June 18, 2009

A final PEDantic post

My previous post on Sammy Sosa gave rise to the following comment:
Damon said...
You've got a lot of free time on your hands. This problem is easily fixed. Require all players to take steroids. Then we won't have to hear all this complaining about who is cheating.
Yes, Damon, I do have a lot of time on my hands. What gave it away? Was it the constant references to how many hours I spend on my entries' minutiae, or the frequent allusions to my unemployment?

But I digress, as that's not why I quoted Damon anyway. Rather, his cheeky solution touches on an important point. While I mentioned in the post that "I once vowed never to blog about steroids," I didn't go into why. Well the reason is that I can't stand all of the holier-than-thou hand-wringing that the subject matter elicits.

My opinion, in general: Who the fuck cares? These guys -- be it Sosa, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, or Barry Bonds -- haven't violated the sanctity of the game any more than Gaylord Perry or Phil and Joe Niekro did when they were doctoring up the ball. Remember how charming "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'," used to be? Perry and Phil Niekro are in the Hall of Fame, fer chrissakes. And even calling most PED-users "cheaters" is iffy at best; up through 2002, there was no explicit policy in baseball banning the use of performance enhancers, and until 2005, those testing positive for the first time weren't even suspended.

Now I'm not saying we should fling open the doors to the Hall of Fame to any and all PED-suspects, but if the powers that be in baseball didn't seem to mind them much, why should we?

Most people (read: sports writers and commentators) claim to mind because they believe the numbers are no longer pure, that statistics from the so-called Steroid Era are completely out of whack with the rest of baseball history. They want to immolate all PED suspects because eight of the top-13 home run seasons of the modern (post-1900) era came in the nine-year window from 1998 to 2006. But ten of the top-12 RBI seasons occurred during a nine-year window between 1930 and 1938, and I don't recall that fraud Lou Gehrig's exhumed remains being dragged in front of Henry Waxman and his fellow Congressional attention-seekers.

The reality is that baseball stats have always varied wildly from generation to generation. In 1968, the batting average for the entire American League was .237, with Carl Yastrzemski (.301) the only hitter who topped .290. In 1930, the average National League batter hit .303; only 11 players that qualified for the batting title had an average worse than Yastrzemski's .301. But I doubt that anyone would argue that Yastrzemski would have been the 12th-worst National Leaguer in 1930. The fact that he would have been negative-9 notwithstanding.

Also in 1930, teams averaged 5.55 runs scored per game; in 1968 it was 3.42. Of the 17 lowest-scoring seasons in baseball history, 13 occurred between 1904 and 1919; the other four came from 1967 to 1972. Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA in 1968 is spoken of in the most reverent tones. But Gibson's adjusted ERA+ that year -- that is, his ERA adjusted for his home ballpark and normalized against the rest of his league -- ranks sixth in the modern era, behind three seasons of recent vintage, no less: Pedro Martinez's '00 and Greg Maddux's '94 and '95. Just to give you an idea of how dominant Pedro was in 2000, his ERA was 1.74 when the league average was 4.92; the second-best ERA -- posted, coincidentally, by acclaimed-PED-user/perennial-PED-denier Roger Clemens -- was 3.70, 112.64% worse than Pedro's. Meanwhile in '68, the NL ERA was a hair below 3, and seven pitchers finished within 112.64% of Gibson's mark. And yet it is the 1.12 that (somewhat undeservedly) evokes the awe.

The numbers have always fluctuated, and the years have never been created equal. So if the numbers are not inviolable -- and we really have no idea how PEDs actually affect a player's statistics anyway -- exactly where does all the media outrage come from?

Virtually every sportswriter is just a sports fan. Sure, they all claim to be objective, but in their hearts they are fans, which is why they got into writing about sports in the first place. And during McGwire and Sosa's 1998 pursuit of the home run record, these sportswriters raved about the amazing achievements of Big Mac and Slammin' Sammy, composing pieces laced with a childlike wonderment that bordered on hero worship. In truth, they couldn't help themselves; they were sports fans, and they were in awe. Just like the rest of us.

Well now these glowing stories -- inconveniently archived on the internet -- look a tad ridiculous. And all these sportswriters aren't happy about what they perceive as having been played for fools, as at the very least their inability to stay objective -- that is, avoid getting swept up in home run hysteria -- has been fully exposed. In order to exact some revenge, the media manufactures a rallying cry (the beloved Sanctity of the Record Book) and are then free to demonize the same players they once lionized, creating the ultra-diabolical lion-demon hybrid in the process.

Should the average fan care about PED use? I guess that's up to him or her to decide. I know that for me, seeing Sosa's numbers from 1998 to 2001 doesn't elicit the same giddiness it did six or seven years ago, in part because they serve as a reminder of my naivete. But beyond that, I don't really give a shit. The record book hasn't been sullied by the presence of the Steroid Era players, as long as we keep their accomplishments in the proper context. A little perspective is all we need, but the sports media's hysterics make that increasingly difficult. Which is why, on this subject, I try to ignore them.

Barry Bonds' name doesn't need to be stricken from the top of the home run list; just because he topped Hank Aaron doesn't mean we are obligated to consider him the better home run hitter. Aaron once passed Babe Ruth in the record book, but in the minds of most fans, he never displaced the Bambino as the greatest home run hitter of all time. Because as much as baseball is statistic-driven, it is still very much subjective. We are allowed to decide for ourselves who we think are the best players; we aren't forced into some blind adherence to the record book hierarchy. If you want to say that Hank Aaron is the true home run king because Barry Bonds was rubbing god-knows-what on his god-knows-where, more power to you. Me? I'll still take the Babe, thank you very much. Do you know that in two different seasons (1920 and 1927), he hit more home runs than any other American League team? Now those are some numbers with a little sanctity.


  1. Well said. I ammend my previous comment to also say that any fans entering the ballpark must also prove they have been taking steroids. Then we can experience some real rage having to watch the Sox and Cubs play as they do.

  2. I don't think you can equate steroid use with doctoring a baseball. There's a reason that doctoring baseballs never reached critical mass like steroids did, because using a doctored baseball is actually fairly involved skill. There is not only "the getting away with it" skill, but also the technique of actually throwing a doctored ball. You can scuff a ball, but it won't do anything particularly unusual you've mastered the technique of throwing one. Steroids require no skill to use, just a supplier. But the greater issue is really two-fold: that irrevocable truth that steroid usage had an "extraordinary" impact on level of production (certainly varying depending, a player's given skill-set, and the types of PEDs used) combined with the fact that they also pose a serious health risk (laugh as you may only in ten years will we really no the price of using. I don't think it will be pretty). So what happened is that as the marked production boost become so evident and more an more players started using as a result, many players eventually were forced into a situation where they had to make a decision to use to have any chance of getting to or remaining in the league. I'm not trying to be Pollyanna about it, but that's always been what's troubled me about the issue more generally.

  3. Bub:

    While I believe steroids are worse, I can't agree that because the scuffers were very good at cheating that it made it okay. Besides, your supposition that all the PED-users needed was a supplier also ignores the fact that most of these guys did work their asses off in the weight room. Sure, the results were greater because of the drugs, but guys like Clemens and McGwire had remarkably intense workout regimens.

    Also, there is no denying that steroids can have severe adverse consequences to one's health, and we don't have to wait 10 years to see it. The anecdotal evidence abounds, as we need to look no further than the cases of Lyle Alzado and Ken Caminiti.

    Having said that, I agree the real tragedy of the Steroids Era is that there must have been several fringe players who refused to use PEDs and were for all practical purposes forced out of the majors by their drug-abusing counterparts. If this were the focus of the mainstream media's outrage, then I would side squarely with them. But unfortunately, it remains a poignant yet seldom-heard point.