By David Roth
Your non-metaphoric wars tend to have obvious causes and flashpoints -- a toxic combination of inequity and ambition and frail, syphilitic empires but also an assassinated archduke; a uniquely toxic and expansionist fascist mutation but also all that sunken carnage at Pearl Harbor. All this doubtless seemed less obvious in those moments than it does in textbooks, but there is at least some bleak, palpable momentum to it all. But metaphoric wars, which are in language and in fact wars of choice, are something different. We don't remember, quite, how we wound up in a War On Drugs -- sure, a speech and some posturing and an arms race to create increasingly hard-ass sentencing laws, but why, again? And even though many of us have never known anything but the weird gnawing slow-motion failure of this particular metaphor-war's permanence, we have no real way of imagining what winning it might look like. In a war against an empire or a nation, we have a sense of what victory entails, or once entailed -- there's a treaty, some weary men in suits holding pens, haunted troops coming home or not.
But in a war against the uglier appetites and tendencies of human nature itself, we don't get that. There will be no treaty and hard-earned handshake at the end of the War on Drugs, because there are so many sides in the way, and because there can be no victory in a war on the human appetite for a shortcut to some state of being different than this present one. There are better and worse ways to fight, but there's not quite any way to win. People will always want to feel or be some other way; someone will have a way to deliver the desired flavor of deliverance, and will charge for it.
Pick your villain in that equation, if you want, although of course neither side would or could exist without the other. So your villain is either the person who wants what people have always and will always and currently very much want, and wants it heedless of its various costs; or it's the person who provides the means to that fulfillment. It's either the slugger or the sketchy PED slinger, then. It's Alex Rodriguez or Ryan Braun or even Jhonny Peralta -- maybe or maybe not, all of them innocent until proven otherwise -- or it's some fake-it-til-you-make-it hormone merchant remora like Anthony Bosch, of the disgraced and multiply dicey and currently in-the-news PED mill Biogenesis. All these hungry people and their personal short-order chefs, forever and ever, amen. If war is hell, this particular war is the hell that Sartre defined as "other people."
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It may be that baseball's current status quo is what victory in the fight against PEDs looks like. It is a fight that baseball has joined in earnest, which is saying more than you might think -- the NFL only faintly pretends to care about this stuff, and its fans make even less of a pretense, the NBA seems notably more concerned with eradicating in-season marijuana use among the well-paid, stressed-out twentysomethings who play the sport, and we should all wish them really good luck with that. And it's a fight in which baseball has done very well: the perverse, PED-saturated video game years described in the Mitchell Report already seem like a distant, goofy memory. Backup catchers look like backup catchers again, instead of stirrup-socked Ultimate Warriors. At least some acceptable percentage of the players --mostly replacement level strivers, and the occasional All-Star Game MVP -- who take PEDs are caught and suspended. Nothing is eradicated, because it can't be eradicated. But labor and management agreed on a system, and the system works more or less well. This might be it.
In some sense, too, the fact that Anthony Bosch and similarly hackish humps seem to be the state of the art in the PED scene is encouraging. These are not doctors or chemists so much as they're overleveraged, underwater try-hards in Dade County storefronts or juice-puffed goons trolling fitness club locker rooms. They're pushing scientistic balms and salves and deer velvet Binaca blasts on more credulous and more desperate jocks, because that is what they've got to sell. For all the grandiose dudgeon that echoed through the baseball discourse around the time of the Hall of Fame vote -- all those grown men fretting and fretting about backne and rumors of backne, misting over at the thought of all the game has lost, and ultimately deciding to boycott reality on principle -- it's worth remembering that these bankrupt, hustle-hard meatheads -- Anthony Bosch and Victor Conte and Brian McNamee -- are the ostensible archvillains. The full legislative and disciplinary might of a billion-dollar league is arrayed against these dudes. Is this even a fair fight?
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But of course this fight is always going to be unbalanced, and not necessarily in the way it appears to be unbalanced. As long as Bartolo Colon is willing to be convinced that he can ingest performance-enhancers in sundae form -- and he wants to believe that, because who wouldn't want to believe that -- there will be someone claiming to have that sundae recipe, and offering to make it for him, and asking for an autograph, and asking if Colon would like jimmies or butterscotch on that enhancement sundae. Think of it as The Full Might of Baseball against a bunch of Hollywood Upstairs Medical College graduates selling antler-zotzes out of an old Jamba Juice in Coral Gables and it looks one way; think of it as baseball going to war with very old and very stubborn human appetites and the tremendous coercive power of the market, and it looks another way.
So maybe this is winning, then, or as close to it as baseball -- or any entity looking to go to war with such fundamental human impulses and instincts and behaviors -- is likely to get. There will be weepy-dad sentimentalists mourning all that has been lost, when what we see is just the most recent manifestation of something long visible, and only recently un-ignored. There will be armchair authoritarians, happy to call in air strikes, to demand bans and accept nothing less than some impossible and impossibly total victory -- no more players who would take an edge in their work if they saw it there to take, no more edges for them to take, just like it was back … well, back when, exactly? These squeakers will always be with us. All of this will always be with us. That doesn't mean we don't deal with it -- there should be rules, there should be penalties for not following them. It does mean that we should remember that humans making rules for other humans generally collapses on dark comedy given a long enough time frame.
And so it seems most likely that we'll just have this endless asymmetrical conflict, on this increasingly constricted battlefield. The question is not whether we can live with that. We are already living with it, and we have always lived with it. The question is when we will stop pretending that this is a war, and start recognizing it as something older and more prosaic. This conflict is more recognizable than all those mourning columnists and gnashing zero-tolerance tough guys seem willing to recognize. But maybe we're starting to see it clearer, now: the mirror in which the game was shadowboxing the whole time.
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's "Daily Fix" blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.