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Who Deserves An Asterisk?

Organized baseball recently initiated an anti-steroid policy that will slap the overdeveloped wrists of violators. The major objection that baseball and its fans have against steroids is that "performance-enhancing drugs" muddy the purity of the game. Those who use these drugs are "cheaters," since players in previous decades didn't have the chance to use them. So, if a beefed-up slugger hits 70 home runs today, that shouldn't be compared to an earlier player's 60 home runs in the pre-steroid era. Some suggest an asterisk should be placed next to records set by those who are now suddenly capable of bench-pressing a Buick.

To me, the most objectionable things about steroid use are that it is generally illegal since you're supposed to have a valid prescription for the drugs, and the side effects on the user's body can be tragic. These things weren't even mentioned in baseball's attack on players who looked like normal people two years ago and now are slightly larger than the clubhouse. Baseball's concern seems to be exclusively about a possible unfair advantage over those who didn't or don't use these drugs.

Modern athletes have better diets and more knowledge about vitamins and training methods than those in previous eras, but these advantages are acceptable. It's the wicked drugs that apparently make things unfair.

If I disregard the legal and health issues — as baseball does — I have to look at steroid use in a different light. I'm not sure I know anybody who doesn't use "performance-enhancing drugs or supplements." Do you?

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Do we criticize the plumber who takes blood pressure medication, thereby adding years to both his life and career? Does anyone call the woman executive a cheater who feels she can do her job better now that she is taking hormone replacement therapy or supplements? If we read a classic novel written by an alcoholic writer, do we suggest that it's unfair to compare it to lesser novels written by sober authors? If a ballerina gives a beautiful performance that she couldn't have given without the anti-inflammatories she takes for her knees, should the critic put an asterisk next to her review? If a kid needs his asthma medicine before taking the SATs, should we discount his score? Is the mother of four whose anti-depressants help her at home and at work cheating?

What about that couple in the TV commercial in the outdoor bathtubs? Is anyone saying that their improved sex life — or the improved sex lives of millions — is not as legitimate as those who don't use medication? In fact, it's ironic that sometimes, right behind home plate — right behind that batter who might or might not be an evil performance enhancer — is an ad for people to enhance their sexual performance.

Does the proliferation of drugs in our society excuse or condone steroid use by athletes? No, but it sure helps explain it. If a high school baseball player comes home and sees his parents having a drink or two "to take the edge off," or if he sees how many pills and vitamins his parents take every day, is it any wonder that he might be tempted to take things that may help him play better? We live in a culture in which most people take something to help them feel better and, yes, perform better.

So why are we so much more critical of those who do this in sports? It's because we like to cling onto the myth that athletes are pure and good. This has always been the case. While they were playing, nobody talked about Babe Ruth's drinking, Joe DiMaggio's treatment of family and friends, or Mickey Mantle's womanizing.

As long as athletes are heroes, they'll be held to different standards from regular people, and we won't think it's OK for them to take drugs to help them on the field. And maybe that's not such a bad thing. People need heroes, and maybe some of us need to live vicariously through others whom we like to believe are so talented, so strong, so good, so superhuman that they don't need drugs or supplements like the rest of us.

I had a little headache before writing this column, and took something for it. I hope you don't feel that I cheated.

Lloyd Garver has written for many* television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many* books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver*

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