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Baseball Analysis  John Holway

Baseball’s Hot Potato


By John B. Holway

Mark McGwire and Ken Caminiti admit they loaded up on steroids to shatter home run records or win the MVP. Did they open the lid on what could blow up into baseball’s worst scandal since Pete Rose, or even the 1919 Chicago Black Sox?

Or will it be swept under the rug? What punishment, if any, is the game prepared to mete out to them and others?

The just-retired Jose Canseco charges that steroid use is rampant in big league locker rooms. Guesstimates are that from one-half to three-quarters of the players are popping steroids and the rest knew about them but didn’t tell.

If Caminiti and McGwire were Olympic athletes, their medals would be stripped from them, and they would be banned from competition for several years or life.

John B Holway is author of ten books on baseball history

But what can baseball do if their entire rosters are either guilty or accessories to the guilty?

Rose and the Black Sox were banished for life -- and that included the Hall of Fame. Rose was banished even though it was never even alleged that his gambling altered the outcome of a single game.

Caminiti, on the other hand, used steroids to spark himself to the 1994 MVP and his team, the San Diego Padres, to the National League West title, beating Los Angeles by a single game.

In 1993 Ken didn’t receive even one tenth-place vote for MVP, and the Padres finished next to last. In ‘94 he began using steroids and swept all 28 first-place votes, and the Padres leaped into first place.

The Padres cheated the Dodgers out of the pennant, they also cheated the fans out of an honest pennant race. And Caminiti cheated Mike Piazza, the runner-up in the MVP balloting. (How much did that cost Mike in future salary and endorsements?)

The Padres’ management must have suspected that their good fortune was more than luck. If so, did they quietly shut their eyes and close their mouths?

If Canseco is right, then we cannot trust any statistics -- home runs or other -- for the past decade. We can’t be sure if any pennant race was legitimate, or if the two World Series contenders really deserved to be there,

What’s so bad about steroids?

Movie actresses get breast implants. TV news anchors, like Katie Couric change from perky brunette to sexy blonde and go head-to-head against Diane Sawyer in the sex-appeal sweepstakes. And the Yankees, who have the most money, simply buy championships. So why shouldn’t ball players do what they have to do to win?

After all, the player, like the movie star or the news anchor, is only giving the public what it wants. One gives the fans a photogenic figure or a bottle blonde, the other gives them home runs.

Why do they take steroids?

Because size does matter.

Babe Ruth was the greatest home run hitter of his day because, at 220 pounds, he was the biggest. Lou Gehrig was the second greatest because, at 200 pounds, he was the second biggest.

What’s the difference between getting muscles from our parents and getting them from a bottle? If a man didn’t win the genetic lottery, what’s wrong with “leveling the laying field” by popping steroids?

Pills may be even better than parents.

If we put life-size wax figures of Ruth and Gehrig in the middle of a group photo of today’s biggest sluggers -- McGwire, Sosa, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Mo Vaughn, and the 275-pound Frank Thomas -- people would nudge each other and ask, “Who are the two little guys in the center?”

McGwire beat out Sammy Sosa for the home run record because he could lift Sammy off the ground in a bear hug and Sammy couldn’t lift him.

The 250-pound Mac could have picked up Roger Maris (195 pounds) by his heels and swung him around his head. McGwire’s record-breaking 62nd homer just grazed the top of the fence at its shortest point from home. If McGwire had weighed 195, it would have been an easy line-drive out.

So who did Big Mac cheat? Sosa? The Maris family, who came to watch him break their dad’s record? Or the fans?

The next question is: Did Barry Bonds use steroids to smash McGwire‘s record last year?

If one holds up a photo of Bonds as a 185-pound rookie back in 1986 and compares it with Bonds at an estimated 250 in 2001, the contrast is glaring. That’s not just middle-age spread.

Bonds insists that he doesn’t use steroids: They can’t give a man better eyesight or hand-eye coordination or a fluid swing. No, but if a 180-pound hitter with all the tools can drive a ball 400 feet, then a 250-pounder with the same tools can drive the same ball almost out of Yankee Stadium, as Barry did.

In 1941 “the Splendid Splinter,” 175-pound Ted Williams, led the league with 37 homers and was paid $17,500.

In 2001 Bonds walloped 73 homers and was paid millions. Could he have done it if he had weighed 75 pounds less?

And it is not confined to hitters.

Walter Johnson, at 200 pounds was the greatest pitcher of his era, and the biggest. Today he’d be dwarfed by Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, and David Wells.

If this trend continues, we may some day see pitchers as tall as Randy with the neck and thighs of Roger. Baseball will have to move the pitching mound back ten feet. And if hitters continue to balloon into sumo behemoths, home run kings will someday routinely weigh 300 pounds, and we’ll have to move the fences back 25 feet or more.

There was a day when a little man could compete. Phil Rizzuto (5’6”, 150 pounds) won an MVP and made it to the Hall of Fame. Albie Pearson (5’5, 140 pounds) batted .304 for the Washington Nats. Whitey Ford (170 pounds) and Bobby Shantz (139) won 20 games.

Not any more. Today the scouts wouldn’t even look at them. Ichiro (160 pounds) is the only throwback to the good old days of the little man.

Mickey Mantle (195) was the greatest power hitter, pound-for-pound, in history. He smashed a ball almost out of Yankee Stadium, a drive estimated at 600 feet, or more than three feet per pound. Big Mac’s longest blasts went only two feet per pound (250 pounds, 500 feet). Imagine Mickey on steroids!

The fact that baseball players, among all the world’s athletes, steadfastly refuse to be tested for steroids is damning presumptive evidence against them.

“Test me,” Bonds smiles innocently. OK, Barry, we’ll take you up on it. Your test is tomorrow morning.

Incidentally, Bonds’ home run totals have barely moved since the Caminiti story hit the news three weeks ago. Has he already begun changing his training regimen just in case?

Another piece of damning evidence is that both McGwire and Bonds saw such huge explosions in their power numbers come late in their careers at an age when Ruth and most other heavy hitters were declining.

I use the statistic, home runs per 550 at bats, which is more revealing than mere raw home run totals. Ruth, like most typical home run hitters -- Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Jimmie Foxx etc -- soared to peaks at the ages of 24-26 -- Maris was 26 when he hit 61. Ruth himself actually hit more homers per 550 at bats (65) when he was 25 in 1920 than he did when he hit 60 at the advanced baseball age of 32. After his big year in 1927, Ruth began a slow but evident decline.

McGwire, meanwhile, who had averaged 36 a year through age 30, suddenly zoomed to 68 per 550 at age 31. For six years his relative home runs were 68, 68, 59, 76 (in 1998), 69, and 75 at the age of 36. At that age Ruth had declined to 47.

Bonds took up where McGwire left off. From 1987-98, he averaged 33 homers a year, and at age 33 began the normal and inevitable decline -- from 45/550 to 41 to 37. Then at the age of 36 Barry suddenly skyrocketed from 37 to 53, to 56, and finally in 2001 to 83 (that’s 73 in only 483 at bats or 83 in 550). Babe, meanwhile, had dropped to 41 at the same age.

Here’s how the three sluggers compared, by age. Home runs are calculated at the rate of 550 at bats for all three:








Avg <31 55 39 32
31 52 68 52
32 61 (60) 68 36
33 55 59 45
34 52 76 (70) 41
35 47 69 37
36 49 75 53
37 41 53 56
38 30 83 (73)

(Actual home runs are in parenthesis, corresponding to best HR season)

Home Runs by Age

The explosion by McGwire and Bonds so late in life are very abnormal and very suspicious.

If we had reliable data on weights, we would probably find that McGwire and Bonds showed a similar steep rise in avoirdupoid.

If any player has an equal opportunity to use steroids, then what’s unfair about using them?

First, it mocks the old record books.

Second, medically, we don’t know how dangerous steroids may be, though we are beginning to get some anecdotal evidence. Some blame McGwire’s career-ending leg injuries last year on his use of drugs. Caminiti himself blames his present mental impairment on them. Footballer Lyle Alzada believed that the brain tumor that killed him was steroid-induced. Women athletes on steroids reportedly lose their breasts and grow beards.

The mysterious death of Cardinal pitcher Darryl Kile, a teammate of McGwire and Caminiti, may yield other clues. The cause of death is said to be hardening of the arteries -- at the age of 33! There may be no connection, but The National Institute of Health reports that one of the ancillary factors that “may contribute” to artherosclerosis is sex steroids.

If an autopsy should reveal any sign of steroid residue, that alone might put a stop to steroid use faster and more effectively than any legislation.

Meantime, a player who would not pose for an ad with a cigarette in his mouth or a beer in his hand, nevertheless is encouraging young people by his example to use potentially life-threatening chemicals.

If steroids are wrong, what punishment should be meted out for their use?

The Black Sox and Pete Rose were banished for life. Daryl Strawberry was also banished for abusing recreational drugs. What do the steroid cheaters deserve?

An asterisk in the record book?

This is laughably inadequate.

Stripping their MVP, home run, Cy Young, and even games won honors?

That would be a start.

The same punishment handed down to Shoeless Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, and Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson?

Baseball would be hypocritical to do anything less.

But with attendance already down sharply this year, Commissioner Bud Selig faces a dilemma: If he takes no action, the game will lose more disillusioned fans. If he does mete out draconian discipline, it could lose even more angry fans who don’t want to see their heroes punished.

I can’t see Selig throwing half the sports biggest drawing cards out on the street.

We can expect some sermonizing that baseball won’t let this happen again.

But somehow I don’t believe Yankee owner George Steinbrenner will tolerate banning some of his biggest stars for hitting home runs or throwing strikeouts to help the Yanks win another flag. I cannot believe that the team physicians don’t know what’s going on or that the owners never showed any interest in their players’ physical condition.

Even if the owners had the courage to punish the cheaters, the players’ union would never permit it. Union chief Donald Fehr called the issue “serious,” but he didn’t say it was serious enough to discipline the cheaters. If half the players are guilty, and the other half could see their payrolls cut drastically if their teams’ biggest drawing cards are banned, the players would surely be angry enough to strike.

And I don’t believe the fans would tolerate it either. We love home runs, and we love the men who hit them for us. I attended a Diamondback-Giant game in San Francisco just after the Caminiti story broke. Curt Schilling, who had made critical comments about steroid users, was pitching for Arizona, and derisive catcalls wafted down from the grandstand. The San Francisco fans saw him, not as a courageous whistle-blower but as a villainous snitch.

This could turn into another Catholic church-type cover-up. Baseball is not going to discipline itself any more than the Navy disciplined itself over the “tailhook” scandal, when male sailors ran amok at a convention, groping female sailors, and got off with reluctant and timid slaps on the wrist.

At the very most -- or the very least -- testing will probably be reluctantly instituted and enforced as it is in the Olympics and in the National Football League.

But there will be no real punishment for past cheaters.

I believe the game should also use an asterisk to identify ersatz records. After all, if future players are going to be monitored and tested, they will never realistically have a chance to break the steroid-driven records of the past decade.

The game should also remove MVP, Cy Young, and other honors for those found to have cheated and move the second-place finishers up to the top, as they do in the Olympics. Thus Mike Piazza would be the retroactive MVP in ’94. And Sosa -- if he was clean -- the home run champ in ‘98.

By the same token, the game should remove all McGwire’s home runs from the record book -- and Bonds’ too if there is proof that he also imbibed steroids. Whether some of Clemens’ Cy Youngs should be taken away from him also depends on what proof is found of steroid use.

Their steroid-induced home runs -- and strikeouts or victories -- should be subtracted from their records for consideration for the Hall of Fame. Without steroids, McGwire’s lifetime home runs totaled 239, far below the threshold for election to Cooperstown. Bonds, on the other hand, already had his Cooperstown ticket stamped and didn’t need the last-minute steroid boost.

If moral turpitude is not the deciding factor in keeping steroid cheaters out of the Hall, then it would be hypocritical to continue to ban Pete Rose, who did much less damage to the integrity of the game.

I admit that, as a fan, I am as much to blame as anyone. I saw Maris hit three homers in 1961, I saw McGwire hit three more boomers in 1998 and cheered loudly, and I saw Bonds blast a 475-footer for #70 last season and cheered that one too. Naively, I didn’t seriously question too closely how Mac and Barry did it.

Now I feel like the apocryphal boy on the courthouse steps in 1920, who pleaded with Joe Jackson, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

But it is so. Can we ever trust our heroes or their records again?

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