“Return with us now to those thrilling days of
yesteryear.” —The Lone Ranger
It was a steamy summer afternoon in St. Louis, June of 2000, and we were on our first round of seeing a game in every major league ballpark. The Giants were in town to play the Cardinals. And 40,000 people showed up to see batting practice.
Because Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds were belting them into the stratosphere. Mac parked one in the fourth deck in left field. Not to be outdone, Barry smashed a few lights on the scoreboard. Literally.
We had seen Bonds from the beginning—living in Pittsburgh, we were witness to his rookie season, when it wasn’t so certain he was going to make it as a major leaguer.
We had watched his rise to stardom, his excellence in batting and base running.
We had cheered when, in a key 1991 contest, he faced Cardinal fireball reliever Lee Smith in the 11th inning—and walloped a walk-off.
We had celebrated as he collected his richly deserved MVPs in 1990 and ’92. (We still think he should’ve won in ’91 as well.)
But nothing compared to this. Here he was, in a Giants jersey, powering balls that used to travel 350 feet now 450 feet, and more.
And there was McGwire, bashing some of the longest balls we had ever seen.
And 40,000 fans cheered every stroke.
And nobody complained.
Not the players. Not the managers. Not the owners. Not the commissioner’s office. And pretty much none of the media. No one.
Instead, they all enjoyed the moment.
Instead, they were all along for the ride.
Irony is Defined as the Difference Between Appearance and Reality
“Who’s that yonder dressed in black? Must be thehypocrites turning back.” —“Go Tell It on the
Recent Hall of Fame voting set our teeth on edge—and our fingers on our keyboards writing this
A few items, maestro, please:
Rafael Palmeiro, one of four players to combine at least 3,000 hits and 500 home runs in his career, dropped off the ballot when he failed to garner the required 5%, falling to 4.4%. Palmeiro, who flunked a drug test in 2005 just months after waggling his finger at Congress, saying that he had never used steroids, never gained more than 11% of support.
Barry Bonds, the all-time home run and MVP champ, was chosen on a bit more than a third of the
Roger Clemens, with his seven Cy Young awards, back-to-back pitching Triple Crowns, and 354 wins, did the same.
Sammy Sosa, one of only eight men with 600 career home runs, barely cracked 10%.
Mark McGwire, who ranks two spots behind Sosa with 583 home runs, finally admitted to using PEDs after years of suspicion. He has never reached the 25% mark in voting, and his support slipped to 11% this year.
For his part, Jesse, who has visited Cooperstown three separate times, has sworn off the Baseball Hall of
Fame until the voting is actually based on players' statistics—and nothing more.
“One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small.” —Grace Slick, “White Rabbit”
Briefly stated, PEDs are, according to Wikipedia, made up of a few different classes of drugs—lean mass builders (steroids, HGH), stimulants (amphetamines, greenies), painkillers, diuretics, blood boosters (EPO), and more.
Many think that PEDs started in the mid-to-late 1990s with the homerun craze, but it actually started with Pud Galvin using synthetic testosterone in 1889, continued through the 1930s and 1940s, Mickey Mantle, Tom House (the guy who, in the 1970s, took stuff they “wouldn’t give to horses”), Mike Schmidt and Goose Gossage with amphetamines, Tim Raines and Dale Berra with cocaine in the 1980s, and then big-time steroids in the 1990s. And that’s not counting the allegations of Willie Mays, Willie Stargell, and others.
Re-read the previous paragraph. How many Hall of Famers do you see? That’s right, six. Now the Hall of Fame has decided that such usage in the last 30 years is worthy of punishment, but nothing beforehand.
A Brief History of Drug-Taking
“I’ve seen the needle and the damage done.” —Neil Young, “The Needle and the Damage Done”
It didn’t start with PEDs, of course. Using drugs to augment performance has a long and twisted history.
It begins with the fact that it takes a great deal of skill and effort to make the majors. And that once there, players will do virtually anything to stay, and to succeed.
To that end, there is nothing more true than the idea told to virtually every athlete: you don't play injured, but you do play hurt. Trouble is, since Og threw the first stone, and Odysseus tossed his discus, that line has gotten more wobbly every day.
A century ago, things may have been different. But even then being hurt had its consequences. In perhaps baseball’s most famous case, one afternoon in 1925, Yankee first baseman Wally Pipp complained of a headache and benched himself. Lou Gehrig went in—and came out of the lineup 15 years later.
Now, the pressure to play—what with deep minor league systems, international prospects, neverending media attention—is greater than ever. And with medicine cabinets full of new potions, and heretofore undreamt-of surgeries, players can get patched up and back in action in no time.
Careers have been salvaged, franchises have been saved.
Self-help, of course, has a long, time-honored history, either encouraged and abetted by the clubs, or at the very least studiously ignored.
You name it, they’ve taken it. Everything to get that little, or not-so-little, edge. Enormous amounts of liquor (as a pain killer) to horse liniment, greenies to B-12 shots. Did we forget to mention cocaine? The wonder drug that keeps up confidence and energy until—until, of course, it doesn’t.
Remember the drug trials of the 1980s? As Pittsburghers, we most certainly do. That was a time no
one in management noticed anything, either. And people wonder why Tim Raines isn’t in the Hall of Fame.
So, chart it in graph paper like this. A little edge gets you to the show, maybe a little amphetamine boost to help over the long season. A little more juice gets you in the line-up every day. And a little more gets that ball over the fence, where the big money is.
Lest we forget, chicks dig the long ball.
So does ESPN.
So does every highlight film known to man.
And where she stops, nobody knows.
Clearly, Managers Need to be Outfitted with White Canes and Seeing-Eye Dogs
“I’m shocked—shocked—to discover gambling.” — Claude Rains, Casablanca
We find it absolutely stunning that with players morphing into Incredible Hulks before their eyes, balls flying out of stadia at previously unimaginable rates, and stamina soaring into the stratosphere, no one on any major league team decided to notice a blessed thing. Including, or especially, the managers, the men most responsible for player production and well being, team standing, and franchise stability.
Reminds us of the ’80s, when the Pirates clubhouse was awash in a sea of cocaine, and somehow
the manager, smilin’ Chuck Tanner hisself, Good Ol’ Number Seven, averred that he had no idea of what was going on, that he never saw a damn thing, despite dealers and other shady characters wandering in and out of the environs, and players with roadmap eyeballs.
Taken a different way, somehow it’s good for managers to win with players who are juiced up, but bad for the players themselves.
Managers are rewarded, but players are punished.
We would like someone to explain this lunacy.
We could continue, but why bother when a) we're literally struck dumb by the gross injustice; and, b) we’ve been outclassed by eleven-time National Sportswriter of the Year Rick Reilly, who points out “you could build a wing with the admitted and suspected drug cheats the [recently elected Hall of Fame managers Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, and Bobby Cox] won with: ARod, Roger Clemens (Torre); Jason Giambi (Torre and LaRussa), McGwire, Jose Canseco (LaRussa); Melky Cabrera (Torre and Cox); David Justice (Torre and Cox); Andy Pettitte (Torre); Manny Ramirez (Torre); and Sheffield (Torre and Cox.)”
“If we get really lucky, maybe disgraced HGH pitcher Darren Holmes will show up. He played under all three of them!”
“It’s just another year in the Hall of Farce, where the codes of conduct shift like beach sand; where the rules for one set of men are ignored for another; where PED poppers can never enter, but the men who turned their backs to the cheating get gleaming, bronze plaques.”
“Hail The Great Enablers!”
You Still Have to Hit 'Em
“Since you cost a lot to win and even more to lose.” — Robert Hunter, “Deal”
Hitting a pitched baseball requires remarkable eye-hand coordination. Impeccable timing. Tensile
strength. Popeye-esque forearms. And a whole lot of baseball smarts. PEDs don't help any of those. They may power the ball a bit farther—OK, in some cases a lot farther—but PEDs simply can't bulk up a banjo hitter into a belter. Not in this lifetime, anyway.
So what’s the fight about? A few more home runs? Which everyone enjoyed? Fewer injuries? Which
everyone benefited from?
One still must be an incredible athlete to hit ’em out of any park.
Here’s a case in point. Bloated, bulked up, publicly disgraced, Barry Bonds came back to Pittsburgh,
playing what would be his last game at PNC Park. True to form, he mashed one over the right field stands, a soaring, breath-taking shot.
We stood and cheered.
And would so again.
Because you still have to hit ’em. And consider, before Bonds was ever suspected of using PEDs, he won three MVPs, led the league in OPS five times, hit 292 home runs, and stole 340 bases.
PEDs Unfairly Destroy the Purity of Any Baseball Records
“Make a mistake you’re going to pay for it twice.” —Ron McKernan, “Chinatown Shuffle”
This may be the most specious argument of all. Aside from modern medicine changing the very face of the players—even a cursory glance at photographs indicates that today’s players are bigger, faster, stronger; better trained, better fed, better cared for—consider the factors that have altered the game. Better-kept fields. Artificial turf. Relief specialists. Dozens of pitchers throwing 100 miles per hour. Night ball. Changes in the ball itself. Changes in bats. Changes in batting and game tactics. Changes in rules. Changes in gloves. Changes on the mound. And so on.
Certainly, there’s a family relationship between a hit in 1924, say, and 2014. But Rogers Hornsby hit .424 that year. To suggest that Miguel Cabrera’s 2013 titlewinning mark of .348 is precisely the same as the Rajah is pure foolishness.
So what do one year's records really have to do with another's?
Put another way, by 1950 virtually everyone was popping greenies like Skittles anyway.
Winken, Blinken, & Nod
“I saw nothing.” —John Banner, Hogan’s Heroes
If none of the above makes any sense, we would repeat the obvious:
We find it simply remarkable, to the point of brazen lying, that among all the close observers of
athletes—press, trainers, coaches, managers, owners— virtually no one had the slightest idea that whippet-thin, or moderately sized, players suddenly bloomed into Michelin-tire models, and that balls that normally went 300 feet were now flying out of ballparks at record rates.
Jose Canseco. Jason Giambi. Barry Bonds. Mark McGwire. Rafael Palmeiro. Roger Clemens. Andy
Pettitte. Eric Gagne. Alex Rodriguez. And so on.
Nobody saw anything, other than great stats and money in their pockets.
Nobody asked the obvious questions.
Nobody's taking the blame, especially not those who made a fortune selling seats, souvenirs, suds 'n' sody pop.
Now, however, it’s the players’ fault.
It’s the players’ fault that the very culture of competitive sport is winning at any cost, is staying in the
majors, is making as much money as one can while one can, is doing anything to have an edge, to stay on top.
For players, teams, and franchises.
Mac was making money, sure, hitting all those home runs. But so were the Cardinals. And ESPN. And Sports Illustrated. And so on.
Certainly, PEDs were a shortcut, but so what? Everybody knew. They had to know. And everybody did well.
Now the sanctimonious actors in the Morality Play demand that just as we created heroes now we must create villains to pay for success and achievement.
Now it's all Mac's fault.
Now he and Barry and Roger et al can roast before Congress, while everyone else shakes their heads
and clucks their tongues.
And counts their money.
And burnishes their own Hall of Fame plaques.
They're Immoral. They Lied to Congress.
“We’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales.” —Bruce Hornsby, “The End of the Innocence”
Baseball players lying? Cheating?
From Burleigh Grimes to Gaylord Perry, all sorts of players have openly admitted to cheating.
OK, boys will be boys, even into their 40s.
But, we hear the spluttering, some lied to lawyers, grand juries, and, gasp!, Congress.
Reprehensible, sure. Actionable, you bet.
But such actions have nothing to do with baseball credentials.
What’s more, puh-lenty of people have lied to Congress. Presidents have lied to Congress. Hell, even
Congress has lied to Congress. Certainly not behavior we condone, but what does that have to do with on-field achievement?
Well, aren’t they supposed to be role models for the young ‘uns? Ridiculous. As Charles Barkley
famously stated, “I am not a role model.” On-field performance is not about being a role model. Parents are supposed to be role models. Clergy and teachers and good hard-working folk are supposed to be role models. Athletes are supposed—hell, they’re paid—to compete. And win.
The perpetually drunk Mickey Mantle. The angry, vicious racists Ty Cobb and Cap Anson. These
are guys you’d never have over for dinner, or let near your children.
Head hunters, spikers, spitballers, and cheats of all stripes.
Somehow, Cooperstown found room for them.
Professional sports are not about taking the moral high ground.
Professional sports are not about testifying before grand juries or before sanctimonious members of
Congress, who, we would add, have also been known to do some mighty scurrilous things to win.
As Joan Rivers so memorably says, “Grow up!” Baseball players are not role models any more than they are perfect human beings. These athletes are not moral avatars, nor should they be considered as such. They are paid performers, nothing more. To assume they have some sort of special sanctity because they have great eyehand coordination is absurd. To a man, they don’t want to be paragons. They’re not. To nominate, or castigate, Sammy Sosa, say, as the embodiment of some sort of moral ideal is simply childish, self-defeating, and destructive.
Put another way, we’ve made up these people—our Barry Bonds, as opposed to the real one—then we blame them when we discover that our creations aren't real.
As anyone who knows the incredibly sad story of Mickey Mantle should understand.
Or that the tales of that lonely, difficult creature whom we lionized as the Yankee Clipper.
Practice Makes Perfect
“It’s got no signs or dividing lines and very few rules to guide.” —Robert Hunter, “New Speedway Boogie”
Not to make excuses for grown men who lie to the United State Congress, or break the contractual rules of their chosen profession, but they’ve been given a pass, treated as special creations from Day One.
From special tutors, to winks and nods, to women paid off to go away, boys will be boys, especially
if they're making money for us.
So we enable them. We let them get away with virtually anything. We permit, or outright encourage, all sorts of boorish, even dangerous, self-destructive, behavior.
One need look no further than Messers Martin and Mantle and their legendary ’50s antics.
When Joe D was a San Francisco high-school dropout, other North Beach kids would carry his shoes
just to be near him.
So it is any wonder that ballplayers have about them a sense of entitlement? A sense that the rules belong to someone else, but assuredly not to them?
A Last Look Back
“Come down off the cross, we can use the wood.” —Tom Waits, “Come On Up to the House”
Hum baby! All those moms ‘n’ dads, grammers ‘n’ grampers, public officials and pundits waxing holier than thou, blaming everything in sight for shattered records and shattered illusions and the putrefaction of our beloved Grand Old Game.
What self-righteous cant.
Everyone rode the gravy train. The fans loved the splash, the spectacle. The press wrote immensely
popular stories. Players made money. Managers made money, won games, and made the Hall of Fame. Did we forget to say that franchises made money, appreciated hugely, while everyone involved
made a small fortune?
Maybe even large fortunes.
Now the tide has turned.
Now it’s time to turn on the athletes, blame them for everything, ban them for eternity.
“What’s done is done.” Al Lettieri, The Godfather
Absolute testing is the only way to go. But even then, PEDs will always be one step ahead, non-testable solutions will be available, and human beings will find a way to stay on the field.
For now, records are records, achievements are achievements. It’s virtually impossible to separate out the very juiced records from the moderately juiced records from the merely astounding personal accomplishments.
Ford Frick placing an asterisk next to Roger Maris’ 61 home runs because he had more games than
Babe Ruth? Didn't play then, doesn't play now.
From spitballs to long seasons, 100 MPH relievers to previously unimaginable surgeries, the game has changed in dozens of ways.
No one in their right mind is going to suggest that Mariano Rivera, say, is going to be denied a berth
because 80 years ago his job didn't exist. Or that he had Tommy John surgery. Or threw a thousand fewer innings than Hoyt Wilhem.
Put another way, it's time to give Mac and Barry and Roger, and the others, their Hall of Fame plaques. They've more than earned them.