Thursday, July 15, 2004

Steroids and Barry

Reproduced below for your reading pleasure is an exchange of e-mails with my liberal friend Victor, a grad school chum. Prior to establishing my blog, he alone was subjected to my daily rants, which he responded to with patience and true grace. The topic of debate at the time was whether or not Barry Bonds surpassing Willie Mays in the home run category was as legitimate as, say, MC Hammer (who was too ligit to quit, although he seems to be taking a hiatus of late). As a debate, friends from Lehigh will be disappointed in comparison to the level of passion and lack of sobriety I once famously exhibited in debating one Sean McCormick at 4:00 in the morning on some train in Manhatten, wherein I established firmly and forever that Lenny Dykstra was superior to Barry Bonds. Even the bumbs on the train agreed with me.

Hatcher: All right, here it is: Has Barry Bonds legitimately hit 661 home runs? Or is he the product of steroids?

Here is my view:
1) Nobody grows from the size he was in his first few years in the league to the size that he is now without roids.
2) Nobody naturally or coincidentally makes friends, and keeps as friends, guys who later go down on federal charges for illegal distribution of steroids.
3) Steroids make you irritable. Barry Bonds is irritable.
4) In Amerika, you are guilty until proven innocent,
especially if you are black. Barry Bonds is black.

In my book, Say Hey Willie still ranks third, and I rest my case!

Vic: Actually, Willie ranks 2nd because Ruth never had to hit against
Satchel Paige and the rest of the great Negro League pitchers. Furthermore, nobody goes from hitting 11 and 29 home runs in 1918 and 1919 and then 54 and 59 in 1920 and 1921 (and hitting more home runs than 22 of the other entire teams in the league in 1920) without some type of assistance. Finally, I can only speak from personal experience here that looks can be deceiving. Lot's of people look at my physique and think that there is no way that I am not on the juice. But, in 100% honesty, this body is entirely natural, so I've got to give the same benefit of the doubt to Barry.

Hatcher: Didn't know the history of Babe as well as you do. I am not sure when
he converted from a pitcher to a regular player, but one would imagine there was a learning curve on the hitting end that could explain some ramp up in production, if not the levels he achieved. Also, booze, greasy food, and women are permissible performance enhancing habits - these were the Babe's assistance. I doubt that any steroids were even available back in those days; I think were still leeching the sick back in the 20s. If Bonds gained his girth through the natural pursuit of vice, I'd be on his side! But as far as I can tell, he doesn't drink, smoke, womanize, etc. And he is supposed to be a role model?

But you bring up an excellent hypothetical question: what would Babe
have hit if he had to face the best of the Negro league pitchers?
First off, even if Satchel Paige were in the MLB, there would be a
50/50 shot he would have played in the National League rather than the
American. So you'd have to look at expected home run effects of facing
any individual pitcher. But what can we infer from the racial
distribution of Hall of Fame or Hall quality pitchers post-integration
about the comparative quality of black pitchers? And in considering
this question, I think you remove any Dominican pitchers from the mix,
because the timing of the influx of Dominican players is not related to
the timing of integration (although you could argue that because
baseball draws from a wider geographic population than at one time,
quality of pitching has increased - but remember, Bonds hasn't faced Pedro in his career). Bob Gibson comes to mind as one of the greatest pitchers ever. Doc Gooden had a few good years. But I can't think of many great black pitchers, maybe due to lack of knowledge.

Off the top of my head, here are some great white pitchers:Carlton, Seaver, Big Unit, Maddox, Clemens, Orel Hershiser, the Neikros, Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Ron Guidry, Mark "the Bird" Fidrich (OK - he's not great, but he was cool). Who am I forgetting? In any event, I think it is reasonable to argue that Ruth would not have hit 45 fewer home runes(6.2 percent of his total) in an integrated league, but it is debatable.

Vic: A surprisingly reasonable argument given the writer. In regards to Satchel, he pitched 3 scoreless innings for the A's in 1965 at the age of 59 and went 12-10 for the Browns in 1952 at the age of 46. Not too bad. It does make you wonder why the great cross-over players from the Negro Leagues tended to be hitters.

In regards to Ruth, should booze be considered a permissible performance enhancing habit if booze is constitutionally prohibited?

Back to the simply looking at the size of the player, pick up a Kirby Puckett rookie card: a bean pole who stole over 100 bases in his two minor league seasons. He hit 4 home runs in his first two major league seasons
(1,248 at-bats) while batting roughly .300. In his third season (1986) he hit 31 home runs (good for 6th in the league) with roughly the same batting average. He was also much bigger. Steroids? So, I would suggest that the "Just look at him and his statistics" argument is not sufficient evidence and even in tandem with the BALCO thing can't be given much weight.

I would also say that while steroids and physical strength is a huge issue for, say, weight-lifting, in home-run hitting, it is only one relatively small piece of the home-run hitting puzzle. Otherwise, every team would just sign up Arnold or other body-builders.

Hatcher: In regard to booze and constitutional prohibitions, I refer you to a little essay by Henry David Thoreau - I think it is entitled Civil Disobedience or On Civil Disobedience. You might also read King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail. The only reason someone didn't write equally eloquent defenses of civil liberties in regard to the 19th amendment was because those inclined to do so were hopelessly drunk, as was their God-given (if not government given) right. But drunks are people too!

As for Kirby, turning from a bean to a pear is hardly evidence of steroids, which may be your point. And having that extra weight and strength in the hips will naturally give more power. But much more suspect is a guy who has thin arms that suddenly look like those of the Incredible Hulk.

Finally, the argument that steroids have little effect in the sport is absurd. Clearly the strength they provide is not a sufficient condition to hit home runs, but if added strength allows you 10 percent more bat speed without loss of hand-eye coordination, this implies that every ball you hit will come off the bat nearly 10 percent faster. This makes routine fly balls to left field home runs. If only we had complete video history of Hank, Babe, and Willie, we could see how many times a five percent addition to the distance of their ball would have led to home runs.

Anyway, Vic, I got to hand it to you: it is a measure of your fairness to give the guy the benefit of the doubt in a situation with imperfect information. Baseball doesn't want to do anything serious about it - record breaking performances put people in the seats, whether they are legitimate or not. Of course I blame the player's union for this. But I also think the conduct of Bonds through this is partly indicative of his guilt. He's said test me anytime, which is really an empty offer because he clearly has probably stopped using due to the scrutiny. If we could go back in time - now that would be the test. So why doesn't he, as the best player in the game and one of the best players all time, take a leadership position and buck the union and say that baseball should adopt a stringent standard? My guess is that he won't do that because he knows people in the game who know the truth about his own history, and they'll stay quiet to the extent that they may also be benefitting from similar usage. But if you piss some of the guys off with a statement that is hypocritical, the gloves might come off.


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