My hardline stance against performance-enhancing drugs in sports is a convenient one, informed only by my experience as a fan. I've never been faced with the choice or even the opportunity to get an unfair edge in baseball. Until now.
This week I started over as a new player in MLB 10 The Show's immersive, addicting Road to the Show, creating my favorite type: lefthanded starting pitcher, 18-year-old phenom fresh from his high school prom. The draft randomly sent me to Philadelphia and I unpacked my bags in AA Reading. And I got shelled in my first three relief appearances.
The point of the singleplayer mode is to develop your guy with training points awarded for solid performances. Three games in, I think I had earned about 120 total - the minimum you can put toward any one attribute is 40. Opponents were hitting .350 off me. My WHIP looked better as an ERA - 2.95, my ERA looked like an advertisement for a radio station (Sports Talk Nine Fifty, the Torch!) and I was looking at a long tour in the minors. My last guy spent two full seasons on the farm, and he was great.
Then I noticed "The Show Shop." Playing and reviewing MLB 10, I'd never heard of it before this week. Sony sent me some literature on new features, but I tossed it long ago. I wasn't even sure it was a new feature, but I do know it wasn't highly promoted. So I knew what I'd likely find inside.
Training points. In lots of 1,000, for 99 cents. Can do that for you right now on the credit card.
I already had $9.09 left over in my PSN account, like a savings bond from graduation. I technically didn't even have to spend anything. I could add 5 mph to my fastball - and much more -just like that.
You can see where this is headed. In no way am I accusing San Diego Studio or Sony of building a PED simulator into its game. Major League Baseball would never, ever license a product that even approximated that, and I think a developer even hinting at it in discussions with the league liaison would damage their relationship.
There are no consequences for buying these points. You're not subjected to any sort of "testing" and no flag appears by your name for having bought or used these points. There's no suspension for being "caught." You're not taking a roster spot away from anyone other than a few lines of code. You're not even violating the game itself; it's entirely legal within the construction of the game, deliberately put there by its developers.
But it absolutely presents the ethical dilemma of advancing through hard work or taking a shortcut to it. I've never faced this in any other sports simulation. Yes, you've been able to create players with 99s in every attribute since sports titles first allowed roster modification. That player was still one of five, six, nine or 11 you controlled, and his values were static. Road to the Show is a singleplayer mode that derives its meaning from a realistic career progression.
Even EA Sports' premium "accelerators" for titles like Madden NFL 10 or NCAA Football 10 are largely implemented at an institutional level, covering things like expanded collegiate recruiting, one-time boosts to an entire team, or getting an aging quarterback to stay for another year. (There is an injury recovery accelerator in Madden, so you can analogize that to team-sanctioned PEDs if you want.)
Still, in my experience, nothing has ever been this blatant - paying for a player's skill.
I became a juicer the way most do, I suspect, by telling myself it was going to be a small, one time thing. Sure. Here's a buck. The thousand points I got back went to improving my accuracy across the board. No dominating fastball, no blowtorch slider, just something to give me a little extra confidence in a tight spot. Sound familiar?
But over the course of the next two months in game, The Show Shop became like a virtual offshore pharmacy for me. When I saw my first start was against Harrisburg and Washington's phenomenal real-life prospect Stephen Strasburg, I bought points just to make sure I'd live up to my end of the billing. I delivered a three-hit, no-walk shutout.
Never one to work on my mechanics - because, hey, I'm a natural talent, right? - I'd respond to disappointing outings with another visit to the counter. A thousand points, please. Bear in mind, I think the most points I've ever gotten from a single game is about 250 for a shutout with no walks. This is four times that amount, for nothing.
I put them all toward glamour traits like strikeouts per nine innings or my screwball's break, forgetting the advancement goals my parent club expected me to meet in mundane tasks like bunting and fielding arm accuracy. As the evaluation period wound down with no hope of making these targets, I revisited The Show Shop for some juice to keep me atop my manager's glowing personnel reports.
We're now midway through June in my first season. I have a fastball that routinely hits 95, even in the seventh inning. The break on my slider is so hard, the controller vibrates on my aim point and I can still backdoor a righthanded batter. I've started 10 games, eight of them "quality starts," and I have a 1.83 ERA, an 0.93 WHIP and a 4:1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. That includes my disastrous, non-juiced debut games. And I'm still 18 years old.
I went back into my email to check the receipts from the PlayStation Store, because I honestly lost track of how many training points I purchased. It was like getting the bill after a wild night in Las Vegas.
I bought 13,000 points, stopping to reload my account once. It was appalling.
The only saving grace, frankly, is the fact I'm 4-3. I feel like that keeps me above suspicion, although it's mostly because I've had terrible run support. But I'm in this game with more talent than any teenager has a right to have, more talent than most major leaguers possess, and none of it is God-given. Plus, I have this feeling that I have to continue with this tainted, deformed player, because I've spent actual money. I have to keep up the deception, in other words. It's almost a perfect allegory for becoming what I hate.
No question, I have been an absolutist on the cardinal sin of performance enhancing drugs. It's justified a great deal of anger over the past six years, but very little of it is about the integrity of the game I profess to defend.
For Barry Bonds, the PED issue justified my hatred of him as a basically unlikeable person. There's no question Bonds was a hall of famer before he is said to have taken steroids, knowingly or (laughably) otherwise. Steroid use allows me to deny his excellence on grounds stronger than the fact he's a bastard.
For someone like Eric Gagne, PEDs allowed me an I-told-you-so in my bias about closers doing an overrated job and being a dime-a-dozen otherwise. For Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who staged their home run assault while I was living in Cooperstown, it allows me a righteous anger at their deception, and scorn for those who willingly enabled it, while I convince myself I wasn't along for the ride.
But for Roger Clemens, it's different. I find Clemens the most contemptible because I honestly believe he was washed up when he started using, and tried to juice his way to the Hall of Fame, past a career that would have seen him crap out by maybe the 11th ballot after 1996. I believe he cheated for no reason other than his own sense of personal exceptionalism and entitlement.
And deep down, I know that's why I did it, too. Except I did it in a damned video game.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.