So I read the main story, and I read the expansive supporting material, and I read some of the work again, and here are the six words that keep playing in my mind: “Oh no, we’re doing it again.” It probably will take a little while for me to explain what I mean.
Let’s start at the start, with one of the hottest non-Brett Favre sports things on the Internet … Eric Walker’s expansive project he titled: Steroids, Other “Drugs,” and Baseball.
No, it’s not the flashiest title in the world. But it’s striking reading. I’m going to give you a too-quick rundown of the work here for discussion purposes, but I would really recommend that, if you care at all about steroids, other drugs and baseball, you read Eric’s work for yourself. It’s persuasive, difficult, provocative and, yes, a bit angry. You (if you hold certain opinions) might find yourself feeling like the author is sticking his finger in your face and calling you a dolt. That’s the one unfortunate part of the writing, I think … but it comes from passion and I would hope you can move past it and read through and judge the interesting conclusions on their merit.
The main story — and the supporting material — is Eric Walker’s effort to try to bring some facts, some science and some cold logic to the steroid issue. It’s a worthwhile effort because one thing that is undeniable is that much of the steroid discussion you hear is overwhelmed by hysteria and moralizing and preconceived notions and pseudo science. Seems to me that nothing — nothing at all — about this steroid story is “obvious” and yet people talk about it in “obvious” ways all the time. Walker takes a baseball bat to it all.
The first thing Walker does is repeat the four logical reasons why steroid use in baseball is wrong in the first place. Apparently these four reasons have been more or less agreed upon among the various ethical philosophers who have studied the issue … and the reasons sound right to me. I would summarize the reasons like so:
1. Steroids are extremely dangerous tor your health and, in fact, can kill you.
2. Steroids help players hit more home runs and do other unnatural things.
3. Other players see steroid use and feel trapped, like they have no choice but to join in.
4. Kids see it all and want to do steroids themselves.
Maybe you can think of another reason steroids are wrong, but those four seem to cover just about everything … and the four (as Walker points out) are intertwined. To believe (3) and (4) you must believe (1) and (2). You could, in fact, argue that the only TRUE reasons we believe steroids are wrong in baseball is that they’re bad for you (and, thus, illegal) and they make players unnaturally good at baseball (and thus are cheating).
Again, you should read Walker’s conclusions for yourself. But since we’re trying to get to the main point, I’ll summarize Walker’s conclusions (as I understand them):
1. Walker contends steroids are not nearly as bad for responsible adults as people say and are significantly less dangerous than countless other things athletes do as a matter of course (he does say that steroids are extremely dangerous for adolescents).
2. Walker contends steroids do not help players hit more home runs.
3. Walker contends that other players are coerced to do MANY semi-dangerous and vaguely unnatural things to play high level sports … this is the price of playing sports at the highest level.
4. Walker contends kids absolutely do not take steroids because pro athletes do it.
Now, these conclusions are harsh and counterintuitive and against just about everything you’ve no doubt read and heard … and for the points of this essay I’m not here to say how much I agree or disagree. Walker makes his points openly, using many sources and studies and charts, and it seems to me that these opinions have simply not been given fair view in the open marketplace. For our purposes, the most interesting conclusion is No. 2 — his conclusion that steroids does not help hitters hit home runs — so we’ll spend our time on that one. But before moving on, I should probably point out that when it comes to those other three things, many people who have studied the issue closely agree. Here are Walker quotes on those subjects:
On health: “In sum, there are medical risks, but of nothing remotely like the variety or severity commonly suggested. In reality, they are unlikely, usually minor, and almost universally reversible.”
On coercion: “Each player does what he thinks is necessary to achieve and maintain the level of performance that he finds proper. There is no logical or ethical distinction between — just for example — killer workouts and PEDs. Each is what that athlete finds appropriate or necessary.”
On athlete role models: “Adolescents by and large do not have pro-athlete role models; in one extensive study, only 18% reported an athlete as a role model — and those so reporting were, as substance abuse goes, slightly cleaner than the rest.
OK, but, you want to talk home runs. Well, we all know what we all know … there were a lot of home runs hit in Major League Baseball in the years after the strike to 2006 or so. Per game, home runs spiked from .89 in 1993 to 1.03 in 1994 to a peak of 1.17 in 2000. And we all know about the rather remarkable (and even unbelievable) individual home run numbers — Brady Anderson suddenly hitting 50, Sosa and McGwire hitting all those home runs in 1998 and beyond, the Barry Bonds saga. From 1901-1993 only 11 different players hit 50-plus home runs. From 1994-2010, 14 different players did it.
But, even the angriest fans and critics must admit that many things can cause a home run spike. Many things HAVE caused giant home runs spikes. The greatest home run spike in baseball history happened from 1918 to 1921 — total homers jumped from 235 to 447 to 630 to 937. Why? There are various theories (outlawing of the spitball, a more regular rotation of baseballs, various scorekeeping changes*) but the overriding feeling is that Major League Baseball spiked the ball (so much so that it was regularly called “The Jackrabbit Ball,” and the era before is still called “Dead Ball”) . MLB denied any change in the ball, of course, but MLB always denies stuff like that … we know that the game was in pretty dire straits after the 1919 World Series and again after Ray Chapman was killed by pitch in 1920. Home runs — many of them hit by Babe Ruth — were good for baseball. Babe Ruth, it is still said, saved the game.
*Also, not well known, baseball did try to ban the intentional walk in 1920.
The point here, though, is that if a simple adjustment in the design of a baseball could cause home runs to QUADRUPLE in four years (and this was in 1920, when our knowledge of physics was probably not quite as advanced) then we have to concede that the people running the game have long had the power to change the game of baseball.* Whether they used that power is debatable … but they have HAD the power. After all, the number of players who hit 30-plus home runs from 1900 to 1919 was zero, but the number from 1920-1930 was 19.
*This seems a good time to again pull out a quote from one of my most quoted movies: “Quiz Show.” This was Martin Scorsese (as president of Geritol) saying that they didn’t need to fix the quiz shows: “Why fix them? Think about it, will ya? You could do exactly the same thing by just making the questions easier.”
And 1920 is not the only time that we’ve had rather stunning power surges. There was another massive homer jump between 1976 to 1977 … there were two expansion teams added in 1977, which was the conventional explanation for the jump. But expansion could not have made the difference between the 2,235 total home runs hit in 1976 and the 3,644 home runs hit in 1977. In 1976, four players hit 30-plus home runs, Mike Schmidt led all of baseball with 38, Graig Nettles led the American League with 32. In 1977, 19 different players hit 30-plus home runs and George Foster famously hit 52.
Why? Again, Walker suggests (convincingly) that it was the ball. MLB switched from a Rawlings ball to a Spalding ball before that season.
You no doubt remember the next mega-jump — that was 1987. There were 3,813 home runs hit in 1986 and there were 4,458 home runs hit in 1987. Nobody hit more than Jesse Barfield’s 40 home runs in 1986 and that year 13 players hit 30-plus homers. In 1987, four players hit 44-plus home runs and an amazing 28 players hit 30-plus homers. Those 28 players were a record — it SMASHED the previous record set, yep, in 1977.
Why did it happen in 1987? Still, nobody knows. But the best guess has long been that the ball was juiced.
So, you can see that baseball, willingly or unwillingly, has ALWAYS had the ability to send home run numbers skyrocketing. I’m not saying that there are baseball wizards behind curtains cackling to themselves as they inject homer juice into the baseballs (though I DO think that was probably the case in 1920). No, I’m saying that baseball gurus have always had the power to stealthily alter the game. One tiny switch … that’s all it takes.
The biggest power jump in the steroid era did not happen in the late 1990s as most of us think but actually from 1993 to 1994. There were 4030 home runs hit in 1993 … and the players were on pace to hit almost 4,700 homers in 1994 before the strike crushed the season. That was a huge spike year. You will no doubt remember the individual achievements. Matt Williams was just about on pace that year to break Roger Maris’ home run record when the strike struck, and Ken Griffey Jr. had a shot at the record, and Tony Gwynn was a real threat to hit .400 (just to show it wasn’t all power that year). Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas were both having absurd Jimmie Foxx kinds of years AND (people do forget this), Barry Bonds had 37 home runs in 112 games. He was on pace to hit 53 or so home runs. And this was the SKINNY Bonds (he might, with a stolen base rush, have had a shot at a 50-50 season). Seventeen different players (including a 25-year-old kid named Sammy Sosa) had at least a shot at 40 home runs … the most ever in a season had been eight.
So what happened from 1993 to 1994? Steroids kicking in? It doesn’t seem likely that all of a sudden all these players, all at once, started doing steroids at exactly the same time and their power numbers began to soar all at the same time. It seems much more likely that, yep, once again, something happened to the baseball.
This starts to get to the point here, which is this: We KNOW that adjustments to the baseball — adjustments so slight that baseball can deny they even exist — can create a massive shift in the game. We KNOW that slight alterations to the rules (such as expanding or shrinking the strike zone a touch or raising/lowering the mound) can create a massive shift in the statistics of the game. We KNOW that even minute changes in ballpark dimensions can create massive shifts as well*.
*Kauffman Stadium in 2002 was the easiest park in the American League to hit a home run. The fences were moved back just 10 feet. In 2004, Kauffman Stadium was the hardest park in the American League to hit a home run.
We KNOW these things are true. But we don’t KNOW what steroids do to help players hit home runs. It’s like Jim Mora said: We may THINK we know but really don’t know. For a long time, you will remember, the conventional wisdom was that weight training and steroid use could NOT help you hit home runs — could not give you the necessary hand-eye coordination, the necessary form, the necessary mental approach, the necessary preparation and so on. And then, one day, without any real shift in logic except that a few guys started hitting a lot of home runs, the conventional wisdom shifted wildly to the point where it seemed that steroid use was the MAIN FACTOR in home run hitting.
Eric Walker says it isn’t true. First of all, he says that if you remove the spikes caused by changes in the baseball — the 1977 change, the 1993-94 change — that true power has actually been declining since 1962 and has been at a constant the last 20 years or so (with the exception of the 1987 jump). The initial reaction is the call bull on it … but why? We know that changes in the baseball can cause home run flurries. We’ve known it for 90 years. But we don’t KNOW that steroids can cause home run flurries … we just assume it.
And Walker says it’s a bad assumption. He points out that steroids “very heavily favor” building your upper body while home run power mostly comes from lower body strength. He suggests that if Barry Bonds added 20 pounds of pure muscle to his whole body, probably no more than 5 or 7 of those pounds would be lower body, and by his math equation the added power would likely be no more than 2 to 4 feet of length. He points out that while the players may have looked bigger and stronger — and no doubt WERE bigger and stronger — it certainly was not the cause of the home run records.
With everything that has been said about steroids the last 10 or so years, I don’t expect you to just suddenly believe that steroids didn’t make any difference … you should read his entire piece and decide what you think. But one thing you might think is: “If steroids don’t make any difference, then why would players cheat and do them?” But there actually is precedent for ineffective cheating in baseball. For years, hitters thought they were cheating the game when they corked their bats. Even in the last couple of months, there has been a lot of talk about Pete Rose and whether or not he corked his bats. But study after study has shown that corked bats don’t make a damned bit of difference (or, if anything, cause the ball to be hit less solidly) … players may have THOUGHT they were cheating the game, and maybe the added confidence of having a corked bat helped them hit better than as some sort of baseball placebo effect. Or maybe not. Either way, hitters kept corking bats in some sort of vague attempt to cheat the game.
Anyway, it’s a whole lot to think about … but we SHOULD think about it rather than just blindly continue our hysterical “Let’s not vote for anybody in the Hall of Fame … these guys ruined baseball … the baseball world is crashing” talk. Nobody really LIKES that steroids infected the game, and nobody LIKES how it was handled, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t all wildly overreacted to what may have been a much smaller effect than people have simply assumed.
And that takes us all the way back to the beginning of this post. One thing sportswriters have done is beat ourselves up for the way we handled the 1998 home run chase. And people outside of baseball have beaten us up over it too. We celebrated Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. We celebrated the home run. We celebrated baseball. It was so much fun. A good friend of mine just told me that she cried in joy the day McGwire hit his 62nd home run. It was like that.
Only, then, the steroid news started to emerge, and a pumped up Barry Bonds (who nobody wanted to celebrate for too many reasons to go into here) started to hit the home runs, and Hank Aaron’s record fell and suddenly we felt cheated. Why did we allow ourselves to get pulled in? This was fake! We should have known! We were duped! And we could not allow ourselves to be duped, so we came back, harsher and harsher, more and more convinced that none of what we saw was real. When Mark McGwire came out to admit his steroid use and apologize for what he did (all so he could come back and be a hitting coach in the game he clearly loves) he was crushed from all sides because he was unwilling to concede that the home runs he hit were fake.
And after reading Eric Walker’s work, those six words repeated: “Oh no, we’re doing it again.” What if McGwire was right? What if we find out that Walker’s conclusions — and the conclusions of many people who have studied the steroid issue — are right? What if we find out that steroids were NOT the cause of the home runs, not even a little bit? What if we find out that the home runs were the cause of a livelier ball and a smaller strike zone and harder bats and the willingness of players to swing hard even if it means striking out and smaller ballparks and pitch counts? People will say “Well, then why have home runs gone down again? It’s obvious that it is because of steroid testing and the game is finally clean again and …” but there we go, making assumptions again.
What if we are wrong again? What if we find that all the angry articles we’ve written about how steroids will make you a great home run hitter are wrong (articles were no doubt read by children wanting to be home run hitters)? What if we find that the home run spike in the late 1990s were not because of steroids but instead largely because of a helium baseball that was put in to get people to forget about the strike? It’s a worthwhile question: Will we beat ourselves up again 10 years from now?