Please Join Us On Our New Sports Then and Now Site

We have redesigned the Sports Then and Now site and moved to a new platform. Please change your browser URL for this site to:

We will be keeping this site updated through July, but beginning in August all content will be on the new site only.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

One Big Asterisk

If anyone was still holding out hope that the rampant use of steroids in Major League Baseball was just another overblown media creation, I’m afraid it is time to give up the ghost.

The recent admission by Alex Rodriguez, generally considered the best player in the game today, that he used steroids for a three-year stretch during the peak of his career makes it clear that the magnitude of the use of performance enhancing drugs over the last 15 years is greater than anyone could have imagined.

While I refuse to go so far as to say that all the greats of the game of the last 15 years knowingly used steroids or some other drug to enhance their performance, it may be safe to say that if the numbers posted by a player appear to be too good to be true, they probably are.

It isn’t too hard to understand why a player with limited ability might have seen steroids as an answer for helping him advance to the next level. However, I struggle with understanding why someone who averaged 37 home runs, 115 runs batted in and a .315 batting average during his first six years in the league would think he needed “help” to enhance his performance. Nonetheless, if Rodriguez’s claim that his steroid use occurred only from 2001-2003 is true, then that is indeed the case.

As the number of players being identified as probable steroid users continues to grow, most accused or confessed users seem to generally fall under one of four categories:

1. Career minor leaguer who used steroids to get to the majors;

2. Serviceable major leaguer who became an All-Star caliber player after using performance enhancers;

3. All-Star players whose use of performance enhancers lifted their play to Hall of Fame stature; and

4. Sure Hall of Famers who elevated their status to all-time great through the use of drugs.

Even though there are still a few baseball broadcasters, mostly former players who played over the last 15 years, who seem determined to do everything they can to soften the stigma against their era, more and more players, owners and media members seem to have come to grips with the fact that there was indeed a “Steroid Era.”

So, now that people are finally facing this reality, it is time to move past the shock and blame that has previously occurred every time a new name is revealed and instead start coming to grips with how to wedge this era into the history of baseball.

I think for me and many other long-time lovers of baseball, what is most offensive about the steroid era is not just that players chose to try and enhance their performance through means that were unethical and in most cases also illegal, but specifically that doing so ruined the historical fluidness of the game.

More than any other sport, baseball could always be counted on for being able to connect the records of the past with those of modern day. Unlike football and basketball where changes in how the game was played made comparing players and statistics from different generations difficult, baseball remained constant enough that you could generally have a valid conversation about whether Rogers Hornsby or Joe Morgan was a better second baseman even though their careers were 40 years apart.

Baseball also has always been a sport with sacred numbers. Whether it be specific numbers recorded by individuals like Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a season or 714 for his career or milestone career accomplishments like 3,000 hits, 500 home runs or 300 victories, statistical accomplishments have always been used to measure baseball greatness.

No measuring stick has taken a greater pounding over the last decade than the home run. Once described as the toughest thing to do in sports, hitting a home run is still a majestic moment during a baseball game, but the abundance of power over the last 15 years has eroded some of the luster around those who accomplish this great feat.

Of the 24 players in baseball history who have passed the 500 home run mark, nine hit a majority of those home runs during the last 15 years. Right now, Gary Sheffield is poised to become the 25th member of the club as he currently sits with 499 career round trippers and will certainly join the club if he plays in 2009.

A number of media members who have votes for the Baseball Hall of Fame have publicly said that they will not vote for anyone who has been linked to the use of performance enhancing drugs. If enough voters share that sentiment, a Baseball Hall of Fame that is already without the all-time leader in hits could also exclude the career leader in home runs, the most dominant pitcher of the modern era and multiple members of the 3,000 hit and 500 home run clubs.

Unfortunately, there really isn’t an easy answer. Even players who as of today have never been linked to steroids could have their chances at Hall of Fame induction hampered by the concept of guilt by association. Players like Jeff Kent, Chris Biggio and Mike Piazza would seem like easy Hall of Fame picks given that they rank among the greatest players ever at their positions. However, if enough voters refuse to support anyone from the steroid era, these players could have a tougher time getting elected.

I realize that Alex Rodriguez admitted his wrongdoing only after a positive test became public, but he will be an interesting test case for the future. Other players like Brian Roberts, Andy Pettitte and Jason Giambi admitted some culpability and have generally gone on with their careers. Of course, these players were never considered among the all-time greats, so it is difficult to predict if fans and the media will be as forgiving of someone once perceived as being truly special.

For many observers of baseball history, the worst part is in not knowing exactly which great performances of the last 15 years are tainted and which are legitimate. Because testing has been spotty and there remains no test for HGH, just about anyone who puts up a great season is a suspect.

While it will never happen, I would almost prefer that the federal government provide amnesty to all baseball players as long as they admit if they used any banned or illegal substance to enhance their performance. That way we could make our own mind up as to how players of this generation fit in baseball history.

Of course that will likely never happen, so we are left to speculate and move forward knowing that not all numbers are as they appear.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Site Meter