MLB and Steroids: More Jive than Substance

Congratulations to Alex Rodriquez--his admission that he took steroids between 2001 and 2003 earned him the coveted “Outrage of the Moment Award” doled out by the sanctimonious, the pompous, and the purists. Count me among those who couldn’t care less. I just want people to stop talking about this nonsense and move on.

No need to deal with the sanctimonious; until one of them produces an ID card proving they are, in fact, Jesus H. Christ those who live in glass houses should unhand those stones. This is especially the case for sportswriters. As one who has spent time with reporters of all sorts I can tell you that many of them are better supplied than your neighborhood CVS.

The pompous—Bud “I’m Shocked!” Selig and much of Congress—are just trying to draw attention away from their own inadequacies by shifting focus onto others. At present MLB has become a scapegoat, or have the pompous forgotten all those NFL, track, and bicycling stars who juiced? Do the names Dana Stubblefield or Deuce McAllister ring any bells? How about Ben Johnson? Marion Jones? Jan Ullrich? Floyd Landis?

Did A-Rod cheat? Sure—just like every one who ever stole signals, corked a bat, loaded up a spitter, or convinced the grounds crew to cut the grass to their specifications cheated. MLB rules are always reactive, not proactive. Penalties for juicing are now in effect, so let’s trash the ex post facto and concentrate on punishing future transgressions. But if you think Mother Theresa-like piety will break out, get real. Mix competition with scads of money and somebody is going to seek an edge by straying beyond the Pale.

But of all the nonsense, none is as silly as that floated by baseball purists: that records set by A-Rod and Barry Bonds are “tainted” and should be thrown out or have asterisks entered beside them. This argument rests on the absurd assumption that baseball records are meaningful in the first place. MLB records originated in the 19th century with owners who wanted to apply factory-style discipline on their employees. Record-keeping—a form of accountancy—is sports’ answer to piece-rate work. Records were used to cut salaries of players not performing.

These days record fetishes are kept alive by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and other numbers’ geeks who want you to believe that statistics are timeless measures of excellence. Rubbish! All stats can do is compare players of the same era. Comparing Babe Ruth to Barry Bonds would be like comparing the track speed of a Model-T to NASCAR vehicles.

John Baker led MLB in round-trippers in 1911 with 11. Despite his nickname “Home Run,” Baker never hit more than 13 in a season. Why? Because he played during the “dead ball” era prior to 1920, when balls were wound loosely and were designed to stay in play rather than fly out of the park. Babe Ruth’s seasonal tally jumped from 29 to 54 the first year the ball changed. So can we compare the Babe to Baker? Nope.

Ruth would eventually slam 714 homers, but what does that tell us? Today’s ground-rule doubles were homeruns for much of Ruth’s career, but forget that; how many more would Ruth have hit if the centerfield fence in Yankee Stadium was today’s 409 feet rather than the 490 it was in his day? And how many more would Mickey Mantle have slammed? He managed 536 in the “smaller” stadium in which centerfield was a mere 461 feet from home plate! How many would each have hit in Corrs Field, for heaven’s sake?

Virtually every baseball statistic belongs exclusively to the era in which it was compiled. Would Cy Young have won 511 games in the age of the five-man rotation and bullpen specialists? How many of Ty Cobb’s 4,191 hits would have been outs if fielders had the gloves they have today? Gloves didn’t even have webbing until 1920. How many more hits would Maury Wills have gotten if he batted on artificial turf? How many homeruns would Barry Bonds have hit—even pumped full of ‘roids—if he played in 1967 when baseballs were wound more loosely and 44 homers were enough to help Carl Yastrzemski win the Triple Crown? (The ball was juiced again in the 1990s.)

And can we stop with the Hank Aaron sainthood routine already? Aaron is merely the HR champ in the era of diminished pitching. Only 219 of Aaron’s 755 homers were hit before the National League expanded in 1961 and pitching got considerably worse, and it expanded twice more before Hammerin’ Hank retired. Before expansion, even weak teams had numerous great players; now not even a payroll of $200 million fills out a squad of genuine major leaguers. (Unless you happen to think that Edwar Ramirez, Cody Ransom, Melky Cabrera, and Brett Gardner are among the immortals.) You simply cannot directly compare pre- and post-expansion MLB.

A-Rod asserted that it was the “culture” of the game to juice around the turn of the 21st century. He’s right—so let’s judge him by those standards. Hundreds of other guys juiced as well, but most of them fell far short of the numbers put up by Bonds, Sosa, and Rodriquez. The numbers suggest that A-Rod is among the very best of his generation. And that’s the only set of statistics that has an iota of meaning.

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