Everybody has their opinion about performance enhancing drugs, but yesterday's unsurprising David Ortiz reminded me of something that tends to go unmentioned in the discussion. Despite the A's history, from Jose Canseco to Jason Giambi, the team - going forward - would be much better off if steroids and HGH are kept out of baseball.
Why? It's all about the money.
Every discussion of an A's baseball move revolves around the team's payroll. Young, cost-controlled talent is the coin of the realm. The A's simply cannot afford to sign big-money free agents, or even keep their own. And when Billy Beane takes the occasional plunge, it has tended not to work out all that well.
When I think of 2003, I think of that awful division series against the Red Sox. Who were the offensive stars of that team, one with such punch they would win the World Series the following year? It was Manny and Big Papi. And Ortiz was a revelation that season, transforming himself from an ordinary hitter in Minnesota to a fearsome slugger in Boston. Manny Ramirez was always a good hitter, but he's been in another realm - "the best right-handed hitter in baseball" - during his time in Boston and, now, Los Angeles. It turns out they were Boston's version of Canseco and McGwire.
But I won't dwell on what might have been in that 2003 series, one that pitted an A's team without Giambi and Tejada against Boston's steroid-fueled sluggers. I'll talk economics.
People who talk PEDs can agree on one thing. They allow elite players to stay elite long after their skills should have faded. Barry Bonds is the classic example, a great player who turned superhuman in his late 30s. But there are numerous other examples, and it tells me one thing. These drugs make a difference, and they help players the A's can no longer afford.
The small-market success story is a team built on a strong foundation of good, young players who don't cost much. That can be augmented with trades and an occasional free agent. Once the players' clock has run out, the team must - in almost every case - wave goodbye.
We like to mock teams that overpay for past performance, but the steroid era has turned that flaw into a virtue. You could pay big bucks for an aging slugger, one whose performance should never justify his salary, and get a solid return. It's one thing to sign a free agent in his prime. The big-money teams could always do that. It's another to "gamble" that a guy in his mid-30s would continue to perform well, or even improve. The A's have had success in that area once, with Frank Thomas in 2006, but that is the exception that proves the rule. The big-money teams have been able to sign players like that, ones who aren't as clean as Thomas, and reap the benefits.
It's hard enough for the A's to compete with their payroll and other disadvantages. Without PEDs, teams that pay too much for past performance will get the declining player they deserve. And the A's, who rely on young players, will have a much better chance.