Only Baseball Matters

…. in Stark contrast

Over at Baseball Musings, I found this excellent (albeit two years late) Jayson Stark column in which he interviews several GM’s and assorted other baseball executives and discovers, Lo and behold!, the majority of them don’t think there has ever been a huge steroids problem in baseball, and that the current media frenzy if completely out of proportion to the actual problem:

…. A middle-market NL GM says his team has spent very little time worrying about this because “we’re down to one percent that are using it. That’s what they’re telling us – that last year it was one percent.”

Asked whether he believed that figure – since Congress and the public clearly don’t – he replied: “I do.”

True, it might be in his best interest to spin the best possible light on this issue. But this is one of baseball’s most down-to-earth general managers – a man not normally known for spewing excessive baloney. And the fact is, a number of his fellow GMs clearly agree with him.

One AL GM says the state of the current scandal has been “overblown, without a doubt” – and “it’s also revisionist history.”

“The peak of usage, in my opinion, was five to seven years ago,” he says. “And there has been a steady decline since then.”

Many GMs believe the minor-league testing program has had a major impact – both on young players and on the fringe players who used to be especially tempted to use steroids. And now, the theory goes, the major-league program – and fear of public humiliation – has all but finished the job.

Stark also repeats the old refrain that as many 50+ HR seasons have come since 1993 as in the entire history of baseball before that, and since the testing started in 2003, there have been none.

But that’s selective use of the statistics. If we use 45+ HR seasons as our starting point, we see a whole different picture. There have been twenty-two 45+ HR seasons in just the last four years, by as varied a group of players as imaginable; A-Rod (four times), Thome (three times), Palmeiro, Glaus, Sosa (three times), Bonds (four times), Bagwell, Luis Gonzalez, Shawn Green, Todd Helton, Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, Albert Pujols, and Adam Dunn have all done it. Going back to 1993, the year Stark and most everybody else keeps saying signals the start of the “steroids era,” you can add McGwire (four times), Andres Galarragga, Larry Walker, Juan Gonzalez, Ken Griffey Jr. (four times), Albert Belle (twice), Canseco, Brady Anderson, Mo Vaughn, Greg Vaughn, Vinny Castilla, and Chipper Jones to the list. That’s 26 different players, who have hit at least 45 home runs over 30 times in the past 12 seasons, a total that was reached but 5 times the previous 12.

By using 50+ HR seasons as your analysis point; you can narrow your focus to the big three, Sosa, Bonds and McGwire; who all share one unmistakable characteristic; super-muscularity. Their size makes them an easy target for suspicion, and with such a narrow focus, it’s inevitable that the muck-raking would eventually make a dent and produce something, anything to use as proof that they are using PED’s. This is called missing the forest for the trees.

A more reasoned look at baseball during the “steroids era” would conclude that there would have to be more to the upswing in home runs totals, simply because of the number of different players who have hit so many home runs, (unless you believe Tom Verducci, that 50% of the players were using). And an even more revealing analysis can be found by looking at league season by league season home run totals, which clearly show that starting in the mid-nineties, all players have been hitting more home runs, as I demonstrated in this column almost a year ago.

…. Put into context, you see that Bonds has been among the league leaders in offense for virtually his entire career. As for his home run surge; starting in 1988, when he was 22 years old, he’s finished in the Top 9 in home runs every year but two, ’89 and ’99. Starting in 1996, home runs, batting average, slugging, runs scored; virtually all of (the) offensive categories are at historic highs. Barry Bonds’ supposed late-career power surge coincides exactly with the league.

As he entered into his thirties, the entire league was entering into a huge upswing in offense. He’s led the NL in home runs twice, once with 46 (1993), once with 73 (2001). Almost exactly at the mid-point of his career, the league baseline for offense surged some 30%. You can look it up.

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa also benefited from this offensive surge, something Stark barely mentions in passing, “…. While steroids were obviously a factor in the offensive explosion of the last dozen seasons, they were only one of many factors. And while baseball can go to war on steroids, those other factors (bats, balls, bopper-friendly ballparks, crummy second-tier pitching) won’t change.”

But writing that baseball has seen an upswing in offense across the board won’t pour gasoline onto the fire of the steroids scandal. It defuses the situation, and it asks us to make sense of the complex, something that it appears few in the mainstream media are interested in. Bill Madden illustrates my point:

Ultimately, it comes back to the Baseball Writers Association to salvage and protect the game’s integrity from this steroids mess in which the cheaters have been winning all too much these past few years. Going all the way back to the 1860s, when Henry Chadwick, creator of the box score, was an outspoken watchdog on the proliferation of gambling in organized baseball, it has been the baseball writers who have come to serve as the conscience of the game. In 1919, it was Hugh Fullerton, the baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, who is credited with blowing the whistle on the World Series fix after getting a tip that members of the White Sox were on the take from gamblers.

What’s interesting about this little bit of selective history is that Madden conveniently forgets the context in which the gambling crisis occured. Everyone remembers that the White Sox players were banned, and the creation of the commissioner’s office.

No one seems to remember how the players were being used and abused in a system that allowed owners like Charlie Comiskey to renege on contract bonuses and renew contracts without having to negotiate, how the players were held in perpetual bondage by the reserve clause, how millions of dollars were being made in baseball by everyone except the players. No one remembers how the baseball writers went along with ownership for decades in preventing the players from forming a union to protect their rights, and to allow them to have access to the huge sums of money that the game was generating. How players were used up and discarded the minute they failed or were hurt, something that continued all the way into the 1970′s and the establishment of the Players Association.

No one was out there writing about the way the players were being exploited. No one was writing about how dishonest the owners were, to the point where the players tried to form their own league in an effort to get a fair share of the pie. No, according to the writers like Madden, it was the lying, cheating players who were ruining the game, and now they’re doing it again, and writers like Madden won’t stand for it. Get real, Bill.

Baseball, like any professional sport, is a cut-throat endeavor, in which any and all means to success are utilized, by everyone involved. Jim Bouton got more heat from organized baseball than he did from the players when he published Ball Four. He was a pariah with the Yankees until just a couple of years ago, because he told the truth about the owners:

…. You know, players are always told that they’re not to discuss salaries with each other. They want to keep us dumb. Because if Joe Pepitone knows what Tom Tresh is making and Tresh knows what Phil Linz is making, then we can all bargain better, based on what we all know. If one of us makes a breakthrough, then we can all take advantage of it. But they want to keep us ignorant, and it works. Most ballplayers in the big leagues do not know what their teammates are making.

Anyone remember reading about that kind of stuff in the sports pages? This was in the sixties, forty years after the Black Sox, and the climate in the league had hardly changed at all.

Why single out the players? Why not tell us the whole story? Why not present the context along with the content? It’s harder, sure, but it’s more honest, more interesting, and more informative. Of course, presenting the whole picture would allow people to make up their own minds; something that cannot be done when the drumbeat of a scandal is hammering away with such single-mindedness.

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All commentary is the opinion of John J Perricone unless otherwise noted.
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