Weekend Reads: Tragedy, Then Farce Edition

When Karl Marx claimed that history repeats itself twice, “first as tragedy, then as farce,” he didn’t have synthetic testosterone or Major League Baseball in mind. Nonetheless, the American public has seen Marx’s principle on full display in their sports coverage over the last two weeks. Mirroring last March’s moral pandemic about Milwaukee Brewers’ outfielder Ryan Braun, we have seen, over the past fortnight, a succession of similarly irate commentaries about San Francisco Giants’ drug-using outfielder Melky Cabrera. Oddly, however, the anger shown toward Cabrera morphed into an almost carnivalesque bemusement when, just a few days later, Oakland Athletics’ pitcher Bartolo Colon was also found using illicit substances. What are we to make of these recent baseball drug scandals? Frankly, by focusing our attentions on the public’s mercurial attitudes toward Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), we can learn quite a bit about popular conceptions of trust, morality, and punishment.

Last spring, Ryan Braun, coming off a career-best year that saw him win a National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) award and make the playoffs, found himself embroiled in controversy. Accused by the Commissioner’s Office of breaking Major League Baseball banned substances policy, Braun’s lawyers successfully argued for an overturning of his 50 game suspension based on a mishandling of Braun’s urine sample by the drug tester. While Braun did not serve a suspension – he was “not guilty,” after all – pundits flayed the ballplayer for getting off on a “technicality,” as if procedural protections were simply a hindrance to the proper functioning of law. A number of busybody journalists, clearly embarrassed by Braun’s presumed PED use, went so far as to demand a re-vote for MVP, based on the presumption that Braun had hoodwinked everyone and sullied the good name of baseball. Or something.

Hank Aaron used PEDs (“greenies”). Just saying…

L’affair Braun caused a furor among the media and baseball watching public seen few times before in the game’s history. Many felt aggrieved because a “cheater” wasn’t punished (remember, he was found “not guilty”). They would never get their pound of flesh, it seemed, though it looks as if fans and the media will retroactively punish Braun anyway, ostentatiously changing drug-testing policies and denying him future MVP votes he clearly deserves. The Braun case starkly showed the lengths to which fans and the media would go to denounce drug use – but only if that drug use wasn’t loveable – in hopes of preserving their totally invented “sanctity of the game.” While the hypocrisy of such a stance is laughable on its face, it also suggests some interesting issues relating, generally speaking, to public views on drug use and abuse. 

On August 15, Melky Cabrera was, like Ryan Braun, suspended for 50 games for testing positive for PED use. Unlike Braun, however, his appeal was unsuccessful. Up until mid-August, Cabrera had been a cause célèbre, turning in his finest season, winning the All-Star Game MVP award, and leading the Giants toward the playoffs. What’s more, Cabrera is set to become a free agent at the end of this season, and his spectacular performance had set him up for a raise in the tens of millions of dollars. Considering what a feel-good story Cabrera’s was, how beloved he was becoming to fans outside of Atlanta, and how much he had at stake financially, fans and pundits were furious at Cabrera’s cheating and subsequent suspension. It was a replay of the Braun incident – people felt they had been fooled into believing in an athlete, only to find that he was cynically enhancing his performance in hopes of cashing in on a big contract.

Steroids HAVE to help baseball players…right?

Cabrera was suspended for the remainder of the season, though this hardly meant that fans and journalists were assuaged. Rather, they needed another avenue for their moralizing. This led otherwise-sensible people to crow for steep increases in PED punishments, representing the typical “more is more” attitude that has defined Drug War policy in America for over twenty years. Such claims miss a certain sociological fact, of course. It is virtually impossible to devise a punishment that would be harsh enough to eliminate the incentive for using PEDs. If Cabrera’s success was primarily attributable to synthetic drug use – hardly a given, considering how unsettled the science on that matter is – it would have been worth tens of millions of dollars. Considering the fact that Major League Baseball is not (yet) a sovereign state, wielding the power to press criminal charges against rule breakers, it is inconceivable that Commissioner Bud Selig could levy any threat that would, on a pure financial basis, outweigh the potential gains of PED use.

Perhaps sensing that Major League Baseball could never devise punishments serious enough to wipe out PED use, former Chicago Cubs ace – and current talking head – Rick Sutcliffe took a different tack. In an interview with Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay, Sutcliffe suggested that Cabrera be deported for his drug use, a proposition based on the exceedingly shaky legal proposition that the outfielder had attained his drugs illegally and would/should be criminally prosecuted for doing so. While many were quick to jump on Sutcliffe’s transparent xenophobia (using the threat of deportation to punish Latin American drug users? Hmmm…sounds familiar), his statements did reflect a certain Lou Dobbsian sentiment that retains huge popularity in many sections of the country. In Sutcliffe’s comments one sees how the Cabrera case plays into the histrionic arguments of the Fox News set, showing once again the depth of the connections between “Latin American,” “illegal immigrant,” and “drug runner” in the minds of many.

If we see in Melky Cabrera a tragic repeat of Ryan Braun’s case, then we see in Bartolo Colon’s experiences sheer farce. While Cabrera’s case featured certain laughable elements that the less morally inflamed among us could heartily enjoy, the story of his suspension was much more about hand-wringing over the sanctity over the National League batting crown than with Juan Nunez’s skill in html programming. Bartolo Colon’s August 23 suspension for PED use was almost pure farce, however. Though Colon had lived a nice comeback story of his own – being injured since 2005 and out of baseball for all of 2010 – the public seemed resistant to expressing any real outrage over his drug use. Despite Colon’s important role on a contending team, Twitter exploded with seemingly tens of thousands of “Bartolo Colon ate Melky Cabrera” jokes that poked whimsically at the hurler’s “generous” physique. At its most extreme, reaction to the Colon suspension wrought a gentle shrug, though most parties couldn’t even muster that.

Bartolo Colon: Baseball’s biggest threat?

Oddly, mainstream media met Colon’s positive drug test with hysterics, further stressing the farcicality of the affair. While the public seemed largely disinterested, ESPN’s Skip Bayless took the opportunity to launch baseball back into its Mitchell Report era episteme, a period defined by HUAC-like suspicion of all players, pointing an accusatory finger at Derek Jeter, the famous New York Yankees shortstop. Another ESPN pundit, DJ Gallo, made an even grander claim, suggesting that if someone as dumpy, frumpy, and lumpy as Bartolo Colon could be on PEDs, then anyone can and, heck, how can we ever learn to trust again? Whereas the rage following the Cabrera suspension had been focused on the “betrayal” of a single player, the suspension of Bartolo Colon – a league-average starting pitcher with a forty-inch waist – was a sign of baseball apocalypse.

These cases show the rich tapestry of attitudes toward drug use in American culture. Drugs are fun and familiar; they’re scary and foreign. They lead our brothers and sisters, friends and neighbours to betray us; they’re the product of a different culture and imported by people who must be expelled. If users are only harming themselves, who cares? On the other hand, won’t someone think of the children? All of these ideas can be found in the three preceding vignettes. The Braun, Cabrera, and Colon stories – the foundational tale, the tragic turn, and the farcical conclusion – tell the various stories of drugs in America, displaying popular attitudes in all their ambivalent glory. The only thing we might agree on? Marx was right.

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