Everybody's On Steroids!
I was willing to leave this whole issue alone, but with every passing hour, more and more stupidity gets piled on the issue. First there was speculation that Barry Bonds' 73 home runs in 2001 were a product of steroids, because, well, he'd never more than 49 in a season before. The speculation continued, as sportswriters began to look back at some of the more recent numbers put up by major league baseball's superstars. Luis Gonzalez hit 57 home runs in 2001, when he'd never hit more than 31 previously. At the time, it was attributed to Luis' development of an open stance that helped his hitting, and the favorable conditions at Bank One Ballpark. But now it's because of steroids.
Sunday, Orioles Hall of Famer Jim Palmer added more verbal diarrhea to the debate, when he questioned how Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs in 1996 when his previous best was 21. Palmer also claimed that Anderson "hit 31 more on the road that year, so it's not like he took advantage of Camden Yards." Now, let's ignore for a moment the fact that in 1996, Camden Yards was a pitcher's park (and has been since). And let's ignore for a moment the fact that Brady Anderson admitted trying to hit a home run with every swing. And let's also ignore the fact that the Orioles replaced the light-hitting trio of Manny Alexander, Jeff Manto, and Kevin Bass with Roberto Alomar, B.J. Surhoff, and Bobby Bonilla, which just might have provided a more comfortable lineup for Brady to hit in. Ignore all that, and answer this question:
Why is it that every statistical anomaly can now be explained simply by saying, "Well, he was probably on steroids?" And here's an even better question: why isn't anyone looking back further into history?
Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961. Sixty-one! He shattered the record that Babe Ruth had held for thirty-four years! But here's an interesting statistic: Maris had never hit more than 39 homers in a season before 1961, and never hit more than 33 afterwards. How is that possible?
He was probably on steroids.
Didn't Roger Maris suffer major hair loss during that season? We'd always just attributed it to the stress of chasing the immortal Babe Ruth. But maybe it wasn't that at all. Maybe it was all the steroids he was taking.
Hall of Fame outfielder Hack Wilson hit 56 home runs in 1930. Prior to that season, the most he'd hit was 39. After that season? 23. What about George Foster, the only man to hit 50 home runs in a season during the 1970's? He hit 23 and 29 the two seasons before he hit 50. After that season, he tapered off from 50 to 40 to 30, and never hit more than 28 after that. Now George took a while to come down from the plateau, but how can all of this be explained?
They were probably on steroids.
No one is really going to accuse Maris and Wilson and Foster of using steroids. Because those guys, and their peers, come from an age where men were men and baseball was innocent. There is this aura around old-time baseball, as though the game and its players were untainted back then. Wilfredo Cordero allegedly hits his wife with a phone, and he's a bad, bad man. Ty Cobb, who climbed into the stands one day and physically assaulted a fan in a wheelchair, and who later admitted to killing a man? What a hitter!
It's almost seen as an insult when a player in this era approaches a cherished record or milestone, unless that player is a consummate professional like Cal Ripken, Jr., who plays the game like an old-timer. So now every two bit reporter and old-time ballplayer is coming out of the woodwork to point the finger at today's athletes without really having any evidence. Well, that's not true. They have plenty of hearsay and conjecture... and those are kinds of evidence.
Reggie Jackson came out recently and declared that today's players were absolutely and unequivocally using steroids, because, well, Hank Aaron never hit more than 50 home runs in a season, and now a couple of guys are doing it, and they can't possibly be better than Hank Aaron, so they must be cheating. Uh huh. Right, Reggie. It must be steroids, because there's no way today's athletes could be bigger and better and stronger and faster than players of old. Because nothing changed in the 25 years or so since Aaron hit his last home run in the way of nutrition, off-season training, advanced scouting, and videotape analysis that might give today's players the edge. Right, Reggie?
What puzzles me is that for the last ten or fifteen years, we've seen a whole host of reasons why home run totals have jumped, but no one wants to talk about them now. Four new teams have been added to the majors since 1992, which means that at any one time, there are about 40 pitchers on major league rosters that wouldn't have been there prior to expansion. With some minor exceptions, namely Comerica Park in Detroit and Safeco Field in Seattle, new ballparks have smaller dimensions and less foul territory. The existing ones have had fences moved in (Anaheim, Kansas City). And there's also that little place known as Coors Field, where eight-year-olds hit moonballs during the annual father-son game. As an added bonus, if you believe in conspiracy theories, the powers that be have also made the baseballs harder so that balls will fly out of the park, thus increasing attendance for a sport that is still feeling the sting from the 1994 players' strike.
But none of this is a good story, because it's not an analysis of game trends but steroids, regardless of how irresponsible and unfair that is, that sell papers and grab ratings. In a recent article in the Boston Herald, columnist Gerry Callahan referred to Barry Bonds as "Bonds *" throughout the article, and proposed attaching an asterisk to every record Bonds achieved because of the possibility that he used steroids. Apparently it doesn't matter that the Maris asterisk was removed long ago or that Bonds' alleged steroid use hasn't been proven yet. Some still see the need for a new asterisk.
I've got some asterisks of my own to hand out.
First up, Babe Ruth. He only has two career records left -- highest slugging percentage (.690) and highest career OPS (1.164) -- but I think we should put an asterisk next to all of the Babe's numbers. After all, he never once in his career faced any of the top black pitchers of his time. Sure, that's not his fault, baseball was segregated, but the Babe never did anything to change that, did he?
Next up, Ted Williams. Put a big Shift+8 next to his home run numbers. After all, the Red Sox moved in the fences to help the Splendid Splinter hit more home runs. It probably helped his average and on-base percentage, too, so let's throw some more asterisks around.
How about Bob Gibson? That 1.12 ERA in 1968? A year after he put up that number, Major League Baseball lowered the mound from fifteen inches to ten inches. Lo and behold, Gibson's ERA climbed more than a full point to 2.18, then to 3.12 the next year. Certainly sounds like the mound was more responsible for that miniscule number than Gibson was. I think we need another asterisk.
And while we're here, let's give a few to Rickey Henderson, just because Rickey is Rickey.
The fact is, that aside from someone coming out and admitting that they use steroids (like Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco, albeit after the fact), or the drug test policy being changed so that offenders are named publicly, we're not going to know who is on steroids and who isn't regardless of what we might think and what circumstantial evidence we might have. So isn't it just better to say, "Yeah, some of these guys might be on the sauce," and leave it at that? Do you really think that the 239th time Gary Sheffield is asked if he uses steroids, he's suddenly going to have a change of heart and say, "Yeah, you know what, I did"? But it really doesn't matter how he answers, does it? The fact that he's accused, in our minds, means that he's guilty. Denying it just makes him a liar, and admitting it just proves our point. Because we're already preconditioned to believe athletes are guilty until proven innocent.
You can ask Michael Irvin about that.