Another Performancing Enhancing Rant
Thanks to the tons of statistics and information and books and stories of the game, even though I never really saw Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig or Ty Cobb or Walter Johnson play, I feel like I have.Â There’s a sort of unconditional love we give to the National Pastime especially to those times left more to the imagination than what we have actually seen.Â Unfortunately, the era of the game known as the “Steroids Era” does not receive the same unconditional love that most of baseball’s history does.
There are the obvious — Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro,Â Roger ClemensÂ — whose legacy are forever marred by what happened from roughly 1998 to 2007 and maybe even a little bit before.Â There is collateral damage that might see otherwise borderline Hall of Fame careers fall by the wayside because of hints of possible performance enhancing drug use.Â Luis Gonzalez comes to mind first.Â However, having been gratefully sucked back into baseball after I swore it off after the ’94 work stoppage wiped out a postseason thanks to Cal Ripken’s “Ironman” streak and the McGwire-Sosa home run race of ’98, it’s hard for me to hold the same contempt towards that period that others do.
Now that I’ve revealed my bias on the subject, let’s talk about the reality of what happened from ’98 to ’07 and what is still going on in ’08.Â Baseball wants you to believe that performance enhancing drugs have been magically eradicated from the game.Â With Barry Bonds and his year-long free agency as the poster child, commissioner Bud Selig talked as recently as last month (with Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal) about the “success” of baseball’s efforts to address the issue of performance enhancing drugs.
And the stats are there to prove it… I guess.Â There have been no suspensions in all of Major League Baseball in ’08.Â Although, remarkably 65 Minor League players have been handed 50-game suspensions, no one at the Major League level — not even the Minor Leaguers who filled injury-ridden rosters throughout the season — has failed “the toughest testing program” in sports.
But then there are other stats.Â Runs are down… sort of.Â With two days to go, this year’s runs per game total is at 4.55, the lowest it has been since all the way back to 2005 when it was 4.45 or 2002 when it was 4.45 and “way” below 1998s average of 4.60 runs per game.
Home runs are down, too… kind of.Â At 1.02 home runs per game, the total is the lowest it has been since 2005 when it was 1.01 per game.Â Coincidentally, the home run totals of ’08 are still higher than ’98 when the league averaged 0.99 per game and lower than ’55 when the league averaged 1.04 home runs per game.
But what’s it all mean, really?Â What are the effects of performance enhancing drugs?Â It’s easy to chalk up Mark McGwire’s and Sammy Sosa’s ’98 performances to chemical enhancement but at the time wasn’t it expansion and “juiced” baseballs that were given the credit.Â And how can we dismiss McGwire’s then-home run record so easily when in 1987, as a rookie, a much smaller McGwire blasted 49 home runs?
Even if baseball has wiped out 99% of all performance enhancing drugs from the game, shouldn’t we still see one or two genetic freaks sneaking through the cracks of the Minor Leagues and busting on the scene?Â Is it possible just one year removed from Barry Bonds breaking the All-Time home run record that steroids and performance enhancing drugs are just gone?
Or is it more likely that the effects of performance enhancing drugs are the scapegoat for the bigger problems in the game?Â Smaller ballparks, awful pitching, better bats, balls that hop off the bat and rules that give batters an advantage at the plate are factors, too.Â With runs only down 3% and home runs down 6% from the supposed “juiced” period, were performance enhancing drugs the elixir everyone thinks they are?
Where the game is most impacted is in its’ history.Â Whether performance enhancing drugs played an enormous role in the careers of players like McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Clemens and others or not, there will always be a black mark next to their names.Â They were never banned from the game like Pete Rose or Joe Jackson so the members of the BBWAA who vote on the Hall of Fame get to play judge, jury and executioner on their immortality.Â McGwire’sÂ legacy already took a hit when he was passed over in 2007 and 2008 for enshrinement.Â Clemens and Bonds will be more interesting cases since prior to any steroid use, both players were Hall of Fame bound.
Instead of vilifying the “Juiced” Era, is it possible we take it for what it was?Â The “Deadball” Era of the game featured rules that allowed pitchers an advantage over batters yet the Hall of Fame features many pitchers who were stars of the Era.Â Ed Walsh, a Hall of Fame pitcher from the “Deadball” Era was notorious for throwing a spitball, a pitch that was once legal — like performance enhancing drugs — in the game.Â Fellow Hall of Famer Sam Crawford once said of Walsh’s spitball, “I swear, when it went past the plate, it was just the spit that went by.”
Why not take a similar approach to the “Juiced” Era players and compare them to the other players of their time?Â When we look back at the Era, it seems like more players “cheated” than didn’t, if the Mitchell Report and Jose Canseco are to be believed.Â (Exactly when did Jose Canseco become credible?)Â And if that is the case, shouldn’t we revere Bonds and McGwire and Sosa and Clemens for “cheating” better than everyone else?Â The list of names on the Mitchell Report does include names like Mark Carreon, Brendan Donnelly, Ryan Franklin, Eric Gagne, Chuck Knoblauch, Josias Manzanillo and F.P. Santangelo to name a few.Â In some cases like Franklin and Gagne, we don’t even begrudge them a continuation of their career.
BaseballÂ is cyclical.Â Right now, “small ball” and pitching are experiencing a renaissance.Â But home runs are not down that much.Â There are still 84 players with 20 or more home runs which is more than the 79 players in ’98, 76 in ’05, 76 in ’03 and 75 in ’02.Â It comes nowhere near the 102 players that bombed at least 20 homers in 1999 but it’s still a lot more than the mere 37 players who hit more than 20 homers in ’89 and ’92.
And anyone that believes that performance enhancing drugs are gone from the game for good and that everyone who has been accused did use and anyone who has not been accused did not is naive.Â And if they are a card carrying member of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America, they should have their card revoked.Â In the end, isn’t it better that we just compare the players of the Era to their peers and decide based on that where they stand in baseball lore and forget about who was using and who was not?