Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Baseball's Faustian Bargain

In the Faust legend, an aging scholar makes a deal with the devil to exchange his soul for demonic assistance in obtaining a young woman’s caress. The ensuing tragic consequences make “Faustian bargain” a shorthand phrase for giving up too much to gain an immediate objective.

The ongoing fallout from major league baseball’s steroids scandal shows the fateful consequences of a Faustian bargain still unfolding. On February 11, five-time All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada became the first high-profile player to be convicted of a crime in connection with the scandal. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for misleading Congress about the use of performance-enhancing drugs by withholding information about a former teammate’s use of steroids and human growth hormone (HGH). Tejada also admitted buying — but not using — HGH, and will be sentenced (probably to probation) later this year.

Meanwhile, two of the most celebrated players of the past 25 years find the legal pincers closing on them. Career homerun leader Barry Bonds, whose bulging muscles and outlandish accomplishments exemplified the steroids era, goes on trial next month on charges that he perjured himself when he denied to a federal grand jury in 2003 that he ever knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs. Dominant starting pitcher Roger Clemens, whose productivity over more than two decades seemed to defy gravity, is being investigated by a federal grand jury. Clemens may have committed perjury last year when he told Congress that he had never used steroids or HBH.

For individual players, direct legal penalties are only one consequence of their choice to use banned or illegal substances. They also must confront the court of public opinion, where an angry mob is already forming to make Yankee superstar Alex Rodriquez’s life miserable now that media reports have linked him to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. Though major league baseball (MLB) did not have any penalties in place for testing positive at that time, Rodriquez now must face the fact that his desire for fame has backfired on him, as he morphs into the infamous A-Fraud.

One also wonders what the long-term effects on players’ bodies will be, after rolling the dice with dangerous drugs. It can't be good.

All along, MLB’s response to the use of performance-enhancing drugs has been cynical and slow to form. As sports commentators have written, the toll on the goodwill of the fans from the 1994 strike severely cut into MLB’s revenues. The homerun derby unleashed by steroids in the late 90s was the antidote to the attendance decline, and took the game to new heights of popularity at the gate. One can see now, however, that in baseball, as in Ponzi schemes and fraud of all types, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.