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It Vexes Me

What makes one particular era so much worse than all the others?

New York Mets v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

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I promise, this will not go on nearly so long as my mental musings and ramblings have. Those mental anguishes, for better or worse (and I suspect worse - by a margin of no less than 31 lengths at Belmont), have been plaguing me for a number of years now. Lately however, they have transitioned from a background irritant not unlike my chronic tinnitus, into something more akin to a persistent low-grade migraine that simply refuses to allow me to remain focused on anything, with sporadic interruptions of the mental process that are triggered by seemingly nothing. They simply erupt at random intervals from the bubbling cauldron of mental angst that exists in my psyche.

Thanks to the calendar, the lockout, and just baseball in general, the Pit has recently engaged in some spirited conversations - conversations that find me wrestling more than usual with my mental demons and their cacophony of torment. The conversations are separate, but intimately related. The first conversation revolves around the Baseball Hall of Fame. Who belongs in Cooperstown and who does not? What does it say about the plaque room when the likes of Barry Bonds and his accomplishments are enshrined through large portions of the Hall, but his plaque remains absent? The second conversation stems from Jim’s series of articles regarding the best players at each position, giving the Pit a chance to compile an all-time great team of retired players. The overlap in these discussions should be as obvious as Joe Niekro’s emery board.

As a lifelong fan of the sport, being predisposed to holding long and silly discussions about players and their varying levels of greatness is more or less baked into my DNA. I was raised on baseball as a religion. Arguing both sides of the debate about most home runs in a season between Roger Marris hitting 61 homers versus Babe Ruth hitting “only” 60 (but doing so in a season featuring fewer games) is something fans of my generation just did. We didn’t even have to have a favoured side in the debate. The important part was that the discussions about baseball and its greatness were happening. Of notable import. one semi-constant that seemed to permeate those conversations was the open admission that it was an exercise in futility to compare players and achievements of various eras. After all, Denton Young compiled 315 losses in his long career while striking out “only” 2803 batters. That’s more losses in his career than many of today’s best pitchers have total decisions. That puts the prodigious winning exploits of Cy Young and his 511 wins firmly into the category of “never going to happen”. Even when examining more modern exploits the narrative of keeping eras separate from each other still holds true more often than not. Nolan Ryan pitched most of his career in a time when rotations were four deep, not five, or even six. Also, starting pitchers were relied upon to pitch seven innings per start just as the norm. Now, only the very best pitchers are allowed to go that deep with regularity, and even some of the best are still actively prevented from doing so often. Hell, Robbie Ray just led the American League in innings pitched (193 ⅓) en route to winning the Cy Young Award. A handful of seasons ago, pitchers failing to reach the 200 IP mark were mostly considered also-rans for the award. Blake Snell shattered that illusion in 2018 by winning the award having thrown only 180 ⅔ innings and winning the award over Justin Verlander (and his 214 innings of comparable work).

Plainly put, when discussing baseball and the many various achievements, eras mattered. That was something that, until recently, seemed like it was simply just understood. Things change though. Just as analytics and actual on-field results have demonstrated that sacrifice bunting and steals are not a formula for winning baseball and strikeouts are no longer held in evil regard as losing baseball, recent trends have begun to create a giant melting pot of era accomplishments. Unlike the trends towards effective, winning baseball though, I cannot say that this mixed cauldron of baseball eras is doing anyone any great service.

Let me put this part right out here in the easy to find open. I am not against acknowledging the great achievements of players of colour during and post-segregation and making sure that those tales are told with great vigour as a part of the shared history of the sport. This confusion regarding the blending of eras has very little to do with the integration of Negro League history with MLB history, though the eras can be partially delineated by integration.

No, my issue is more with how players from modern eras are being graded against players from past eras and how players from past eras are now being lambasted for not living up to today’s moral standards. If a player from a past generation, say, Cap Anson for instance, was an openly racist and spiteful man, then it is not out of bounds to point that out as a human failing. Although, it does seem that he gets an out-sized amount of modern hatred over his refusal to play alongside black or Latin players. After all, it was Spalding and a number of other owners (including the owners of the newly formed American League, desperate for any sort of viable on-field talent) who flat-out refused to even consider hiring players of colour. Anson’s bigotry was by no means singular. Baseball would have been segregated with or without Cap Anson. That doesn’t make Anson’s bigotry any less morally reprehensible. But it does expand the spotlight to actually encompass some of the many others who were far more influential in maintaining the colour barrier. However, that Cap Anson was a bigot and that Cap Anson was a freakishly fit pillar of health and athletic performance are not mutually exclusive points of order. Celebrating Cap Anson as an amazing ballplayer does not mean that someone has to also embrace who Anson was as a moral person off the field. Did Anson benefit from segregated baseball? Almost certainly. So did many others, including the likes of Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig. Murderer’s Row never had to face the likes of Satchel Paige. Cy Young never had to face the likes of Josh Gibson.

There is almost no reasonable argument to be made against the notion that some of the all-time great names of the game, especially those of the early 1900s, benefitted from segregated baseball. To admit that does not take away from the mind-boggling accomplishments of some of those early players. That was the league at the time. They played within the confines of the system that was presented to them and they did so with sometimes nearly superhuman results. A comment might be dropped from time to time, “I wonder how Rogers Hornsby (or some other all-time baseball icon of the era) would do against different competition? Would he have hit against…?” Most often it seems, someone points out that players then didn’t have the advantages of players now and that humankind as a whole is creating bigger, stronger, faster specimens than it did back then. At that point, the musings stop and another round is usually called for while the conversation switches over to how the Indians are “still shitty.”

Over the last decade though, a funny thing happened on the way to Cooperstown. Baseball pundits the world over and voting members of the BBWAA decided that the PED era of baseball needed to be treated as some sort of special outlier and that nearly any sort of greatness achieved during the era needed to be greeted with scepticism and often with derision. Great achievements by players became synonymous with being a cheat, whether evidence supported that conclusion or not. What’s more is, the standards by which to accept the performance of some players but not others were as wild and varied as the writers and fans observing the game. The result of this illogical special case treatment is the locking out of numerous, likely deserving, talents from Cooperstown.

What I am having a difficult time fully digesting is what it is, besides sentiment (mostly misplaced), that makes the PED era such an evil outlier as to be as harshly criticised as it is. Players of the early era benefited from segregation. Later, players benefitted from expansion. Still later, many of the game’s greats benefited from the use of anabolic steroids. From the 1960s through 1990 or so, steroids were part and parcel of American sports, including baseball. If not for Lyle Alzado’s very candid interview about his steroid use in which he wrongly connected his brain tumour (which led to his untimely death at only 43 years of age) to his steroid use (though at the time he did not have the information we do now so it was entirely understandable to make the connection), it might have been another 5-10 years before real crackdowns on steroid use were implemented in professional U.S. sports. I know there are those out there that like to make the claim that uppers/greenies did not benefit the players the way HGH did. The argument is made that taking amphetamines did not allow players to put up ghastly numbers on the backs of their baseball cards. I would counter though, that we have no idea what the overall extent of the allowance of greenies is. We know anecdotally that greenies were used widely around baseball, by members of every team. More than one franchise famously (or possibly infamously) had two coffee pots in the clubhouse, leaded and unleaded. They weren’t referring to caffeine, but to the presence of uppers in the java. While taking uppers may not have resulted in noticeably increased strength, it did allow players to continue taking the field, despite their bodies’ objections. There are players, even very good ones, from the 1980s who admit that amphetamines were what allowed them to take the field every day. Then, in the evening, it was alcohol to come down again for the night. But, the next day, it was more greenies or not being able to play. Amphetamines allowed many players to pad their stats in the margins, adding perhaps 1 percent, perhaps 10 percent to their numbers. We’ll never really know just how big an impact those little pills had. But, at the same time, despite knowing that a massive number of players were hopped up on amphetamines, no one is calling for the removal of the likes of Dave Winfield or Reggie Jackson from the Hall of Fame.

Let’s be very clear here. The greenies being used were just as illegal in society then as HGH was when it impacted baseball. And, just like during the great home run chase of 1998, baseball administration, owners, agents, officials, trainers, players, fans, and just about everyone else with a pulse that had an attachment to baseball knew what was going on. Amphetamine use was one of those examples of a “worst-kept secret”.

Before the great hand-wringing began over HGH and similar performance enhancing substances that were not on the list of banned steroids, Mark McGwire would give interviews in front of his locker in which could be clearly seen a bottle of androstenedione. He wasn’t trying to hide his use of the supplement. In fact, he, on more than one occasion, commented that andro allowed him to take the field, despite what his bad knees or back were telling him. Is this truly night-and-day different from the 25+ years of greenie use in the sport?

Turning to some of the game’s greats, players lionized for their excellence and competitive nature doesn’t help matters

Mike Schmidt, recently crowned the greatest third baseman of all-time here at the Pit, has been very outspoken about how he feels about PED users from later years. To his mind, being great during the era means that the player was likely a great player, and that they should not be made “guilty by association”. Schmidt is fine with the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens being enshrined as they “never failed a legitimate test”. And therein lies the rub. Baseball not only did not test for PED use, it openly supported the use of such substances. It wasn’t until 2005 that baseball eventually cracked down on the use of performance enhancers. It wasn’t until even later, in 2011, that baseball finally fully outlawed HGH in the game.

Mike Schmidt on whether or not he would have ever considered using modern PEDs:

“I’m not saying I definitely would have, but I’m not going to sit here and tell you there’s no way. Who knows? I truly can’t make the statement, ‘I wouldn’t have gotten caught up in it.’”

Mike Schmidt is far from alone. Here is Bob Gibson, one of the fiercest, most ardently competitive pitchers to ever play the game when asked if he would ever have considered using PEDs:

“Absolutely. I’m just happy they weren’t available (when he played), because if I knew somebody else was doing it and appeared to be getting an edge, I think I would have been tempted.”

I’m not going to sit here and try to profess that HGH and other performance enhancers don’t work. If they didn’t work at all, then athletes around the world in every sport would not be looking to them for a competitive edge. However, there is a growing pile of evidence that the level of “performance enhancement” provided by HGH and the like is greatly exaggerated. What we do know though is that during the period from 1994-2004, baseball openly allowed the use of HGH and other PEDs. In fact, it encouraged it through financial incentive. MLB also engaged in the construction of numerous, smaller ballparks while also diluting the talent pool by expanding the league to 30 teams. There is also strong evidence that MLB has more than once tampered with baseball production, a controversy only now coming under greater scrutiny. Despite all these changes, only one player managed to hit 73 home runs - the same player who already had three MVP trophies on his mantle and was robbed of a fourth by writers upset that Bonds held a grudge against them for what they did to his father. He was (and still is by many) considered to be one of the best hitters since the Splendid Splinter. His hitting philosophy is simple and elegant and has been adopted by other players with great success.

Did the PEDs help Bonds reach that number? I would have to vote, yes. But I honestly cannot say by how much. Two-time MVP Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 to set the modern single-season record (until 1998). Outside of the magical 61 in 61, he never hit more than 39 in a season. Could smaller ballparks, harder throwing pitchers, maple bats, tighter baseballs, and being a naturally larger human with better hitting mechanics than Maris have allowed Bonds to have a one-time jump from a previous high of 49 home runs (46 if we want to pre-date any hint of suspected PED use) to his record-setting season of 73? It certainly seems plausible, especially given just how many other players were launching balls out of the yard at the time. Was Bonds doing anything wrong? Yes, he was breaking the law of the land, but not the intent of the sport. Bonds, Clemens, Bagwell, Sosa, Piazza, Jones all have one thing in common. None of them failed a test. When the rules said they couldn’t use, they tested clean. There is Mike Schmidt’s conundrum with “legitimate test”. Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez fall on the other end of the argument, as does Robinson Cano. They all used banned substances after the league made it explicitly clear that PED use would no longer be tolerated. I’m again with Mike Schmidt that those players were warned that PED use was not allowed and they chose to use anyway, thus, they should face sanctions and other consequences.

So, what is it about the PED era which makes it the black sheep of eras? Is it just the sentimentality that is lovingly strewn over previous generations being worn thin or completely erased? What differentiates the players who used illegal performance enablers in the 1960s-1990s (many of whom are in the Hall of Fame) from the players who may or may not have used performance enhancers between 1995-2005? Why is it against the character clause to consider such players when the Hall is filled with great baseball players who also, by default, are also human beings?

For as long as people have been paid to play the game of baseball, players have sought a competitive edge. From segregation, to amphetamines, to scuffing baseballs, to tack, to modern medicine, to elixirs made from monkey gonads, players have always sought an edge. It’s the league’s job to decide what is and is not allowed and to police the players accordingly. Until June of this past season, it was estimated that as many as 70% or more of pitchers in baseball used some form of sticky substance to get a better, firmer grip on the baseball. It’s been against the rules since almost the dawn of time. However, baseball encouraged and rewarded it. Now, baseball is cracking down. Now, spider tack is not allowed to be used to increase the RPMs on a two-seamer, giving it a foot of break. In many ways, this is even more unbalanced than HGH use, as only the pitchers are benefiting, whereas PED use was just as rampant among pitchers as it was among hitters. I’m fairly certain that the streets will be paved smooth to admit Clayton Kershaw into Cooperstown when his time comes.

Great baseball players are, by definition, human beings. Human beings are flawed beings. Being flawed does not prevent one from also being great at something. However, it seems that the BBWAA, Cooperstown, and even MLB itself now wants to retroactively police almost an entire generation of players for being flawed whilst also possibly being great. The Baseball Hall of Fame has its large share of baseball doctors, cleat sharpeners, amphetamine poppers, bigots, and violent offenders. Despite those moral failings, their baseball greatness is still celebrated. So why draw the line at PED users, and why the seemingly random application of said line?