One of the rules of thumb that we try to live by at Baseball Analysts is to only write about subjects where we can add value to the discussion. Our goal is to inform, entertain, and engage our readers on all things baseball. But only when we have some insight. Otherwise, we're just filling space and wasting your time.
With the foregoing in mind, we have generally refrained from writing about steroids on this site. In more than four-and-a-half-years and nearly 1300 entries, the word "steroids" has appeared in only 20 articles. Five of them were written by guest columnists and three involved interviews. In all but two cases (including one of the most thought-provoking articles I've ever encountered), the mention of steroids was either tangental to the topic at hand or in jest. Even Sunday's widely read piece by Pat Jordan mentioned the "s" word twice.
I'm going to break with tradition and discuss steroids today. The purpose isn't to point fingers, name names, play the blame game, or act as an apologist for anyone. It is simply designed to try to add a perspective that I believe is missing from many discussions on this emotionally charged subject. You can stop right here and click to another favorite site if you'd like. Or you can read on.
First of all, I am not an expert when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs. Far from it. In fact, I would describe myself as a novice. Most people are. Heck, even the medical profession doesn't have a uniform opinion on PEDs. Dr. George Griffing, Professor of Medicine at St. Louis University, claims in a recent webcast and editorial (registration required) that "the athletic benefits of HGH is a myth." I'm sure there are doctors who believe otherwise. My point is that the benefits, if any, are not a given. Rob Neyer admits that Dr. Griffing might be wrong, "but his analysis seems to be based on the best science available at the moment." One can still frown upon its use "as it may be unhealthy and is often, as obtained by professional athletes, illegal. But it now seems quite possible that not a single home run or strikeout has been gained from the ill-gotten, illusory benefits of human growth hormone."
I'm torn on the subject myself. My head says one thing. My heart says something else. And my gut goes back and forth. Put me in the camp that has more questions than answers.
But I feel strongly about one thing: a record, by definition, is not to be tampered with. It records what has transpired. Nothing more, nothing less. Accordingly, I would not expunge any player records, stats, awards, or honors. That seems foolish and like an overreaction to me. Where do you start and where do you stop? What about players in the '60s and '70s grabbing "greenies" out of jars openly available in locker rooms? Were they legal? Did they not stimulate players and enhance performance?
Part of the fun of discussing records is that we can always speculate about context. No era is comparable to any other. Dead ball/live ball, segregation/integration, lights/no lights, day games/night games, travel by train/travel by plane, 154 games/162 games in a season, 16 teams/30 teams, symmetrical/asymmetrical ballparks, four man/five man rotations, designated hitters/no designated hitters, grass/artificial turf, and outdoor stadiums/indoor domes. I could go on and on. The strike zone, height of the mound, and equipment have changed over the years. Player usage and strategy have changed as well. In the "old" days, starting pitchers were expected to complete their games. Today, if a starting pitcher gives his team a quality start, the manager can turn to his bullpen and employ three relievers to shut down the opposition.
As with society in general, today's players benefit more from nutritional, medical, and technological advances than those from previous generations. Tommy John surgeries have prolonged the careers of countless pitchers. Less invasive surgeries allow players to return to the playing field faster than ever. Laser eye surgeries have reduced the need for glasses and contact lens.
Sure, for the sake of the record books, the purist in all of us wishes everything could be the same. But the reality is that things change over time. Sometimes for better. Sometimes for worse. But they do change.
I, for one, am not troubled by the fact that Babe Ruth's single-season home run record was eclipsed by Roger Maris. Ford Frick, the commissioner at the time, was bothered by it and vowed to put an asterisk by Maris' name in the record book. It was the prevailing hysteria of the day. I'm also not disturbed in the least by the fact that Maris' record was broken by Mark McGwire. Or that McGwire's record was short-lived and beaten by Barry Bonds.
Similarly, I was totally fine with Hank Aaron breaking Ruth's career home run mark. And I have no problem with Bonds setting the new standard as he did last season. Going forward, I won't be surprised if Alex Rodriguez breaks Bonds' record. Should A-Rod become the new HR king, I'm quite sure that someone will come along and overtake him.
Does any of this make me think less of Ruth? No. If anything, his legend has increased over the years. His memorabilia is worth more today than ever before. No player or record can take away what Ruth and Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Cal Ripken, and Rickey Henderson accomplished. Or what Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Lefty Grove, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez achieved. All of these players are great. Besides, there was never a single measure that allowed us to say that this player was better than that player anyway.
The irony is that baseball is more popular today than ever. As a result, I don't think the public is as bothered by the revelations of steroids as certain members of the media and Congress. It is what it is. It's silly to try and turn back the clock. If you want to rid the game of performance-enhancing drugs, then put a firm policy in place, test, and enforce the damn rules with stiff penalties, including fines, suspensions, and expulsions. Other than getting the MLBPA to agree, it's really not anymore difficult than that.
. . . and now back to our regularly scheduled programming.