come for 66 days.
Specifically, on October 21, Game 1 of the World Series in a
yet-to-be-determined American League city.

Of course, that begs the question: What if the Mets do not reach the Fall
Classic? And that, Baseball For Thought readers, is the problem.

The Mets will be in a no-win situation when they begin the postseason. Lose
in either the Division Series or National League Championship Series, and
most will consider their fabulous campaign a waste. Win the NL pennant, and
their grand accomplishment will seem tainted by the abject mediocrity of the
competition.

Fair or not, those are the facts of what the Mets face in October. Nothing
short of a good showing in the World Series will be good enough. Even
reaching the last week of October will not be good enough if they are easily
brushed away by the AL champion.

And to this I say HOGWASH!

Reaching the World Series is an accomplishment in itself, especially in the
era of the three-tiered playoff system. The Mets will be favored to win any
NL playoff series they partake in ­ odds that would not be helped by another
injury to Pedro Martinez ­ but honestly, how much of a favorite should one
team be over another in a short five- or seven-game series?

For those who did not notice, the Kansas City Royals recently swept a
three-game set from the Boston Red Sox, while the Pittsburgh Pirates did the
same to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Royals and Pirates are currently the
worst teams in their respective leagues.

In recent days, I've heard comparisons between the National League and the
NBA's Eastern Conference of the past few years. The Eastern Conference has
been incredibly weak, with sub-.500 teams qualifying for the playoffs before
being quickly eliminated by the teams at the top of the conference.

However, there is one distinctive difference. The bottom teams that make
the playoffs in the NBA have very little chance to win even one series, let
alone the championship. That is not the case in baseball, where a wild card
entrant has reached the World Series in five of the last six seasons.

When fans watch the Philadelphia 76ers battle the Milwaukee Bucks for the
No. 8 spot in the NBA's Eastern Conference, they do so with the knowledge
that neither team is long for the postseason and whichever qualifies will
likely be eliminated within four of five games.

With baseball, that's just not the case. Is there anyone who doubts that
whichever team captures the NL wild card slot would stand a strong chance of
upsetting the Mets in a Division Series match-up. Cincinnati? San Diego?
Colorado? None of those teams would quake at facing an aging Pedro Martinez
and Tom Glavine and the rest of the mediocre New York rotation.

In this regard, the baseball playoffs are more comparable to the NCAA
Tournament. All a team needs to do is qualify, and then all bets are off.
Upsets are common, the best team during the regular season rarely wins the
ultimate title and there is intrigue and drama along the road to the title.

For that simple reason, September is going to provide an unbelievable
playoff chase in the NL (people need to stop calling it a pennant chase,
because a team doesn¹t earn the pennant until they win two postseason
rounds).

Realistically, any team that enters September within six games of the wild
card lead has a shot at October baseball. All it takes is two strong weeks,
much like the Los Angeles Dodgers have stormed to the front in the NL West
over the last 19 days.

Two good weeks! Usually it's tough to jump over so many teams in such a
short amount of time, but if everyone else is grinding their gears at .500,
it¹s actually easier than one might think.

September in the NL should be thrilling, starting with Labor Day weekend
encounters between the Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, and the Cincinnati Reds
and San Diego Padres.

Important games for just about every team in the NL except the Mets, who can
only hope they get to play those big games in late October.

Scott Silversten's column, "Age of Reason", appears every Thursday

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The End of the Wild-Card Wednesday

Dear loyal BFT reader,

"Wild-Card Wednesdays" have appeared every Wednesday from March-August 2006. We will be introducing at least one new, permanent columnist in the Wednesday slot starting next week. WCW will make an appearance every now and again, but the era of the WCW as we know it is over.

To mark this momentous occasion, we wanted to give each week's WCW one last chance to stand in the sun, to be read by a few more pairs of eyes before falling forever into the archival abyss.

Enjoy, and thanks for reading!

1. Spit Happens (8/9) - The Fanatic's Wife's humorous look at the ritual of spitting in the game of baseball
2. Steal of a Deal for the Yanks (8/2) - Analyzing the deal that brought Abreu to the Bronx
3. The Best Youtube Baseball Videos (7/19)
4. Our Day at Shea (7/12) - The Fanatic's Wife spends a day at the park
5. BFT- A Four Month Review (7/5) - Every column written by a BFT columnist, organized for your convenience. NB: Archiving problems (and the inflexibility of the blogger system to design) are among the main reasons we are moving to our own server
6. Preseason Predictions- How We Doing So Far? (6/28)
7. HR and ERA: A 25-Year Prespective (6/21) - Analyzing HR and ERA trends in MLB using league stats and graphs
8. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Fall in Love with Corey Patterson (6/14) - Doug Silversten's love poem to his favorite Oriole
9. No Pun Intended (6/7) - The Fanatic's Wife gets fed up with cheesy sports headlines
10. Part II (Beltran, Reyes, Wright)... (5/31) - Analyzing the defense of the "Franchise" of the NY Mets, with link to Part I- Offense
11. The Most Amazing Season (5/24) - Profiling the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers, the most amazing team that you've never heard of
12. Open Letter to Carlos Delgado (5/17) - The Fanatic's Wife falls in love with yet another man who is not her husband
13. To Mom. Love, Your Baseball-Playing Son (5/10) - A mother's day special including quotations from MLB players about their mothers
14. Baseball's Unbreakable Records (5/3) - Doug Silversten's top five (note: not met with universal agreement among co-columnists)
15. Quiz By Numbers (4/26) - How many stitches are on a regulation baseball, anyway?
16. My New Boyfriend (4/19) - The Fanatic's Wife goes gaga over young Met David Wright, after a painful split from "traitor" Johnny Damon
17. Top Five Baseball Sites on the Web (4/12) - Baseball Prospectus is #5- can you name the other four?
18. The Lost Weekend (4/5) - The Fanatic's Wife laments her husband's obsession with fantasy baseball
19. BFT's Preseason Predictions for 2006 (3/29) - See which two columnists shrewdly picked the Indians to win the AL Pennant
20. Spaghetti Arms (3/22) - The Fanatic's Wife's photo profile of contortionist pitchers
21. The Need For Speed (3/15) - Guest columnist and ex-Sphinxer Tony Park discusses how the 2006 season may be affected by MLB's recent ban of amphetamines
21. The Mighty Dinger (3/8) - Alan Eliot interviews some of baseball's greatest ever for their take on the HR

"Wild-Card Wednesdays" appeared every Wednesday


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Catching religion in Atlanta: Bring your gloves….and your Bibles?

by J.Bird

Last week, the Atlanta Braves became the first team in major league baseball to sponsor so-called "Faith Days," or "Faith Nights," sponsored by a group called Third Coast Sports. Fans received materials from religious organizations and, after the game, players and others evangelized about their religious beliefs.

While I started to think about the problems involved with using a baseball stadium to evangelize, especially given the fact that most baseball stadiums are publicly-funded, I came across the most disturbing fact:

The “Faith Day” in Atlanta was hosted by a group called Focus on the Family, an extremist right-wing group best known for its anti-gay agenda.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution covers the story:
The blend of big-tent evangelism and the national pastime is expected to draw thousands of new eyes. … [The event is] designed to reach out to people looking for a spiritual purpose in life. Faith Day is the first promotion of “intentional Christian ministry” in Major League Baseball.

Intentional Christian ministry? Let’s take a look at some of the things Focus on the Family “ministers” about. The blog Think Progress records these lines from FoF websites:
"Male homosexuality is a developmental problem that is almost always the result of problems in family relations, particularly between father and son.

The following factors can also contribute to the homosexual orientation: pornography; spousal abuse in the home; molestation and pedophilia…

‘Mom…I’m Gay’: The story of one woman who heard these devastating words."

And the anti-gay rhetoric goes on and on.

Interestingly, as Think Progress reports, a Braves spokesman claims that Focus on the Family will not be involved in any upcoming “Faith Days.” Focus on the Family has been “dis-invited” as some are reporting.

However, Focus on the Family is involved with other events in MLB this summer through Third Coast Sports.

Major League Baseball has a serious problem on its hands if it is going to allow a group that openly preaches hate and discrimination to use its stadiums, many publicly-funded, as a platform to gets out its message.

On its web site, Focus on the Family says it will use the “Faith Days” to distribute evangelical materials that include “appropriate media decisions for their children, and TroubledWith.com™, a site for individuals and families in crisis.” The “families in crisis” phrase is another anti-gay slogan.

I have no problem with religion and politics or religion and baseball. Individual players often profess their faith and use their status as role models to evangelize. Whether you agree or not with their views, it is their right.

And, as much as I might not like it, a private team can do what it wants with its stadium. But, publicly-funded parks are different. Regardless, we all have the right to stand up and say that we will not support individual teams who allow a group that openly promotes hatred and intolerance to use our nation’s pastime to promote bigotry.

Our nation's pastime has been tainted with bigotry in the past. We need to make sure we do not make the same mistakes now.

As Think Progress writes, “There’s no crying in baseball, and there shouldn’t be bigotry either.”

J.Bird's column, "Bird's Eye View", appears alternate Tuesdays

Monday, August 14, 2006

Last Chance: Become a Columnist!

Michael Carlucci's Column, "Yankee Diary," will appear here in its regular slot in two weeks. Today, in its place, we re-publish our call for a new columnist. Reminder: The deadline is tomorrow, August 15th! We will then review all submissions. If you have any questions, feel free to email us at baseballforthought@gmail.com. Thanks!

Dear loyal BFT reader,

For nearly five months, and through over 100 opinion columns, BFT.com has been providing you with fresh, insightful commentary on the game we all love- every weekday. Doug and Mike alternate Mondays. Jeremy and I man the Tuesday slot. Thursdays have always belonged solely to our ex-ESPNer Scott, and Fridays are split by Rob and Matt.

Up until now, Wednesdays have been host to "Wild-Card Wednesdays". We've always loved WCW, as it is a great forum to feature guest columnists (including our own Fanatic's Wife), as well a place to offer you news and ideas from a columnist that couldn't wait until the next column.

That being said, we have received several inquiries from readers interested in writing for the site, and have to date been reluctant to take on new columnists. Part of that reason is since March, we've seen our readership continually increase- and thanks to readers like you, have built a loyal fan base. We love writing for you, and apparently you've enjoyed what we've written- so why change a good thing?

Upon further consideration, however, we have decided to take on a new columnist, and give a budding baseball enthusiast/writer a forum to speak to the masses.

We will be opening at least one Wednesday slot for the next and newest Baseball For Thought columnist! For those of you who may be interested, or for those of you who know someone who may be interested, here are some general guidelines:

1. As columnist, you would write one new column for every other Wednesday.
2. You can write about whatever you feel like, as long as it is original and well thought-out. And of course baseball-related. Other than that, anything goes. It's YOUR space. Your soapbox.
3. We are a gang of Mets fans, Yankee fans, Red Sox fans, Cardinals fans and a kind of A's fan. We do not discriminate based on your team preference. In fact, we encourage dissidence- it makes for better columns. If you are a die-hard D-Rays fan, and want to focus on all things Tampa Bay, go right ahead.
4. As you may be able to tell, some of us rely heavily on stats, some of us not at all. Some of us prescribe very religiously to sabermetrics, others less so. We believe our greatest strength is in our diversity.
5. Upon the launch of our newly designed site in August, you will receive your own columnist page with name, picture, and vital stats, on top of your column every two weeks.
6. We are a bunch of regular guys (and gal) who share a passion for the game. We hope you are the same.

So, here's what to do next:
1. Send an email to baseballforthought@gmail.com
2. In this email, please include a short blurb about yourself, which should at least include
a. Name
b. Age
c. Favorite team
d. What you do
e. Why you'd want to be a columnist for BFT, and what you can add to the site and for the readership (Be creative! Improvements you'd make? A schtick you would want to consider? Some pertinent experience that would make you an excellent columnist?).
- the blurb need not be lengthy- a few paragraphs with pertinent info is fine.
3. Also include a sample column (links to previous work also sufficient). This doesn't have to be formal- we are looking for passion, originality and writing ability- formal experience is very much so secondary.

The absolute deadline is August 15, though we encourage you to get your information back to us as soon as possible. If you have any further questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact us. Someone will get back to you shortly.

Good luck!
The Baseball For Thought Staff
"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine

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