A lot of attention has been given to testing for cannabis in professional sports. The NFL, in particular, has bared the brunt of criticism for its shunning of the herb (and alleged embracing of opiates). It’s likely that this will change at some point. Both present and former players have come forward to advocate for marijuana and work with league officials on an agreement that’s fair (i.e., one that would allow the use of medicinal marijuana).
That hasn’t happened yet, even if it may someday. But, what about baseball – why do people think that Major League has a major league problem with drugs? In the MLB, players are not routinely tested for weed – if there’s reasonable cause (i.e. the Toronto Blue Jays ask to be renamed the Toronto Blue Haze), players may be subjected. Nevertheless, it’s not routine. And this has allowed it to flourish. According to an article in High Times, baseball players know that hitting the big time also means hitting the bong. While they are tested at the minor league level, once they’re promoted, that testing goes away. This leaves those involved to smoke freely, something that allegedly happens. But does the league care? It doesnt appear so. They don’t care because professional baseball has long had a public relations problem when it comes to drugs, but these “drugs” don’t include weed. Most of us are aware of the steroid era – the era when players bulked up and home run totals soared. It’s these performance-enhancing drugs that have the league’s attention.
Cannabis is not your typical performance-boosting solution. It’s not going to take the scrawny and turn them into He-man. It’s not going to allow someone who has three career homeruns to suddenly hit 30 in one season. But players smoke it anyway. So, why? Well, it’s likely the same reasons that we do. It’s fun. It’s relaxing. It helps with anxiety. The latter may be especially important – baseball is a stressful sport. One could argue that all sports are stressful, but baseball ups the ante by placing inflated importance on individual performance. In other team sports, teams work in unison more than they do solo and this allows defeat to fall on the shoulders of a group rather than any one person (except for you, NFL kickers).
Baseball brings about the opposite – if you pop up to third with two outs in the ninth, down by one, with the bases loaded, it’s difficult to feel as though you didn’t lose the game (it’s a team effort, of course, but that doesn’t mean it feels that way). And this makes baseball among the more stressful sports to play. Baseballers are also notoriously – and sometimes ridiculously – superstitious. If weed is part of their ritual, no one is going to strip that bong from their hands. Still, again, authorities don’t really care – why should they?z Marijuana doesn’t affect the game the way other drugs have and it’s the latter that causes concern. Telling a baseball player that they can’t smoke a joint before bed is like telling them that they can’t have a beer. Why would the league care? Why would anyone? Steroids are another story – they impact the game directly. Take, for example, Alex Rodriguez, a player who admitted to doping.
Per Scientific America, his home run total increased from 36 to 52 per season thanks to these drugs. His RBIs increased too, but his batting average did not. This has to do with strength. Steroids increase power because they increase muscle mass – a single becomes a base-clearing double (upping the RBI total) and a ball that would have been caught by an outfielder now clears the fences. Yet average has to do more with timing – it doesn’t matter how much power you have if the bat doesn’t make contact with the ball. Whether steroids do much for eye-hand coordination is controversial. Some argue that they don’t – and indeed there are many players who see their homerun totals climb while their batting averages remain stagnant. But androgen – a hormone mainly involved in male reproductive development (though the ovaries produce it too) – has been shown to improve reaction times in frogs. In other words, the jury’s still out on how batting average is impacted.
Not that it matters – the impact on power was enough for the league to come down on those using drugs that improved performance. Steroids have been illegal since 1991, but testing didn’t begin in the MLB until 2003. Steroids increase muscle mass (whether or not you lift weights), but they also allow the body to recover faster. This gives athletes the ability to train harder, making their muscle-building two-fold. There’s probably a placebo effect to it as well. Baseball, like all sports, involves an important mental element – if players believe steroids will help their game, then they will. It's not all good news, however. Steroids are also notorious for causing backne (acne on the back), mood swings, hypertension, high cholesterol, and an increase in hair growth. In men who take steroids over a long period of time, testicles may begin to shrink (the body forgets how to produce testosterone on its own) and body size can change. The head may swell and the body may bloat, aspects of which may be irreversible.
Some studies have shown that cannabis can also be a worthy ally to those who work out, but the relationship is complicated and strain-dependent. And, even then, it’s believed cannabis is better at helping with endurance sports like marathons. It might help you run an extra mile, but it isn’t likely to allow you to hit for extra bases. Until it’s proven that marijuana directly improves a player’s game (it really makes more sense that it would hinder their game), don’t expect the league to start testing for cannabis. They’re too busy testing for other things.