John Holway / History
Baseballs five-strikes-you're-out policy on steroid cheaters is home run hypocrisy. Steroids make pennant races a sham who knows who the real champs would be if everyone were clean?
When Ken Caminiti blew the lid off the steroid scandal two years ago, he confessed he had used illegal drugs in 1996. They helped him win the MVP. They also helped his team, the San Diego Padres, move up from fourth place to win the National League West by one game over Los Angeles.
John B Holway is author of ten books. His latest, TED, will be published in spring 2004.
But does anybody except Thomas Boswell and me care enough to want to crack down?
About 100 players flunked steroid tests this season. If the tests had included THG, the new designer drug, the total would surely have been higher.
If even one of the cheaters had been playing for the U.S. Olympic team, he and the whole U.S. team would have been stripped of their medals and banned for a year or more.
Baseball will test again next year, and anyone caught will have a stern finger wagged in his face and will write on the blackboard 500 times, I will not take steroids.
If hes caught again, he will have to sit in the penalty box, from a few games up to a year for the fifth offense.
However, I don't think anybody really wants any tougher discipline.
The players union doesn't want to take any money away from its members.
Will George Steinbrenner hold still if one of his expensive sluggers is put in the penalty box while the Yankees lead in the American League East slips away and tv revenue falls off?
The fans dont want to see stars snatched off their teams. They love home runs. I think they'd be happy if we pull the fences in 25 more feet, juice up the ball, cut 12 inches off the pitching mound, squeeze the strike zone, and give every hitter a cork-filled aluminum bat.
The rapidity with which they forgave Sammy Sosa for corking his bat in 2003 proves that.
Of course says matters. Babe Ruth, 212 pounds, was the top home run hitter of his day because he was the biggest. Lou Gehrig was second, because, at 200 pounds, he was the second biggest.
The reason Mark McGwire beat Sammy Sosa to the magic 62 level in 1998 was because Big Mac could lift Sammy in the air in a bear hug, but Sammy couldn't lift him.
Imagine Ruth, Ted Williams (175-215 pounds), and Mickey Mantle (175) on steroids! If they posed in a group picture with today's batting stars, who weigh up to 270 pounds, people would snicker, "Who are those three skinny runts?"
McGwire weighed an estimated 250. His longest homer was 540 feet, or about two feet three inches per pound.
Mantle's longest, his roof-shot at Yankee Stadium, was estimated at 600 feet, unimpeded (source: U.S. Missile Proving Grounds, Aberdeen MD). That's three feet five inches per pound. How far could a 250-pound Mantle hit one? About 830 feet.
In Williams' day, the 1940s and 50s, the average game produced one home run -- by both teams combined. Today the average is two per game, and some games go up to five or six. Ted's average of 35 homers per year would be 70 in today's homer-happy game. What would Babe Ruth's be?
One hundred and twenty?
In the last decade some of the biggest home run stars have developed bull necks and put up explosive numbers late in their baseball lives, at an age many others were on the downward curve to retirement.
Here is how four top home run hitters compare (I use the figure Home Runs Per 550 At Bats in order to eliminate the effect of bases on balls):
Ruth Williams McGwire Bonds
Weight 185-215 175-212 215-250 190-240
Born 2/6/95 8/30/18 10/1/63 7/24/65
20 24 30 - -
21 12 23 - 21
22 9 45 - 25
23 19 38 46 25
24 37 - 32 18
25 65 - 37 35
26 60 - 41 27
27 47 41 25 40
28 43 33 49 47
29 48 27 59 52
30 38 43 37 36
31 52 32 68 45
32 61 31 68 52
33 55 - 59 37
34 51 79 76 53
35 52 41 69 56
36 47 48 74 84
37 49 33 53 66
38 41 50 - 63
39 48 20 - -
40 - 51 - -
Lifetime 47 37 41 54
Age 21-30 45 35 38 33
Age 31-40 51 40 66 68
Weights are estimated for the beginning and end of each man's career. A comparison of photos of each one, spaced 15 years apart, would make the point dramatically.
I saw Bonds hit #70 in 2001. The last time I had seen him was 1994, when he looked like a lithe, trim running back and hit 46 homers per 550. Following his move to San Francisco in 1996, by 2001 he looked like a lumbering linebacker and averaged 84 per 550. I've seen sumo wrestlers smaller than that. Was it just middle-age spread?
I do not exclude pitchers as potential steroid cheaters; it takes pounds and muscles to propel a ball almost 100 mph.
In 1952 Bobby Shantz stood 5'6", weighed 139, and won 24 games. Today he wouldn't get a second look from his high school coach, let alone a major league scout.
They're looking for pitchers a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier, like Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens, who can fire 96-mph bullets. Floridas Josh Beckett is 65 and already weighs 218; how long before he tips 228, then 238?
For years, says sports writer Time Joyce, the word drugs meant pot or cocaine, which inhibit athlete ability. All the time the authorities could have been dealing with the real culprits, steroids.
The punishment police is ridiculous. Its simple to me: A six-month grace period, then, bam. Anyone caught with steroids in his system is banned for three months. Test positive again, and hes out for a year. This was the policy for narcotics. Shouldn't the policy for steroids be harsher?
The bash-em-out/punch-em-out craze has changed not only the size of players. It has also changed how the game is played. Now every shortstop is swinging from the end of the bat. Strikeouts per game have doubled.
Bob Feller, the great pitching star of the 1930s and '40s, weighed 180 and fanned 343 batters one year. In todays homer-happy world, that would be over 600 -- without steroids. I don't know how many he'd strike out after a visit to the corner drug store.
What the fans -- and managers dont realize is: Strikeouts kill rallies. Five strikeouts cancel the value of one home run, according to John Thorn and Pete Palmer in The Hidden Game of Baseball.
Thus Alfonso Soriano's 130 K's for the Yankees this past year canceled 26 of his 35 homers. Derek Jeter's 88 whiffs cancelled 17 homers -- except that he didn't hit 17, he hit only ten; he owed the Yankees seven more homers just to make up for his strikeouts.
These are the Yankees' table-setters, whose job is to get on base for the big boys to bat in. If those two hadn't given away so many outs and potential base-runners, the Yankees might be world champs.
Reggie Jackson hit 573 homers in his career. Hes also the all-time king of Ks, striking out 2,600 times. We read about his game-winning homers, but not about his strikeouts that left potential runners on base. One-fifth of 2600 is 520. Subtract that from his home runs, and Reggie's net lifetime value to his teams was 43 homers. Almost any cross-eyed shortstop can hit that many.
Jackson shrugged that strikeouts are necessary prices to pay for homers.
In 1941, when Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 games, he struck out 13 times while hitting 30 home runs. Ted Williams batted .406 and purchased a league-leading 37 homers with only 43 strikeouts.
In 1961 Roger Maris hit 61 homers with only 67 strikeouts. He made a lot of outs, but they werent strikeouts.
Sammy Sosa is second to Jackson in lifetime strikeouts. This year he paid 143 strikeouts for 40 homers (a net of 11 home runs). This means he gives opponents one free out per game. The Cubs are playing with 26 outs instead of 27.
Despite his homers, Sammy was not an important factor in either of the Cubs' last two trips to the post-season. (Maybe that's the Billy Goat Curse.)
To his credit, Bonds doesnt strike out much. In 2001 he hit 73 homers with only 93 strikeouts, which shows that he doesn't have to swing wild but he does have to be big. The reason Mark McGwire beat Sosa is that Mark could lift Sammy off the ground in a bear hug, but Sammy couldn't lift him.
McGwire was another member of the whiff-a-game club. That's a big bite that Big Mac took out of his team's attack.
I saw Mac hit three homers in one game on his way to 70 in 1998.
But my most vivid memory was another game that year, when Curt Schilling struck him out three times, once with the bases loaded. I remember him standing awkwardly at home, slowly tugging off his batting gloves and waiting for a teammate to bring his fielding glove so he could break the embarrassment.
These moments dont get shown on the nightly television highlights; only the home runs do.
Its not a coincidence that the Cardinals couldn't reach the playoffs until after McGwire retired.
Another big losing play is the warning-track out, which is also a home run gamble that failed.
While the Yanks were playing triple-deck ball this October, the Marlins were playing Cobbean baseball, lining singles and doubles into the gaps. There may be a lesson there.
What baseball has not understood since Abner Doubleday is that the object of the game is to not make outs. If no one made outs, the first baseball game ever played would still be going on.
If I were Yankee skipper Joe Torre, I'd post on the clubhouse bulletin board a running total of each player's strikeouts and long flies. He could entitle the list "Rally Killers."
Williams insisted that "I ain't gonna be the last .400 hitter." But he added that it won't be done again until players learn to choke up with two strikes; he always did.
When Jeter wasn't striking out, he was a .396 batter. He has the potential to be the next .400 hitter if he can only touch the ball with his bat. How many extra wins would it mean for the Yankees? How much would Steinbrenner pay for them? He paid $1.8 million for each win in 03. Derek could afford to do a lot of dancing in the ritzy New York nightclubs.
Sosa batted 100 points higher (.385 vs .276) when he actually put wood to horsehide.
Soriano and Boston's Nomar Garciparra both suffered post-season slumps. Neither one even considered choking up half an inch and just meeting the ball for a single through the box. Garciaparra claims to be Williams' disciple. Was he listening when the Master was talking?
(Maybe that was the real Curse of the Bambino.)
I can foresee a future of 300-pound designated hitters and seven-foot pitchers. I also foresee fans jostling each other at the box office, eagerly waving their wallets, to watch them.
Yet I fear that Boswell and I may be the only two who have seen that future and dont like it. Why should baseball listen to us?
The best argument the one that Steinbrenner and other owners can relate to is that baseball attendance is very sensitive to winning. The best way to put fannies in the seats, in Georges phrase, is to field a winning team. One can track a teams rise and fall at the box office by its rise and fall in the standings, not by the number of home runs it hits.
When owners understand this, and pay accordingly, the mania for home runs may subside and with it the frantic hunt for homers in a bottle.
Until then, the best we can expect are a few tsk tsks and some hypocritical slaps on the wrist for cheaters.
Perhaps the best punishment would be to make every man play his entire career in his rookie uniform. When he can't button it any more, he either quits, or he plays in his underwear.