The Steroid Era – One man’s take
Mark McGwire admitted he used performance enhancing drugs. You know, steroids and all that. This surprised absolutely no one. So, the question everyone will ask is if this gets him into the Hall of Fame? Jason Stark at ESPN recently noted that he put McGwire on his ballot. Pretty much all the professional baseball writers at ESPN, save maybe Howard Bryant (who for my money is the one must read on the issue of the Steroids Era), try to rationalize how we can’t punish the guys because everyone was cheating and those gosh darn evil capitalist owners turned a blind eye. Stark, Olney and Kurkjian pretty much push this line ad nauseum. And it annoys the hell out of me.
First the easy stuff: Yes, McGwire coming clean (mostly anyway) is good and a bit cleansing. We figured we knew it and its nice to have confirmation. For McGwire, if this allows him to move on and be a baseball coach, I have no problem with this. He’s perfectly welcome to make a living in the game he loves. As a P.R. move, these confessional style interviews were a no-brainer and it was the only way for the Cardinals to have anything less than a circus at spring training and all their road games. Even if this was all cynical P.R. crap and McGwire is not actually sorry, I’m not really going to worry about it in terms of his post-baseball career.
McGwire’s confession was the best form of owning up compared to all the other guys. Clemons and Bonds still claim innocence (and Bonds is legally bound to do so lest he wants to get nailed for perjury) . A-Rod, Pettite, Giambi, Manny and everyone else gave utterly lame excuses that no one in their right mind, believes. McGwire lays it out there as being intertwined with the majority of his career even if he tries to say it didn’t help him hit home runs (Riiiiigggghhhhttttt). Again, thanks Big Mac. Maybe you’ll be a fine hitting coach. Just hope that none of your players see too sharp of an improvement. The presumption of guilt by association will be huge.
What I really care about, however, is the history and the Hall. I think its what offends me most about the ESPN guys. They think they are being serious journalists by wallowing in their chin scratching moral relativism. They think they are displaying nuance by saying “how do know who was clean and who was not?” And, how do you hold it against them when the owners knowingly turned a blind eye while profiting? Well, its called using your brain. And its called taking your vote seriously. Bud Selig’s general cluelessness is irrelevant ultimately to the issue of McGwire et al sitting beside Hank and Willie and Ted. You take what we know about PED’s and their effect on the body and we look at guys who had a major jump in their production beyond normal measures.
The great thing about baseball is its incredible consistency throughout history. And when there are anomalies, we have a good idea why (by “we” I mean the Bill James disciples). Is it impossible to quantify the actual impact of PEDs (say, post 1985?)? Sure its impossible to be exact. Particularly when workout regimens and athletic science is far more advanced and can’t be factored out of the equation. Neither can you easily factor out expansion (though I bet a good sabrematrician have taken a stab at this). Its probably exceedingly difficult to factor out the shorter fences in new ballparks. But voting for the HOF doesn’t require exactness. If they are borderline, then tie goes to goes to next year’s vote until he’s out of eligibility. The player needs to be both great in the era they played in AND great in any era.
Voting McGwire into the hall spits in the face of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Ted Williams, Mantle and on and on (and no, that some of these guys used “greenies” isn’t as relevant as the excuse makers make it out to be). Moreover, it spits in the face of the players who played clean and DIDN’T make it in the hall.
One might point out that the Hall has had all sorts of unsavory sorts. True. Ty Cobb was a world class bigot and asshole. I know the history. But, as far as we know, he didn’t cheat. At least he didn’t cheat to that level, as far as we know. Does anyone believe that McGwire, without the ‘roids, becomes a Hall of Fame caliber guy? No way. Maybe he puts together a Dale Murphy like career. And as much as love Murph, he’s not a hall of famer. And that’s a big maybe. McGwire’s one skill was hitting home runs and that is the single biggest aspect of one’s offensive production most helped by PEDs. He wasn’t a great fielder. Wasn’t a great runner. Didn’t have a great arm. He was a disciplined guy and would probably have always been a decent on base guy, but he wouldn’t have had Ruthian walk rates. Pitchers wouldn’t have been THAT scared of him. Sorry, nothing on his resume says hall of famer once you factor in the juice.
Getting back to the navel gazers at ESPN. Because of the difficulty in quantifying the effect on PEDs, we should ignore it and just go by the numbers. That’s basically Buster Olney’s stance. So McGwire was a better hitter than Reggie. Or Stan the Man. Why? Because the numbers say so, according to Olney. That’s just a cop out. Its a cheat. It prevents you from having to think. Its lazyiness disguised as principle.
There is enough information, or at least enough smoke to lead you to the fire. Off the top of my head, these are guys with HOF numbers who almost certainly cheated A LOT given their career arc and the evolution of their body type AND did not do anything well enough other than to have long careers with gawdy power numbers:
Do we really feel like the HOF is a more empty place without these guys? Some other guys under suspicion:
- A-Rod (A-Rod admitted it, but the question is HOW MUCH of his career should be tainted)
- Manny (again, the question is How Much)
- Piazza (I’d put him in the first group, but I’m probably in the minority)
Guys we think are innocent and in some cases, pray like hell that they are:
- Griffey (this much we know, if he was juicing, it certainly didn’t help him stay healthy)
- Chipper (OK, I pray like hell he’s innocent)
- Pujols (yes, I know he should probably be in the previous section, but the bulk of his career has been in the “testing somewhat” era)
- Frank Thomas (Any growth hormone he encountered was likely of the bovine variety)
- Carlos Delgado (not Hall worthy yet, but still got a few good years left I’d guess
- Vlad (for my money, the most fun player to see hit, followed closely behind Sheff)
- Helton (but it doesn’t matter. He’s not getting in. His juice is perfectly legal and quite real. Its called Denver.)
What about the pitchers? We know Clemons. We know Pettite. After that, its cloudy as hell. I think my boys Maddux and Glavine are clean (praying). I’m officially an ostrich on John Smoltz. Please don’t ask me to answer honestly. I might need therapy if I do. Hoffman? No one has ever suspected it, so who knows. We think Mariano is clean. I hope so, even if I hate the Yanks. I would be absolutely shocked if Pedro was dirty, though I’d believe he used HGH just to recover from an injury way more than I believe Pettite. The Unit? I have no clue. I don’t think so, but who knows. I just know you can’t teach 6′10″. Everyone else is in the “testing somewhat era” has little or no suspicion otherwise. Sabathia, Halliday and all the guys on any given “best chance at 300″ lists will be presumed innocent unless they get popped.
So, what about the elephant in the room? The guy with the mutant melon on his shoulders? The guy who is probably about as much fun as an insurance convention? The Dude says Barry Bonds is a first ballot hall of famer, though I won’t cry if he’s made to wait a year. There can be no doubt that he is a world class jerk. But there can also be no doubt that he was one of the two best players for a solid decade BEFORE he became the most prolific home run hitter ever. This gets back to using your head. Barry Bonds was essentially the same player from the late ’80s to the late ’90s. Powerful, clutch hitter with speed. He had a great arm and great range in Left. He was the penthouse of the 30/30 club. If you believe, as I do, that he started using in the late 90s, partially because he was jealous of McGwire and Sosa, then you have to put him in the hall based on what he did up to that point. Post 1999, Bonds was slow and enormous. But he could rip the ball.
Some guys use Steroids to get their payday (Giambi). Others use it become all timers who dominate their era (McGwire). The juice took Bonds from being an all timer who dominated his era to being one of the 3-5 best players in the history of the game. But, if you tell me that Bonds belongs in the group with Hank, Ruth, Ted, Willie and Frank (or Mickey or Joe or Stan, take your pick), I’ll tell you that you are drunk. ‘Roids put his numbers in that group and he doesn’t belong at the table of the immortals. But, he’s a hall of famer. I can use my brain and figure that out. And if that means I’m putting in a cheater over this or that possible cheater, then so be it.
The Steroids era deserves recognition in the Hall and if some of these guys are recognized in that context, then that is fine. The HOF is, after all, a museum. But, I don’t think some of the guys get a pass just because of “society” or the “lack of rules” at the time. When you put guys in the Hall, you are not merely comparing them to their own era, you must consider them in the context of all baseball’s eras. If the voters take their role as seriously as they say they do, they wouldn’t take such a lazy way out just because its difficult and possibly unfair. The guys in question got their payday and nobody is taking that away from them. They’ll be just fine without the HOF plaque. We owe them nothing.