The National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies take place this weekend, but you probably don’t care about the whole PED issue anymore. Nothing could be more boring than yet another discourse on why PED users should or should not be allowed into the Hall.
I too have grown bored by the topic, but the impending inductions led me to think about the issue one more time, and I suddenly realized that there’s a clear case–supported by the statistics–for letting drug users into the Hall, a case that no one, to my knowledge, has ever bothered to make:
The drugs didn’t make a damn bit of difference.
Don’t believe that assertion? We’ll get to the evidence in a moment. First let’s look at why this simple fact seems to have been so grossly overlooked.
Most of the bloviating about the Steroids Era, and the worthiness of its leading lights for induction, focuses on the question’s moral dimension. They’re cheaters; cheaters are bad. The end.
…let those who merit induction into the Hall and mention their misdeeds in the exhibit; any other course of action will prove to be ignorant, ahistorical, and ultimately foolish.
Perhaps it’s not that simple, but the anti-induction position does lend itself to caricature. It’s foolish for grown men and women to make the argument that baseball players need to be punished for not being moral paragons; we’re talking about baseball here, not running a school or UNICEF. Professional athletes are supposed to look for an edge. If putting burnt cork on their cheeks, or using a better-designed bat or putter or racquet, or hiring a personal chef and/or nutritionist, makes them better players, that’s what they should be doing. Using PEDs simply extends that philosophy–even if it’s ethically murky. And it’s not like the players weren’t abetted in their actions. Holding players accountable for what their managers, employers, and commissioner encouraged–or, at the very least, chose not to look at very closely–is hypocritical and unfair.
So much for the moral argument. Those who cling to that argument frequently couple it with a second rationalization, often steeped in outrage, that PED use warped the game and invalidated the records and results of the entire era. But that simply isn’t true–and even a cursory glance at the records proves that concept to be bogus.
If PED use had such a major impact upon baseball–in particular, its history and record book–we should see the names of known users all over the statistical leaders charts. After all, they call it the Steroid Era, not the Steroid Week-and-a-Half; there should have been plenty of time for drug users to have made a major dent in the record book as they were burning up the basepaths in their drug-addled fury.
But we don’t see that in the record book. Not at all.
First, we can quickly dismiss the pitching side of the equation. If we look at the record book, we see little accomplishment that can clearly be attributed to PED use.
For instance, the most obvious pitching stat that should have been helped by drugs would be strikeouts. Bigger, stronger, more powerful pitchers should have made great strides in striking out batters; yet, when we look at the career leaders in strikeouts, few names from the Steroid Era populate the top of the chart: Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, John Smoltz, and Mike Mussina made it into the top 20. Among those, who besides Clemens is a known (or heavily suspected) PED user? Most would consider the idea of the doughy Maddux or diminutive Martinez being PED users laughable. Clemens, like Johnson, rolled out of the cradle striking out hitters; drug use did not fundamentally alter the courses of his career. Besides Clemens, only Schilling and Mussina are not already in the Hall, and both of those had “not quite” careers. Only one guy, the Rocket, sits near the top of the list with any real suspicion clinging to him.
The leaderboards for career innings pitched, single-season ERA, single-season strikeouts, career WHIP, or whatever season or career pitching metric you like, show similar results. However you look at the record book, few pitchers from the Steroid Era rank among the all-time leaders–and the ones who are there didn’t get there because of PEDs.
How about hitting? That’s where the drugs really warped the record book, right?
Well…no. Check out the all-time leaders in hits; among Steroid Era players, only Derek Jeter and Paul Molitor–the latter is already a Hall of Famer, the former is ticketed–cracked the top twenty. You have to get all the way down to number twenty-four on the list, Alex Rodriguez, before there’s a major black mark on the ladder.
Career leaders in Doubles? There are suspicious names in the middle teens on that list, but nobody among the known blackguards is in the top 10. Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez soil the career leaders in RBI list (currently #5 and #4, respectively), but then you have to scroll down to the second group of ten to find anyone as notorious as Rafael Palmeiro. The same goes for several other career hitting categories (total bases, runs scored, OPS); those lists include a couple of the guilty (or suspects), but most of the names are from earlier–presumably cleaner–times.
Interestingly, single-season hitting records–which you’d think would have been even more susceptible to PED-enhanced performances–also showed remarkable resilience in the face of “better playing through chemistry.” The top ten in single-season RBI remains firmly in the hands of long-dead, live-ball era stars from the 1930s; only Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa came close to cracking that upper tier. Single-season Doubles? The largely unsuspected Todd Helton achieved a Coors Field-assisted 59 in 2000; a few dubious names appear further down the list, but not particularly close to breaking the record. Triples? Not even close.
Home Runs? Ah–there’s the rub. Yes, indeed, PED users litter the top of the all-time and single-season home run lists–and that’s what gets everyone’s panties all in a bunch. The home run records have such an outsized influence on how baseball is perceived that the major impact of drugs on those stats skews how people view the entire period. Because PEDs so heavily influenced home run stats, everyone knows that the entire record book is now garbage–despite the fact that what they “know” is demonstrably not true.
Thus, interested observers have concluded that nothing they saw in the late ’90s or early 21st century can have any meaning in the greater context of baseball history. And therefore they feel justified in branding and excluding some players, depending upon what they know or suspect about them.
But all that is stupid and pointless. Except for the home run records, PEDs did NOT change the game of baseball in any significant way.
Need further proof? Consider the list of players who were named in the Mitchell Report. How many of them became stars because of their drug use? There are some genuine stars among those named, but Bonds, Clemens, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, and Andy Pettitte were all highly scouted or recruited prospects from their earliest years; drug use did not make them stars. Conversely, everyone on that list who was a scrub, a bench-warmer, a spot player, stayed that way despite taking the whole alphabet soup of drugs. PEDs did not make anyone a player who wasn’t already a player; they did not make anyone a star who wasn’t already a star; nor did they make a Hall of Famer out of anyone who was not already on his way to Cooperstown right from the start.
Again, say it with me now: PEDs did not change the game of baseball in any significant way.
Ultimately, you don’t play to set records; you play to win the games. It is worth noting that, among the worst of the villains in this tale, Bonds and Giambi never won the World Series, nor did Sosa or Palmeiro ever come close; Rodriguez only won once, as did Mark McGwire; and Ramirez and Clemens both got two rings. Only Pettitte, among known users, walked away with lots of jewelry–and he had plenty of help. For all their infamy, the PED users did not achieve championships at a greater rate than other players. Again, the drugs did not change the game.
It makes no sense to keep trying to achieve, on fallacious principles, some punitive victory over certain players, most of whom would have achieved star status with or without PEDs. The sensible path is clear: let those who merit induction into the Hall and mention their misdeeds in the exhibit; any other course of action will prove to be ignorant, ahistorical, and ultimately foolish.