(This is a post that appeared yesterday as a guest post on RAB)
With the recent revelation that we now may add David Ortiz’s name to the ever-growing list of PED abusers, we come back to a nagging and somewhat uncomfortable question for Yankee fans. What do we make of all this? Steroids are every Baseball team’s version of the crazy aunt. Everybody has one, nobody likes to talk about the subject, and it’s just something we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with it.
We as Yankee fans can’t throw around the ‘T’ word (taint) at the Red Sox without having it boomerang quickly back in our direction. Our beloved late 90′s-early 2000′s teams had their fair share of accused steroid users, including Jason Grimsley, Mike Stanton, Roger Clemens, David Justice and Mo only knows who else. Other recent Yankee teams featured Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown, Jason Giambi and other accused users, the most notable being none other than Alex Rodriguez. Even Mister Steroid himself, Jose Canseco collected a ring with the Yankees after being picked up on a waiver deal late in 2000. So we as Yankee fans can’t exactly celebrate the demise of our main nemesis’ reputation(s) without realizing we are up to our knees in syringes ourselves.
As someone who grew up steeped in the history of New York baseball and the game’s sacred records, I was a fervent and outspoken critic of steroids in the game from early on and wanted to see the game cleaned up ASAP. I was recently deeply disappointed when the so-called ‘Clean HR champ’ A-Rod turned up dirty himself. I never sided with the camp that simply views Baseball as entertainment, and views PED use like some Hollywood star getting plastic surgery. Sports is and should be more than that. Hollywood produces fantasy and nobody cares whether its a level playing field or not. If sports goes the way of entertainment, then it becomes the WWE. We might as well writes scripts detailing who will win the World Series at that point.
There’s also something more pervasive and troubling about accepting PED use. For far too many athletes, steroids would become a price of admission for entrance to the big leagues. The young, talented high school star athlete would quickly realize as he rose through the minors that he’d never make a team without getting on the juice. Players with certain skill sets would be forced to choose between giving up their dreams and using drugs to become more than they could ever be naturally, with their long term health as a casualty. That makes professional sports a dirty business, and one I couldn’t encourage my son (if I had one) to play with any hopes of succeeding to the bigs. I also could not in good conscience be an ardent fan of a game where players slowly kill themselves to entertain me. That’s a little too ‘Ancient Rome’ for my tastes.
I don’t however, blame fans for cheering known steroid cheats. What these critics fail to realize is fans cheer the Home Run and the moment it creates in the context of a game. Fans rarely applaud the individual, they applaud the act itself. When fans in the 20′s and 30′s cheered Babe Ruth, they weren’t applauding his drinking, womanizing or fast living. They were cheering number 3 on the field and the moment in time when the game was won. It’s interesting to note that Babe Ruth attempted to use an early version of steroids as his body aged, only to make himself horribly sick. So it’s clear that this isn’t unique to the modern athlete, players of any era would do whatever possible to get an edge. Be it real or imagined.
But despite my long standing opposition to steroids and my desire to clean up the game, its become clear in recent years that PED use was so pervasive that it created something of a even playing field. Pitchers on steroids were facing hitters on steroids, each pumping up their stats in the process. There have also been many examples of lesser players (David Segui/Jason Grimsley) who were fringe major leaguers despite being serial steroid abusers, so its clear that being a great player requires much more than a needle in the tush.
We can’t ignore an entire era of Baseball, or keep all the accused users out of the Hall of Fame. Comparing numbers across various eras is always fraught with pitfalls, the Steroid Era just adds another wrinkle. Does anyone think we’ll see a pitcher win 511 games again? Do we really believe anyone will ever break Roger Hornby’s 1924 season when he hit .423? And that’s just the modern era, Hugh Duffy is the all time leader, having hit .440 in 1894. How do we compare those players to today? In all honesty, we can’t. Considering everything, I would favor allowing the known steroid users into the Hall of Fame, but with a caveat. If PED’s enhance performance, than simply hold these guys to a higher standard. Forget the old 500 HRs/1500 RBIs/300 Wins standards, and come up with something more. I would also take into account other factors, such as Mark McGwires spotty health history and Roger Clemens’ mid-career decline. HOF voters should look at each player on a case by case basis, and frankly if it was me I’d need to be blown away. But I can’t pretend roughly 20 years of the games history either doesn’t exist, or should be completely ignored in posterity.