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Jewish World Review Dec. 8, 2004 / 25 Kislev, 5765

George Will

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A stain on baseball | "When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws."

— G.K. Chesterton, 1905

To understand the damage that the steroids scandal is doing to baseball, consider this: Probably sometime late in the 2005 season or early in the next one, Barry Bonds, who already has 703 career home runs, will begin a game with 754, one short of Henry Aaron's record. Would you cross the street to see Bonds hit number 755?

Bonds, 40, is intelligent and severely aware of his body. When, a year ago, Bonds's lawyer said his client might have "unknowingly" used steroids, Bonds and the gaudy numbers his dramatically transformed body has generated since he turned 35 became, strictly speaking, incredible.

In recent decades athletes have learned that, using nutrition, strength training and other means, it is possible to enhance performance. But not all that is possible should be permissible. Some enhancements devalue performance while improving it, because they unfairly alter the conditions of competition. Lifting weights and eating your spinach enhance the body's normal functioning. But radical and impermissible chemical intrusions into the body can jeopardize the health of the body and mind, while causing both to behave abnormally.

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Athletes chemically propelled to victory do not merely overvalue winning, they misunderstand why winning is properly valued. Professional athletes stand at an apex of achievement because they have paid a price in disciplined exertion — a manifestation of good character. They should try to perform unusually well. But not unnaturally well. Drugs that make sport exotic drain it of its exemplary power by making it a display of chemistry rather than character — actually, a display of chemistry and bad character.

If a baseball fan from the last decade of the 19th century were placed in a ballpark in the first decade of the 21st, that fan would feel in a familiar setting. One reason baseball has such a durable hold on the country is that, as historian Bruce Catton said, it is the greatest topic of conversation America has produced. And one reason is the absence of abrupt discontinuities in the evolution of this game with its ever-richer statistical sediment. This makes possible intergenerational comparisons of players' achievements.

Until now, only one radical demarcation has disrupted the game's continuity — the divide, around 1920, between the dead ball and lively ball eras. (A short-lived tampering with the ball produced the lurid offensive numbers of 1930 — nine teams batted over .300; the eight-team National League batted .304.) Now baseball's third era is ending — the era of disgracefully lively players.

What is, alas, continuing is the idea that everything is the federal government's business. The steroid scandal may yet become redundant confirmation of Chesterton's century-old insight quoted above. Because some players have broken a big law of life — don't cheat — we may now get a federal law against their particular form of cheating. To be fair, John McCain, aka The National Scold, who acquired from his father the admiral and from his own training as a naval officer an admirable sense of honor, hopes that his threat of legislation will prod the players' union to make legislation unnecessary by consenting to a more rigorous regime of drug testing.

The Major League Baseball Players Association — the union — is democratic, so it surely will want to consent. A large majority of players are honorable or prudent or both. They do not use steroids, which are dangerous as well as dishonorable. But consider the plight of the marginal major leaguer, a category that includes most major leaguers at some point in their careers and many of them throughout their careers. The marginal player knows that some of the competitors for his roster spot and playing time are getting illegal chemical assistance. So he faces a choice of jeopardizing either his career or his health. And surely all non-cheating players dislike playing under the cloud of suspicion that their achievements are tainted.

Happily, this tawdry steroids episode benefits an exemplary gentleman. Until last season, when David Aardsma played for the San Francisco Giants, Henry Aaron's name was the first in the alphabetical listing of the almost 16,000 fortunate persons who have played in the major leagues. Aaron deserves to rank — and in the hearts of serious fans will rank, long after Bonds retires — first on the list of career home runs, properly achieved.

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