Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Steroid era- stop denying it existed

Today the Baseball Writers Association of America refused to pick any players to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Most notably, not one player widely suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs finished in the top 6 for votes, and all-time home run leader Barry Bonds and 300-game winner Roger Clemens didn't even appear on 40% of the ballots, let alone the 75% needed for induction.

It is obvious that the baseball writers do not want the Hall of Fame to be associated with the steroid era of the late '80s through the early 2000s. And it led me to think back to my recent reading of Chris Hayes' The Twilight of the Elites - America after Meritocracy, where Hayes discusses baseball's steroid era, and how it was symptomatic of where the game and this country was back then, and the mess that it's in today as a result. After discussing how trainers like Brian McNamee and Kirk Radomski pumped up their clients to the point that they earned hundreds of millions of dollars in free agent contracts, Hayes switches, and talks about how steroids affected the average player.
...Kelly Wunsch was a middle reliever for the Chicago White Sox and, somewhat unusually for a realtively new player like himself, the team's union representative. Wunsch was a member of what might be called baseball's forgotten middle class. While stars get the most attention, the majority of a major league roster is made up of players who will never make an all-star game. And though they're clearly well compensated, they tend to live their lives in a constant state of fear that their skills will diminish or they won't make the cut...

Wunsch recalls that during his early years in the league, his steroid suspicions were largely focused on pitchers of comparable skill. "The people...that organizations are holding up as comparable to me in contract talks: Joe Blow makes this much money and you're 6 mph less than him, same number of appearances, and smaller number of strikeouts. And when you begin to get a strong suspicion about those guys, it begins to dig at you."

So in the spring of 2003, as the first round of diagnostic testing was about to begin, Wunsch started discussing the drug testing policy with fellow players, and they happened upon a novel strategy. According to the rules set forth by the union and management, if a player refused to actually take the test, it would count as testing positive. Wunsch and a few teammates who weren't on performance-enhancing drugs realized that if enough of them refused the test, they'd push up the nuber of positive results and greatly increase the likelihodd that the 5 percent threshold would be met and automatically kick in a testing regime.
Not surprisingly, the players' union opposed this idea, figuring that the owners would use the news of positive tests against them. But let's be fair, the owners weren't fans of positive steroid tests either, as they wouldn't want the game to fall into disrepute (today's refusal to admit steroid-accused players into the Hall of Fame backs up how this era still lingers over the game). As Hayes goes on to note, owners were more than happy to allow drugs to be part of the game, as long as the money kept rolling in to see the roiders.
The report on steroids commissioned by Major Leage Baseball, produced by former senator George Mitchell, concluded..."There is validity to the assertion by the Players Association that, prior to 2002, the owners did not push hard for mandatory random drug testing because they were much more concerned about the serious economic issues facing baseball."

A 2003 postseason scouting assessment of Dodgers star pitcher Kevin Brown speculated about "what kind of mediciation he takes" and noted, "Steroids suspected by GM." Brown was never, apparently, confronted about this suspicion and was later traded to the Yankess, which continued to pay his annual salary of $15.7 million. One imagines there were quite a few similar memos written during that time.

The reason for the laissez-faire approach to drug use is blindingly clear: the steroids era was a lucrative time for baseball. In 2007, as the widespread steroid use was coming to the surface, MLB broke its attendance record for the fourth consecutive season. That same year, revenue for baseball's thirty teams went up by 7.7 percent, to $5.5 billion. In 2007, the average team was worth $472 million, up a whopping 143 percent since 1998...Like the peak years of the housing boom, the players and owners were all making far too much money to trouble themselves with the massive fraud that was driving the profits.
And as much as many writers try to ignore that reality, I still am reminded of this Sports Illustrated cover from the end of 1998, which still sits at my house as a wicked reminder of the era.

And outside of the emergence of Babe Ruth (in another asterisk time for the game- before players of color were allowed), no hitter has ever been more unstoppable than this guy was in the steroid era.

Look, a lot of guys were on roids in the early 2000s. None of them hit 73 home runs in a year or came close to OPS's of 1.378, 1.381 and 1.421 (Ryan Braun was at .994 in his 2011 MVP season and .986 last year, for comparison). No one was a better player of his time period, and to deny him the Hall of Fame because he was among a group of players that used PED's is TO DENY THE STEROID ERA EVER HAPPENED. I'm sorry writers, but it did happen, and it is a part of the legacy of the game whether we like it or not. I think what Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza and numerous others did in that time period was scummy and screwed over some players, but it was also legal under the rules of the time, and they were ingesting nothing different than a large percentage of their contemporaries did.

That doesn't change the fact that I can't stand Barry Bonds and I still recognize Hank Aaron as the all-time home run king, because steroids changed the game and blew stats out beyond recognition, and has put a large amount of players of that time under serious suspicion and disdain. But ignoring the steroid era as a part of the game is absurd, and a denial of existence. It's much like ignoring that banks defrauded homeowners and bank regulators and played a major role in bringing the economy to its knees, and we need to acknowledge it happened. There was another reminder of the frauds of the past this week when Bank of America agreed to pay an $11.6 billion settlement as part of the shady practices of Countrywide Finanical. And no matter how much the Rick Santellis of the world try to say otherwise, individuals were lied to and bank ponzi schemes and idiotc trades were a major part of the mortgage scam that led to millions of job losses and trillions in lost stock and home value.

Much like with a lot of things in this country, be it the steroid era, or the mortgage meltdown, or mass killings with guns, the bigger question isn't "What do we think about this bad thing?" The real questions are "WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM IT?" and "What kind of people would pull shenaningans like this, and why?" Americans kinda suck at that part, be it baseball writers or policymakers, and we need to do a whole lot better in finding a way forward. If we don't, we'll find ourselves falling back into the hole created by the past, and never be able to get out of the hole and become truly healthy.


  1. So I'm not sure what you meant to type up in the second paragraph, but I'm pretty sure you didn't mean to type Noel Radomski, who is an Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis adjunct faculty member at UW and the director of WISCAPE.

    Also, with regard to the steroid era players, I agree that Bonds and Clemens and even Piazza should get in. Sosa and McGwire I'm not so sure about. In the final analysis they're pretty one dimensional players. Some voters do think they should be in. I think if you're going to put in Sosa and McGwire in, you should at least do the honorable thing and put Roger Maris in first.

  2. Also, I meant to write this on my first comment, but perhaps the steroid issue is one of those situations where this whole "first ballot Hall of Famer" silliness actually isn't so silly. Maybe the best thing to do is to make them wait a year or two to be inducted, but ultimately put them in.

    Oh, and put Pete Rose in too. After all, if the point is to punish Rose, then put him in and he suddenly doesn't get all the attention that he's gotten over the last 15+ years.

  3. Alex- D'oh! You ever think one thing and type the other? You're right, it's KIRK Radomski, not Noel Radomski.

    As for the rest of your comments- I think even Clemens and Piazza are borderline, because there's some evidence that their steroid use put them over the top, but they were the best of their time. Sosa and McGwire are total steroid creations, and weren't good enough long-term to be Hall of Fame worthy, IMHO.

    Lastly, I absolutely think Rose should be in the Hall, and on his plaque it should say "He was banned for life for betting on baseball." I feel the same for Shoeless Joe. I think the whole picture of baseball needs to be shown, and that includes gambling (and that it isn't allowed) and the steroid era (which basically was allowed).