Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's McGwire or no one

"If you had a pill that would guarantee a pitcher twenty wins, but might take five years off his life, he'd take it." - Jim Bouton in "Ball Four."

The greatest sports book of all time, and arguably one of the five greatest books of any genre, was published in 1970. Back then, the only people using steroids were bodybuilders with huge pecs and not-so-huge other thingies to get them ready for competitions or the latest gay magazine layout. But there was another drug of choice for big league ballplayers back then, one that was not described as a "scourge" or turned major leaguers into "cheaters", "villains", "poopyheads", or any number of other descriptives handed down by the sanctimonious media. Those drugs were just the latest way ballplayers tried to get a leg up on their competitors, something that's been going on since the invention of the professional game. That's the reason all the hyperventilating about Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, et al is just that, a bunch of hot air that should be sucked away so those guys can eventually take their rightful place in baseball's Hall of Fame.

McGwire, as you may know, apologized the other day for his steroid use during his playing days, an apology we knew was coming ever since the Cardinals named McGwire as their hitting coach for the upcoming season. That apology wasn't enough for some of the baseball writers who are, of course, without sin in their lives. The apology wasn't sincere. McGwire didn't apologize in the correct way. He never admitted that steroids made him a better hitter or shrunk his manhood, that they were the reason he broke the (cue the big ballsy voice guy) "most hallowed of baseball records", Roger Maris's 61 homers in a season. The only problem is McGwire couldn't apologize for that, because it simply cannot be proven to be true.

As Jim Bouton wrote, the baseballers' drug of choice in the 1960's and '70's was the "greenie", an amphetamine that probably didn't enhance anyone's on-field performance. But the players who popped copious amounts of greenies thought they did, many claiming they couldn't take the field without them. No one, and I mean absolutely no one, talked openly about greenies before "Ball Four," and even after Bouton's book was out, most of official baseball said that Bouton was off his rocker and continued to deny that greenies existed. We now know that official baseball was lying, just as blatantly as Commissioner Bud Selig appears to have been lying when he claims not to have known about steroid use in the 1990's. This begs the question, did Roger Maris pop greenies in 1961?

Regardless of what anyone tells you, the only person who knows that answer passed away on December 14, 1985. If the answer is yes, then Maris's breaking of Babe Ruth's record is just as illegitimate as that of McGwire or Bonds, at least it is if the virginal media critics of the 'roid users are to be consistent. Therefore, Babe Ruth once again holds the legitimate single-season home run record. Then again, there is now a lot of evidence that Ruth used corked bats during his playing days, which is, you guessed it, cheating. Did he use corked bats during his 60-homer season in '27? The only person who truly knows that passed away on August 16, 1948.

If he did, then the "legitimate" single-season dinger record goes back to the first person everyone thinks of when it comes to homers, the great Ned Williamson. Who, you ask? Why Natty Ned, or as he was known to his teammates, Snoop Neddy Ned. In 1884, Snoop hit 27 homers for the Chicago White Stockings, an amazing total for an era in which only one baseball was used in each game. Since spitballs were still legal, that ball usually was the color of the Oval Office ashtray and had the consistency of a cow pattie by the end of a game, so 27 bombs is an amazing total. That is until you consider that 1884 was the first year in which a ball hit over the fence on the fly was counted as a home run. Before then, it was counted as a double. Couple that with the fact that the White Stockings' home ballpark was smaller than Jay Leno's ego (186 feet and 190 feet down the left and right field lines respectively), and Snoop's record becomes dubious.

That would give the record to Harry Stovey (14 homers in 1883). But Stovey played in the American Association, and while most historians consider the A.A. of that era a major league, the older National League considers it a ball of phlegm. If you're a National League tory, then baseball's single-season home run king is....Charley Jones, with an amazing nine dingers in 1879.

Now, some will say this is silly, that only McGwire and Bonds actually benefitted statiscally from their drug use, unlike Maris and other greenie users or the Babe and other corkers. But one thing McGwire did say accurately, and I dare anyone to challenge this scientifically, is that sometimes he had good seasons when he was on 'roids and sometimes he had bad seasons when he was on 'roids. His numbers bear him out. Steroids may help make you physically stronger, but they don't help you generate bat speed, which is the number one component in hitting the ball out of the ballpark.

So why, you ask, did Bonds' numbers go up after he (apparently) started juicing? If you recall, it was about that same time that Bonds started wearing giant elbow pads, forearm pads, hand pads, butt pads, and other body armor that made him resemble a character in "Rollerball." Bonds also started standing practically on top of the plate, and no pitcher was man enough to throw at him to back him off. Couple that with an altered swing to generate bat speed, smaller ballparks than those of the '70s and '80s, and voila, dinger records galore.

Did 'roids help Mark and Barry? Maybe. Were steroids the only reason they hit a ton of homers when they did? Of course not. Therefore, just as the 'corkin' Babe and the possibly greenied Maris, not to mention a possibly greenied Hank Aaron, were hailed when they broke their records in their eras, McGwire, Bonds, et al should not be treated as pariahs for following baseball's grand tradition of finding ways to win. What McGwire and Bonds took were not outlawed by baseball at the time, and may even have been tacitly encouraged by Selig and the rest of official baseball. Bottom line, McGwire and Bonds were two of the best players of their era, and that means that like the other best players of other eras, they both belong in the Hall of Fame.

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