5 Reasons Steroids Were Never the Real Problem in Baseball
Major League Baseball finally wraps up the regular season less than one week from today, and that means it's time to talk about one thing. Playoffs? No, that's boring. I'm talking about steroids, of course.
In 2013 alone, the league hit 13 players with steroid suspensions for a combined total of 811 games (of which A-Rod accounted for a record-shattering 211). In the eyes of most fans, steroids are an epidemic that will forever taint the records and accomplishments of many of baseball's biggest stars from the past two decades. Should that really be the case, though? Nope. Here are five reasons why:
There Are Admitted Cheaters in the Hall of Fame Already
When it came time to vote for the 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame class, not a single player was elected, because that'll show 'em! It was the first year of eligibility for steroid villains like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, you see. Whether it was the intent or not, the snubs sent an obvious message. The Baseball Hall of Fame voters unanimously reject cheaters.
Except that's not true at all. There are admitted cheaters in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame right now. Take the hilariously-named case of Gaylord Perry, for example.
"Seriously, just call me Greg."
He pitched for 22 seasons, during which he racked up an impressive 314 wins and won the Cy Young award twice, becoming the first player to take home the coveted "Pitcher of the Year" award in both the American and National leagues.
He was also a shameless cheater. Gaylord Perry's specialty was the spitball, a pitch that's been illegal in baseball since 1921, in part because it's nearly impossible to hit. He was so bold in his use of the pitch, he actually wrote an autobiography called Me and the Spitter in 1974, a full nine years before he retired.
Despite this admission, he made it 21 years in the league before finally being ejected from a game for throwing the illegal pitch on Aug. 23, 1982. Earlier that year, he'd become the first pitcher since 1963 to reach 300 wins. In 1983, his final year in the league, he was one of three pitchers to break Walter Johnson's all-time strikeout record in that season alone (Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton were the others).
In short, Gaylord Perry ascended to the highest ranks of MLB pitching royalty, and he did it all while openly cheating. For his crimes against sportsmanship and fairness, he was elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.
If baseball historians really have a problem with cheating, they certainly have a selective way of showing it. That's why, if you ask me, I say ...
Everyone Deserves an Asterisk
A lot of people just flat out hate Barry Bonds. Not only did he insult our intelligence by lying about using steroids while his head otherwise inexplicably doubled in size, he used those steroids to break Hank Aaron's long-standing career home run record. Because of the allegations leveled against him, you rarely hear that achievement discussed without someone mentioning the need to add an asterisk next to his name in the record books. Somehow, baseball fans of the future must always be reminded that, even though Barry Bonds is technically the best home run hitter of all-time, he's not really the best home run hitter of all-time.
Fine, but if that's true, then who is the best home run hitter of all-time? Is it really Hank Aaron? He played approximately the same number of seasons as Babe Ruth. Yes, the Babe played 22 seasons to the Hammer's 21, but most of Hank Aaron's seasons were eight games longer and far less impacted by hot dog-eating injuries, so it balances out.
The only plate Babe Ruth truly cared about.
Seeing as how he outhit the Bambino 755 to 714 in the same relative amount of time makes it a pretty cut and dry win for Hank Aaron, right?
Not so fast. Babe Ruth played the first six seasons of his career under the cloud of baseball's dreaded Dead-Ball era, a period of time in which the competitive advantage was slanted so heavily in the favor pitchers it fucking killed a guy. On top of that, Babe Ruth played those six seasons primarily as a pitcher, so he appeared in way fewer games than an everyday player like Hank Aaron would.
I can hear the objections now: "Steroids were a personal choice Barry Bonds made, the Dead-Ball era was beyond Hank Aaron's control. It was just a part of the game at one point." That's true, but still, an advantage is an advantage. If you adjust Hank Aaron's stats during his first six seasons to reflect Dead Ball era playing conditions, his advantage over Babe Ruth would likely shrink dramatically.
Except it wouldn't, because Babe Ruth had the biggest competitive advantage of all, he didn't have to play against black people.
Take that as a racist joke all you want, but it's a valid goddamn point. The league Babe Ruth played in at the time excluded an entire segment of the population from competing. That means the talent pool in those days wasn't any more pure than it was during the steroid era.
I'm not saying steroids should be completely disregarded when it comes to the legacy of Barry Bonds. I'm just saying everyone has their asterisks, even if not all of them are self-imposed.
Also, there's something you should keep in mind before assuming hitters during the steroid era gained any advantage other than lighter and easier to carry testicles ...
Pitcher Is the Position With the Most Performance-Enhancing-Drug Suspensions
Home runs sell tickets, so it's no surprise that sluggers like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire became the most high-profile targets when steroid accusations began swirling. The problem is, steroids and home runs don't have a ton in common.
For starters, hitting a home run requires skills that steroids don't improve, like hand eye coordination. Your gigantic forearms are useless if you can't make the bat and ball meet on a consistent basis.
Or keep Olive Oyl from banging Bluto.
It's also important to note that of the 43 players suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs since 2005, 15 of them were pitchers. The next closest position was outfielder with 13, but that blanket term actually covers three positions on the field (left, right, and center fielder), so even then it's not really as close as it seems.
It makes perfect sense, too. Steroids, even more than helping muscles get huge, help muscles heal. Throwing a baseball is one of the most physically destructive acts in sports. Doing it over the course of several innings will destroy your arm. That's why pitchers don't play every day. They're supposed to be fucked up for a few days afterward. Steroids help that not be the case, and you don't have to know how to swing a bat to feel the benefits.
You barely even need to stand up!
That raises an obvious question. Are steroids really a competitive advantage if they're being used by everyone? When the pitcher on the mound is as roided up as the hitter at the plate, don't the two sort of cancel each other out? Roger Clemens was the only huge name pitcher to get swept up in the steroid talk, and he's not even on that list of players who were suspended. If we somehow magically received a definitive list of every player to ever use steroids while playing in the majors, there's no guarantee that the final number wouldn't skew heavily toward hitters, but it certainly isn't trending that way right now.
Still, an unfair advantage is an unfair advantage, and the "real" players from the days when baseball was "honest" had to set and break their records without the benefit of steroids. Is that fair? Of course not, but it's also not accurate, because ...
Steroids Weren't Even Banned in Baseball Until 1991
Steroids have been around for a long time. They first made their way to the United States as a performance-enhancer in the 1950s. The NFL's San Diego Chargers are widely acknowledged as one of the first major sports teams to benefit from using steroids way back in 1963. That means steroids have been a part of professional sports in some way for at least 50 years.
With that in mind, who honestly believes steroids didn't start impacting baseball until the 90's? To believe that requires the kind of gullibility usually only seen in victims of Nigerian email scams. Even the fact that baseball finally outlawed steroids in 1991 is a sham, because they didn't start testing players for them until 2005. What's the point of banning them if you don't check to see if anyone is complying?
In the league's defense, you could probably identify steroid users in baseball just as easily this way.
Even more telling is the fact that the resulting uproar from the player's union following commissioner Fay Vincent's attempt to ban steroids from the game in 1991 was so intense he eventually resigned over it. So why are we still clinging to this idea that baseball was ever steroid-free? Not taking steroids and not getting caught taking steroids are definitely not the same thing, Lance Armstrong. The fact that the MLB player's union was only able to fight off drug testing until 2005 doesn't make that year the starting line for steroids in baseball.
At least one player, former Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom House (the guy who caught Hank Aaron's record-breaking home run ball, coincidentally enough) says he used "steroids they wouldn't give to horses" during his playing days from 1971 to 1978.
There is no caption that could do this picture justice.
He even claimed that "six or seven" pitchers on every team experimented with steroids at the time.
Look, the fucking Olympics didn't even ban steroids until 1975. If you think baseball just magically stayed clear of steroids until Barry Bonds showed up, you're exactly as naive as Major League Baseball hopes you are. After all, the more you fixate on steroids and home run hitters, the less time you have to figure out that baseball is hiding the fact that ...
Amphetamines Were the Real Scandal
Baseball had a way bigger performance-enhancing drug problem than steroids on its hands for a long time. Since as far back as the days when Willie Mays (the 4th most prolific home run hitter of all time, for the record) allegedly kept a liquid version called "Red Juice" on hand in his locker at all times, baseball players have relied on amphetamines to provide the boost that becomes necessary so many times during a grueling schedule that sees major league teams play 162 mostly boring-as-fuck games in just over 180 days.
Respected legends like Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, and even Hank Aaron himself have admitted to using amphetamines at some point during their career. Commissioner Bud Selig, the man credited with finally ridding the game of amphetamines, said they'd been a problem in the league for for seven or eight decades. There was a tell-all book written by a major league player detailing the various ways players were benefiting from the use of amphetamines way back in 1970.
Jim Bouton, the Jose Canseco of his day.
They even have a cutesy nickname for the most commonly abused form of amphetamines in sports, pills called "greenies."
Despite amphetamines being an acknowledged problem in baseball for longer than most of our parents have been alive, the league didn't start testing for them until 2006, a year after testing for steroids began. So which drug had more of an impact on the game? Let's look at some statistics.
For all intents and purposes, the first year of widespread testing for steroids was 2005. If the accepted logic that steroids equal more home runs is true, production in that area should have dropped off dramatically in 2006, right? Well, it didn't. In 2005, teams across both leagues hit an average of 167 home runs and scored 744 runs. While that was indeed a steep decline from the previous year's numbers, it didn't stay that way. In 2006, those totals increased to an average of 179 home runs and 787 runs scored, which is about where they were the year testing for steroids began. A full year removed from that monumental moment in baseball history, things seemed to actually get better for home run hitters. Just a reminder, the majority of performance-enhancing drug suspensions have been pitchers. Draw your own conclusions.
Meanwhile, the league finally got around to mandatory testing for amphetamines in 2006. Can you guess what happened next?
Instead of focusing on home runs, as so much of the PED debate does, let's look at the meat and potatoes stuff, hits and strikeouts. From 2004 to 2005, production in both areas dropped. Again, 2005 was the first year of actual steroid testing. The next year, things basically recovered for both sides at about the same rate. It was as if banning steroids had no real effect at all. After amphetamines, though? Things haven't just tilted in favor of pitchers, it's been a veritable golden age of expert pitching.
Total hits in 2006, the first year of mandatory amphetamine testing, were at 45,073. They've dropped every single year since amphetamines were banned. Again, they went down and back up again after steroids. The drop since amphetamines were banned, though, has been noticeable and drastic. In 2012, the total was just 42,063.
As for strikeouts, in 2006, there were 31,655. Just as hits have continuously gone down, strikeouts have gone up almost every single year since 2006. There were 36,426 in 2012.
If that doesn't do anything for you, consider the fact that of the 23 perfect games (meaning no one on the opposing team even reaches first base) thrown by pitchers in major league history, 17 of them happened between 1880 and 2004. That's 124 years. Perfect games used to come around with the frequency of visible comets in the night sky.
Get your Nikes on!
Now, ask me how many perfect games there have been since 2006. Six! And when I say "since 2006" what I actually mean is "since 2009." There were two in 2010 alone, which seemed mighty impressive until there were three in 2012. At that pace, after 124 years there will have been 186 perfect games thrown. What in the motherfuck is happening?
The explanation is pretty simple and obvious. Hitting a major league pitch is something the majority of Americans can't do at their most awake and alert. Position players take the field every single day, which is naturally going to tire out any athlete (especially if you routinely spend the night before games getting hammered). For decades, players have been able to fight that fatigue with amphetamines. Sure, they won't help you hit the ball harder, but if those pills are the difference between mentally alert or tired as hell, their benefit at the plate is undeniable. Hitters aren't less productive because they can't take steroids anymore, they're less productive because they can barely stay awake.
Now they know how we feel!
Pitchers, on the other hand, generally get lots of rest between appearances, making the energy boost from amphetamines less helpful or necessary. For the everyday player though, losing that amphetamine boost has been a disaster. Oh, and in case you're wondering, there were 5,386 home runs in 2006. In 2012, just 4,934.
Coincidentally, since amphetamines were banned, the rate of diagnosis for ADHD in baseball has skyrocketed to twice the national average, resulting in hundreds of players each year receiving exemptions to take drugs like Adderall, which, of course, are basically amphetamines. Imagine that.
So what does all this mean? Well, if amphetamines really do have the impact on hitting that the statistics seem to indicate, and if the steroid era really didn't start until sometime in the '90s, doesn't every record set when hitters had the benefit of using amphetamines but pitchers didn't have the benefit of using steroids deserve the same asterisk we're so eager to affix to the steroid-era records? If amphetamines have really been around for seven or eight decades like Bud Selig says, that covers everything from Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak to Pete Rose's all time hits record and everything in between.
Steroids didn't make baseball a dirty game. It's just a lot easier to write off the past two decades of professional baseball history as tainted when the alternative is admitting that baseball has always been a dirty game.
Adam hosts a podcast called Unpopular Opinion that you should check out right here. You should also be his friend on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.