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Baseball was Super-Holy Before Steroids

Steroids in BaseballYou’ve no doubt read your fill about steroids in the last few days and years. I don’t want to add so much to that pain. Rather, want to present a post where I offer a few simple arguments as to why we should basically ignore steroids and other performance enhancing drugs as we evaluate players for the Hall of Fame. Really, what I’m doing is offering arguments I’ve seen used regarding steroids and explaining why they’re insufficient or inaccurate. We know that PEDs aren’t good. But at what level does using count? At what level do we begin to care? Do we only hold it against a player when they’ve been suspended? Or only when we know definitively? Or do we hold it against them if we think they probably used? I have a problem with any of these approaches.

I ask you to read these arguments with your head and not with your gut. After all, performance analysis embraces what we can measure (what we think) rather than what our instincts tell us (what we feel).


Commissioner Bowie Kuhn banned steroids before the 1971 season. That’s kind of, sort of true. The short explanation is that Congress was getting all worried about Americans smoking pot. Still concerned about placating those in Washington who controlled baseball’s anti-trust protection, Kuhn issued a memo stating that players could be disciplined for failure to comply with federal and state drug laws. Of course, baseball did very little to enforce these rules, going so far as to make any employee who sought help immune from any disciplinary measures.

Even when they tried to suspend players in conjunction with Kuhn’s memo, they failed. When Fergie Jenkins was caught trying to take marijuana, hashish, and cocaine on a flight, he was suspended. But a panel of arbitrators rescinded the penalty, saying it was without just cause.

In 1984, there were some cocaine suspensions. There were some reduced suspensions. And there were some overturned suspensions. Fourteen years after the illegal drug ban by the Commissioner’s office, there was little reason for players to believe that they’d suffer any consequences for illegal drug use, and they certainly wouldn’t suffer consequences if they weren’t arrested. In spite of the 1971 ban, baseball basically didn’t care.

Commissioner Peter Ueberroth banned drugs in 1985. No, that didn’t happen. He established a program where all club employees in the majors and minors would be subject to mandatory drug tests. Two problems existed with this plan. First, it tested for drugs or abuse and amphetamines, but it didn’t test for steroids and other PEDs. Oh, and second, it didn’t test major league players. This ban had nothing at all to do with major league players.

Commissioner Fay Vincent banned steroids in his 1991 memo. No, no he didn’t. The MLB commissioner has as much right to ban steroids as he has the right to ban the testing of cosmetics on animals, the right to make gay marriage legal or illegal, or the right to invade Portugal. Major League Baseball operates in a collective bargaining environment. Steroids weren’t banned because Fay Vincent said so.

Steroids were banned in 2001 when MLB began testing minor leaguers. Again, this isn’t accurate. Minor leaguers aren’t part of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Thus, they’re not subject to collective bargaining. Steroids still weren’t banned from the game in 2001.

In August of 2002, players agreed to “Survey Testing” in 2003. So steroids were banned then. No, they weren’t banned then. And they weren’t banned in 2003. That year was to be used to survey the use of drugs in the game. By agreement, those tests were to remain anonymous, and there was to be no punishment. That’s in the rule – no punishment. Can you think of anything else that’s banned but comes without punishment if you do it anyway? Perhaps members of the BBWAA should consider that when they hold those whose names leaked accountable for something that MLB and the MLBPA said wouldn’t be punished. Forget about the fat that we don’t know if the names leaked are actually those of players who tested positive.

Steroids became illegal in MLB in 2004. This is accurate. Because too high a percentage of players tested positive in the survey year, testing and punishment for positive tests were automatically implemented.

Does non-enforcement make something a non-issue? This is a great question, and it’s one I don’t really know the answer to. BBWAA voters never paid a bit of mind to amphetamine users. Uppers were just part of the culture. Hell, Ball Four author Jim Bouton took abuse from players, management, and writers for opening the locker room to the public. How dare he! If I were a player, my takeaway would be that players should be able to do what they please, and they certainly shouldn’t let outsiders know if they’re violating the rules of the game or laws of the country. And those who cover the game certainly wouldn’t out the players; they’d protect them from scrutiny.

The BBWAA elected Jenkins in his third year of eligibility. They basically announced at that point that they didn’t care about the rules of the game, that they were willing to ignore the memos of Kuhn and Ueberroth. He had 1.75 grams of marijuana? No problem. He had 2.2 grams of hashish? Enjoy! He had 3 grams of cocaine? Welcome to Cooperstown! (By the way, the writers got it right. Jenkins does belong in the Hall).

What’s a player to think? There were almost no drug-related arrests. There were fewer drug-related suspensions. And there was knowledge of PED use and illegal drug use on the part of the BBWAA, but they did nothing to keep the guilty out of the Hall of Fame.


I won’t vote for any PED user. The most basic problem with this position is that we can’t identify every PED user. Even if you say you won’t vote for a PED user, you will. Jose Canseco admitted it with pride. Manny Ramirez was caught and suspended twice. Ryan Braun was caught, suspended twice, and served, well, I’m too confused to continue to care about that case. Rafael Palmeiro wagged his finger, was caught, and suspended once. David Ortiz tested positive in the experimental period, maybe; his name was leaked even though it shouldn’t have been. Mark McGwire admitted using but was never suspended. Barry Bonds has been accused and has seen tremendous evidence against him, but that’s it. Mike Piazza may or may not have had bacne, which may or may not have something to do with steroid use. Jeff Bagwell was a big man. Tim Raines used other drugs. Maybe he used steroids too? Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina played with known steroid users. So did Derek Jeter. Where does the speculation end?

We don’t know every single player who used. And as such, if we assume these PEDs actually enhance performance, we’re giving unfair advantages to users who have thus far gotten away with it. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Just because we don’t have evidence that a particular player used doesn’t mean that he didn’t. Thus, we do more harm than good by punishing anyone. And the position of refusing to vote for any PED user just can’t work.

I won’t vote for anyone who played during the Steroid Era. This position is a solid one in that it gets around the problems posed by the above. However, there are other real issues here. Who played during the Steroid Era? As defined by Ken Gurnick, I think this is anyone played after 1980 who’s not named Jack Morris. And I think we understand that such a position is just silly.

I won’t vote for anyone who failed a test or admitted taking PEDs. The first half of this assertion is more defensible than the second. If a writer chooses not to vote for a player who was caught cheating when there was a specific rule against using certain PEDs in MLB, I’m okay with that, at least as a logician. However, admitting taking PEDs is another story. As I understand it, we want to learn more about the Steroid Era, right? One of the easiest ways to learn about the era is to listen to former players talk about their own PED use. However, if we’re to provide a tremendous disincentive to come forward, such as refusing to vote admitted PED users into the Hall, even those who never failed a test, what we virtually guarantee is that we know less about the era. And we might have players admit PED use only after they’re elected. The horror!

I won’t vote for any cheater: We have a real problem here, right? Whitey Ford absolutely cheated. He admitted to throwing a mudball and doctoring a ball in other ways. Gaylord Perry admitted to throwing a spitball, and he was even ejected from a game for throwing a spitter in 1982. We can’t simply keep players out of the Hall because they cheated. There are far, far too many players over the years who have cheated to gain an edge. If we kept out all of the cheaters, how many players would be left in the Hall?

Drugs are bad. I won’t vote for any drug user. This keeps Roger Clemens out. It also keeps Tim Raines out. However, it also keeps out half of the players in the Coop. Bud Selig himself said that amphetamines have been around the game for seven or eight decades. Willie Mays drank something that may or may not have contained amphetamines. From James S. Hirsch’s, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, “I don’t know what they put in there, and I never asked a question about anything.” Hank Aaron said he used them. Mickey Mantle used too. Did Babe Ruth inject extract from sheep’s testicles? It seems he did. Pud Galvin used the Brown-Séquard Elixer. That contained dog or guinea pig testicles, or maybe it contained monkey testosterone. I don’t know exactly. What I do know is that he used a drug to enhance his performance, and nobody cared. Mays and Ruth and Galvin were certainly using drugs and they were certainly trying to get an edge. Let’s be consistent, voters.

Amphetamines gave players an edge; PEDs transformed players. This is the argument Bob Costas uses. And frankly, I just don’t understand it. You know why I don’t understand it? It’s poppycock. Both groups cheated. Does he think that because one cheated better they should be punished more? Or is it that he worships the players of his youth much more than he worships players who he covered. As a child, he didn’t see the warts; covering the game, he did. Basically, Costas is guilty of using the word “transformed” to bring about an emotional reaction, not a logical one. He wants us to see Mantle and company as regular people who just popped a pill to feel better, much like we might do with aspirin. He wants us to see Bonds and company as regular people who injected something into their bloodstream or buttocks and suddenly became the equivalent of the Incredible Hulk.

In addition to his other mistakes, he’s committing a post hoc fallacy. He’s assuming that steroids caused the home run explosion just because we believe steroids immediately preceded the home run spike of the 1990s. But Bob, other things contributed too. Like what?

In an e-mail Eric sent to me last year, he outlined many of the reasons. Expansion also occurred in 1993. Researchers such as Dan Rosenheck have suggested that expansion causes massive changes in the spread of performance throughout a league. The best get even better because in an instant there are 25 or more bottom-feeding pitchers in the league who have regular roles. Norm Cash hit .361 in 1961, an expansion year, and never hit .300 again. Jim Gentile that year led the league with 141 ribbies and never reached 90 again. In 1993, Barry Bonds led the NL with 46 homers, and David Justice hit 40. Sosa finished 9th with 33. It was the first year that two players hit 40 homers in the NL since 1987. Three players hit 40 in the AL, which hadn’t happened since 1970. In the 1993 NL, the average team hit 140 homers. The averages for the previous five years were 105, 119, 127, 114, and 107. It’s no coincidence that NL homer rates increased by something like 20% in the year when two teams were added to the NL ONLY.

Then there was another in expansion in 1998. Before the effects of the 1993 expansion wore off, the league added two more teams. The top end of power performances spiked once more—just like in 1993 but in a far, far more dramatic way. Much of the power spike we saw in major league baseball between 1993 and 2009 can be explained by the double expansion. Research suggests that the dilution in the post-expansion standard of play continues for five or more years as teams scurry to secure new sources of talent in response to the increased competition that comes with two additional farm systems and an expansion draft. The first expansion had not yet abated, and MLB teams had not had enough time to reap the benefits of their widened search for talent. The second expansion, therefore, compounded the effect of the first. It’s not coincidental that increasing numbers of Dominicans, Panamanians, Arubans, Australians, Curacoans, Columbians, and Venezuelans began emerging in the mid-late 1990s. MLB entered those markets aggressively in the early 1990s around the first expansion, and many of their prospects ripened around or just after the second expansion. It’s no coincidence that the mid-aughts saw a drop in homers. The talent pool had been widened sufficiently to slake the MLB’s thirst for players. Balance had been restored, and suddenly at decade’s end we are thrust into very similar offensive conditions as 1988–1992.

And that’s not all. There’s the rapid turnover of ballparks, mostly for homer-friendly venues. There’s the near-universal adoption of advanced year-round weight and cross-training techniques. There were advances in medical/training procedures (for instance MRIs) that helped teams keep players on the field. LASIK surgery became widely available. So many homers were flying you’d think the balls were juiced, and maybe they were.

We remember that there was a work stoppage in 1994, and fans stopped going to games. And we all know that Chicks Dig the Long Ball. If I were running baseball and I knew that fans liked home runs, I might try to do something to increase home runs. Expansions? Check. Smaller parks? Check. More weight training? Check. Livelier ball? Well, that’s what researchers at the University of Rhode Island found. MLB wouldn’t admit it, but it was true. They were using a livelier ball.

Oh yes, and steroids. I don’t mean to argue here that steroids gave players no advantage. That’s not the case at all. What I mean to do is argue that players were hardly transformed in the way Costas says. There were numerous small advantages that occurred simultaneously with the double-dip expansion, to create ideal conditions for the biggest offensive explosion since 1930.

Stop imposing your morality on others. Baseball players are human, and human morality is both time-bound and culture-bound. In American culture, it was morally acceptable for a time to own slaves. It was morally acceptable to keep women from being able to vote. In sports, it took Title IX to begin to bring about gender equality in sports. And it took women lying and saying they were men before we believed they could survive running a marathon. Given the United States in 2013, it’s crazy to believe that any of these things were ever accepted. But they were.

Don’t worry. My morality is the same as yours (he wrote sarcastically). I don’t think players should cheat. Steroids cheat non-users. Right? So keep ‘em out. Similarly, the spitball cheats both hitters and non-throwers. Keep them out too. Corked bat? You’ve cheated. You’re out. Some say stealing signs is cheating. And there are cartoonists with BBWAA voting privileges who say Craig Biggio cheated by wearing body armor. You see where I’m going here? (No, I’m not going to discuss why a cartoonist has a Hall vote but John Thorn doesn’t). We can’t keep every cheater out, and most of the anti-PED guys don’t want to anyway.

What about people who don’t cheat but who hurt their teams in other ways. Alcohol is legal in the United States, and it has been throughout most of the game’s history. So it’s legal for players to use alcohol. And it’s legal for players to compete hung over. But is it moral to do so? Should we keep people out of the Hall if their off-field behavior has been detrimental to their teams? Playing hung over hurts your team; playing on PEDs doesn’t. Do you know why we don’t have a problem with alcohol use, even if it hurts player performance? You’ll tell me it’s because drinking is legal. Nope. I say it’s because we drink. And if we do it, it can’t be so wrong. Regular people drink. Liars and scumbags use PEDs.

But Rule 5 says that I should judge morality. Yeah, sure. We all know about Rule 5 by now. “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

I’m wondering now if the rules say anywhere that those things should be equal to on-field performance. If they don’t, a vote against Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens is both overly-moralizing and plain bad logic. And if writers aren’t selectively using this clause to moralize, where’s the support for the greatest human beings the game has ever seen? I don’t know who fits this category, but I hear Dale Murphy was a pretty awesome guy. Perhaps he should have waltzed into the Hall. Shouldn’t we ignore his record and ability since he was a really nice person? That’s the mistake steroid moralists do when they cite this rule. The truth is that we use this clause when it’s convenient. It’s not something that any voter actually tries to measure; they make their decisions first and use the Hall’s rule as a convenient out to justify their moralizing.

By the way, how wonderful was the sportsmanship displayed by Sammy Sosa as he lost to Mark McGwire? How wonderful was McGwire’s treatment of the Maris family? How about Barry Bonds lifting Torii Hunter? Parents should point to that video and tell their kids to act like that when they’re disappointed on the athletic field. I don’t mean to suggest that Bonds or McGwire or Sosa was the epitome of character and sportsmanship. I only point out one thing they did that showed great character; we can pick and choose where to apply the character clause, apparently.

These writers aren’t ethicists. Nor should they be.

Rob Neyer put is very well when he said, “I still cannot see any distinction, integrity-wise, between using amphetamines in 1980 and using steroids in 2000. In both cases, players were using drugs illegally. In both cases, players were hoping to become better baseball players. In both cases, players were, wittingly or not, hoping to gain edges over players who were not using those same drugs.”

My Moralizing

Hmm, if only there were a group of people who we entrust with uncovering wrongdoing (you know, like the media is charged with doing). If there were such a group, maybe we wouldn’t have had a Steroid Era at all. No less a journalist than the great Helen Thomas said about the press that, “if people cannot operate under truth, then the country really loses everything.” Well moralists, baseball didn’t operate under truth during the so-called Steroid Era because those we entrust with uncovering truth (members of the BBWAA, except for the cartoonists) didn’t bother. They completely neglected to do their job, and now many of them act like guardians of something sacred. I say if they didn’t bother guarding when it was happening, they shouldn’t have that right now. Unless they were operating under the logical and morally defensible position that snitches get stitches, right?




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