I'm a little bit ambivalent on the subject. I understand the health risks and the downward pressure steroid use in the Big Leagues exert. I don’t shrug it off that some college or high school player might be thinking, "Hey, if that’s what it takes…" Braun and A-Rod (when his time comes, which will be any minute now, I expect) earned their suspensions for breaking rules that were clear, consistent, and enforced and that they'd agreed to abide by. But I don’t think of them as cheaters. I'm not clear on why PEDs should count as “cheating” when cortisone shots, the many and various painkilling pills that out there, amphetamines, and Tommy John surgery, contact lenses, Ace bandage wraps, and off-season weight-lifting regimes don't.
Clearly the argument can’t be that a player shouldn’t do anything to artificially enhance the abilities he was naturally gifted with or to compensate for the effects of injury or aging.
The argument, as far as I can tell, is that steroids are like spinach to Popeye or a yellow sun to Superman and magically give players powers and abilities they wouldn’t ordinarily have and aren’t obtainable by any other means.
I was listening to the Red Sox on the radio last night and the announcers had Roger Clemens in the booth with them for a couple of innings. Clemens had a lot of interesting things to say and he said them in an interesting and intelligent fashion so that I began wishing they’d just hand the mic over to him and let him call the whole rest of the game. Of course he did a great deal of reminiscing---particularly about the Red Sox’ 1988 season. It’s the 25th Anniversary of that year’s division championship (also of their 4 and out appearance in the playoffs against Oakland, but never mind) and last night was Joe Morgan Night at Fenway, Joe Morgan the former snowplow driver and Sox manager that season not Joe Morgan the Hall of Fame Second Baseman---and of course none of it touched directly on PEDs, even with Bruan’s suspension still in the news and A-Rod’s fate being decided wherever it’s being decided by the powers that be. But, again of course, the subject is there, hanging like a slow curve ball for anyone who wants to take a swing at it, whether or not it gets directly brought up
Talking admiringly about the kid the Sox had on the mound, rookie Brandon Workman, like Clemens a University of Texas alum, and, in his third major league start, on his way to his first major league win, Clemens got into what a young pitcher like Workman has to learn which naturally led to his talking about what he’d had to learn himself as a young pitcher and that led to his talking about he’d had to learn as he grew into an old pitcher and began to lose some of his velocity, which is the point at which cynics couldn’t help thinking, “Steroids.”
But Clemens went on to describe the coaching he got, which is a startling thought---The Rocket needed coaching? The seven-time Cy Young Award winner needed a coach to tell him how to pitch?---that makes perfect sense once you get over being startled. Of course a smart veteran pitcher is still looking for the coaches’ advice. At any rate, he described how with various coaches’ help he taught himself how to pitch differently and learned how to throw a new pitch, a cutter.
Was it the steroids?
If it was, how much of it was? Did they help him with the intensive strength and conditioning program he undertook? Did they give him the strength to keep pitching or to keep exercising? Either way, isn’t it just as likely that once he took the mound it was the cut fastball and his new approach that kept him in a game? Or even with the cutter would he have not been able to last out there without the strength that came from the steroid-fueled exercising?
I can’t sort that out.
I don’t think it can be sorted out.
I don’t believe it’s worth sorting out.
Ok, you say. If it wasn’t the steroids. If it was the cut-finger and the new approach and the training program, why doesn’t every aging pitcher do the same?
I say, they would if they could. Moreover, many probably do or at least try.
Their trouble may be that they just aren’t Roger Clemens.
They may not have had the will or the discipline or the genes or the baseball savvy or the incentive.
No journeyman pitcher reaching the end of his physical prime can expect teams to pay him a lot of money to continue to be a journeyman pitcher. But teams will pay---did pay---a lot of money for a Roger Clemens to go on being Roger Clemens.
And that’s what Clemens did that was so remarkable, and suspicious, he went on being Roger Clemens longer than most of even the best other pitchers go on being themselves.
But that’s just it. Looking over their stats, and arbitrarily identifying the season when they began using, all I can tell is that the steroids allowed Clemens and Bonds to keep playing past the point when their bodies might---might---have been telling them it was time to quit.
But they didn’t have Clemens pitching like Sandy Koufax in his prime or Bonds hitting like Babe Ruth or Willie Mays in theirs. Clemens continued to pitch like Roger Clemens. Bonds continued to hit like Bonds.
That is, the numbers they put up while using weren’t out of line with the numbers they’d put up before.
The year Bonds hit 73 home runs, all his other numbers, except, unsurprisingly, walks, were consistent with the past few previous seasons. And the next year his HRs dropped back down to “normal”. Which suggests that fans and sportswriters who say he did it deliberately are right. For some reason, he decided he wanted that record that season. Or…
Maybe all those home runs and all those walks are telling the same story. Maybe that season he faced a lot of nervous pitchers who lost it when he came to the plate and/or a bunch of proud ones who made the mistake of challenging him. Who knows? Only those who believe steroids are spinach.
Same with all those home runs splashing down in McCovey Cove in 2000. They might have been powered by steroids or it might have just been that for the first time there was a McCovey Cove for them to splash down into. That was the year the Giants moved out of Candlestick, a park that, I’ve heard it argued my whole life, cost Willie Mays all the home runs he’d have needed to break Ruth’s record well-before Aaron.
On the other hand, how many extra HRs did playing his first six seasons in the Polo Grounds gift him with?
The conditions are part of the game. Once you start trying to make judgments compensating for those conditions you might as well start trying to factor out the weather on any given game day and then what each player had for breakfast and how well he slept the night before.
There’s a reality effect at work. An attempt to devise an ideal set of parameters against which to judge players is to devise an unreality. It’s fantasy baseball, which is fun, but it’s still just what-iffing.
All we have to go on is what was.
That said, I’m going to do a little what-iffing myself here.
Not that I would know, but based on things I’ve read and heard said and from what I know from entering middle age myself, I’d guess that the first things that start to go on a player in his mid-thirties are his knees, and when your knees go an awful lot of your ability to play goes with them.
After the knees, it’s probably the eyes. Your vision changes and you can’t see the ball or read the field they way you used to. And this sneaks up on you. You don’t necessarily “see” it coming. It’s hard to adjust if you don’t know there’s a problem you need to adjust to. I wonder how many former players, after making a long put off trip to the eye doctor, look through their new glasses and exclaim, “So that’s what happened!”
Back and shoulder and neck pains probably drive a lot of aging players from the game.
Pain, period. You just don’t recover as fast. It’s just not as easy to shrug off. It just stops seeming worth it to shrug it off. It’s just easier and seems wiser to sit and wait for it to go away.
But you lose something else as you get older, along with resiliency, some mobility, and a step or two. I think I heard Gary Carter say this. You lose drive.
It simply doesn’t mean as much to keep playing. Losing doesn’t bother you as much. Winning doesn’t thrill you the way it did. What used to feel like freedom and adventure is a grind. Your teammates aren’t as important to you as the family you didn’t have when you started but now miss and worry about like crazy.
And when you lose the drive, you lose focus.
You start taking your eye off the ball, so to speak.
Something else happens, as well.
You grow up.
There comes a time when you just can’t keep kidding yourself you’re still a kid. And it may not be your body telling you this.
There’s an episode of Cheers in which Sam gets a chance to pitch again for the Red Sox. He’s invited to try out with one of their minor league clubs. And it turns out, he’s still got it, at least enough of it that the Sox are willing to put him on the roster and let him show if that enough is enough to get him back into the big leagues. But Sam quits.
He tells Carla it’s because he can’t keep up.
He doesn’t mean on the field.
He can still play.
He just doesn’t want to play anymore.
He doesn’t want to spend his time goofing around in the company of the twenty-year olds who are his teammates. They’re good kids. He likes them. They like him. They respect him. They want him on the team. But he knows he’s not one of them anymore. He feels out of place.
What if there’s a player whose knees don’t go? Whose eyesight doesn’t fade? Whose back doesn’t bother him? Who can keep his focus because his drive doesn’t leave him? Who is smart enough and patient enough to still be coachable? Who has the discipline to learn new things? Who keeps himself in superior shape? Who finds a way to fit in with the kids or who doesn’t mind not fitting in?
A rare player, no doubt.
In any generation how many are that lucky and that driven?
But what if there’s one?
What if there’re two?
This post is really a continuation of my two part Reflections of the All-Star Game and I probably should have titled it accordingly. But the All-Star Game is ancient history now. But if you'd like to read the other posts, click on the links for Part One: Mariano Rivera is boring and that's why he's great and Part Two: Baseball is not a religion, the Hall of Fame isn't a shrine, and Barry Bonds deserves his plaque.
Here's a post by Rob Nyer of ESPN making the case that playing Candlestick probably didn't rob Willie Mays of his chance to break Babe Ruth's record. And I take his point. It's easy to imagine how natural it would have been for people watching every time Mays lofted one that didn't leave the park to think, "That should have been a home run!" even if it was really just a long fly ball that would have been a long out in any park. But...the wind wouldn't have had to bat back many more for it to have had an effect. Mays played at Seal Stadium and Candlestick for ten years. If he'd only lost four HRs a year to the weather, he'd have left San Francisco with 700 home runs, which means he would have only needed to hit 15 while with the Mets. As it happened, he hit 14.
Another thing, which Nyer doesn't mention: Mays played a lot of games in the 60s in Dodger Stadium which at the time was far from a hitter-friendly park and not just because of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and Don Sutton and Claude Osteen.
He does say that playing in the Polo Grounds didn't give Mays as many extra home runs as I'd have thought. It was very friendly to a certain type of hitter, but Mays wasn't that type.
Photo by Steve Lipofsky via Wikipedia.