Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fallen Heroes

Everyone that doesn't live under a rock knows by now that Manny Ramirez received a 50-game suspension last week for testing positive for a banned substance.  The tests found hCG in his blood, a female fertility drug commonly used by athletes at the end of a steroid cycle to restart the body's natural testosterone production.  Also in the past few weeks, two books have come out chronicling the playing careers of A-Rod and The Rocket.  Both books discuss ad nauseum how these players cheated the game through steroid use.  After admitting a short period of use in Texas, a new book accuses A-Rod of having done steroids since high school, accounting for his large growth spurt and monstrous numbers with the Mariners.  Clemens, however, nearly 15 months after his federal grand jury testimony, still refuses to admit anything.  The book claims that Roger added 4 MPH to his fastball in Toronto after everyone thought his career was over in Boston.  He went on to play another decade, winning four more Cy Youngs after the age of 35.

I've come to accept that this is just a dark period in baseball history that is being addressed and will always be something baseball fans have to deal with, no matter how sick of it they are.  The thing that gets to me though, is the talk about if these players are "Hall-of-Fame worthy."  For about a 20-year period starting in the mid-80s, it is just plain naive to think that a significant portion of players were not taking steroids, and I think that people who get a HOF vote need to take that into account.  The majority of players who took steroids we've never heard of - they didn't take it to get an edge, or to recover for an injury, but simply to get a chance to be a major league baseball player.  Most players that juiced were average minor leaguers looking to improve to maybe a good utility player, but yet the public only sees the star cases of great players looking to get even better.  We can't continue to keep our great players like Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, and Roger Clemens out of the Hall when EVERYBODY was doing it.  I am not saying they shouldn't be punished or subpoenaed or persecuted, but we have to look at their on-field achievements against the backdrop of the Steroid Era.  The sooner we just accept that it was a troublesome time in baseball in which most players were trying to gain that chemical edge, the sooner we can start separating talent from drug enhancement.  A lot of people view the Steroid Era, unlike the Deadball Era or the period since the pitching mound was lowered, as something that affected only some, not all, and I just don't feel that to be the case.  I refuse to believe that any less than 90% of players didn't have their fingers in the pie for some period of time - the game is just too competitive, too salary-driven, and too personal-training oriented now to think otherwise.  MLB needed the long ball to save baseball (see 1998 Homerun Chase), and was indirectly encouraging steroid use anyways up until about 2003, so why not take a risk that nobody was monitoring?

When the Manny story broke, broadcaster Bob Costas summed it up very well on the MLB Network.  He said that there are three camps of HOF voters: those who refuse to vote for anyone linked to steroids, those that will look at the extent of use, and those that will be discretionary and will vote for players that would have been Hall of Famers anyways.  Given that this is a Steroid Era, and not a Pete Rose-like isolated case, EVERY voter needs to be in the third camp - vote based on skill, not on drug use.  Now, this is still debatable and subjective to a degree, but it is a start.  Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco probably would never have been good without steroids, they were just giant muscle masses.  Mark McGwire?  That might be a case on the fence.  Players like A-Rod, Palmeiro, Bonds, Manny...it is hard to deny that these players wouldn't have made the Hall anyways, or we wouldn't be talking about them so much.  A-Rod and Manny are career .300+ hitters; steroids add strength and speed, but not ability.  Hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in any professional sport, and players like A-Rod, Palmeiro, Ramirez, and Bonds may have increased homerun totals, but were still great hitters.  Bonds had 3 MVPs before his first 40-HR season.  As far as pitchers, this is more of a clearcut case to me.  Scientifically, it is physically impossible to throw a baseball harder than a force of 80 Newton-meters (about 110 MPH) without your arm snapping off.  Pitchers are already at the upper limits of a tolerance that would cause normal humans to shatter every tendon in their arm.  And besides that, it is incredibly tough to control a fastball in excess of 100 MPH (see Joel Zumaya).  With that all being said, based on physics alone, the only conceivable reason for a pitcher to take steroids is to help with injury or elongate a career.  Andy Pettitte won 4 World Series before the age of 30, and Roger Clemens had 3 Cy Youngs before the age of 35, and should be in the Hall.

This is a hot-button issue that will not be resolved quickly, and probably none of the players I've mentioned will make it to the Hall of Fame since you need 75% majority.  I guess I'm trying to say that you can't fault a great player for trying to "keep up" when hundreds of average players around them like Albert Belle and Greg Vaughn are hitting 50 homeruns in a season.

Brewers 18-14, -2.0 (3 v. Marlins, 3 @ Cardinals)
Reds 18-14, -2.0 (3 @ Diamondbacks, 3 @ Padres)
Twins 15-17, -3.0 (3 v. Tigers, 4 @ Yankees)

Erik - 10 (+ 6 worked)
Peter - 15

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