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Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Big Yawn

One of the world’s worst kept secrets was finally revealed this week.  Mark McGwire used steroids during his playing career.

The earth-shattering revelation served as a tincture to a rather slow news cycle and soon we got to hear what everyone thought about the biggest outrage since the Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series.  Or was it the Crusades?  We got to hear what Hank Aaron thought about the news.  We got to hear what Lance Berkman and Claire McCaskill thought about it.  At this point, I feel a little cheated that the government hasn’t leaked exactly what the Underwear Bomber thinks of McGwire.

So, what exactly does this signify for the validity of home run records and baseball history?  Nothing.

Numbers play a big part in baseball.  Sabermetrics has become increasingly popular over the last 15 years and numbers like 4256 and .400 capture the imagination of baseball fans without any further explanation.  Numbers tell stories, they preserve memories of games played that nobody now remembers, and many fans have memories of poring over box scores.

Numbers, however, really aren’t important in of themselves.  Without being placed in context, a number is meaningless.  Hitting .400 and winning 20 games means something different in 2009 than it did in 1909.

So, when I hear about numbers and sanctity, my eyes glaze over.  Numbers know no sanctity, no morality.  Babe Ruth’s 60 comes from a drastically different time and set of circumstances than Roger Maris’s 61.  The same differences exist between 61 and McGwire’s 70.

In Ruth’s time, anabolic steroids were unheard of, though Pud Galvin experimented with monkey testosterone and there are stories, perhaps apocryphal, about Ruth injecting himself with extract from sheep’s testes.  Suffice it to say, there weren’t many distributors of the high-quality enhancers we see today and players didn’t have the sophisticated training regimens designed to take advantage of the drugs.

But Ruth also played in a game in which many great players were excluded from participating.  He played at a time when teams didn’t scour the four corners of the world for talent.

This is the context for 60.

Fast forward to 1961.  Baseball has just expanded, both in teams, and in talent, thanks to the integration of players that would have been kept out in Ruth’s time.  There was no Balco in 1961, but performance-enhancing drugs did exist, in an age where “Better Living…Through Chemistry” was a popular advertising slogan.  Amphetamines, now banned by every international body, were just becoming popular in baseball, providing the players’ coffee with an oomph that hazelnut-flavored creamer just can’t match.  Steroids became rampant in sports, starting with the introduction of Dianabol, the first American mass-produced anabolic steroid, in the late 1950s.

Bodybuilding wasn’t big in baseball at this time, but it would be naive to conclude that the players that did lift weights simply didn’t know about the widespread use in football, weightlifting, and other sports of the time.  We even have anecdotes of various veracity, from Zev Chafets’s assertion in 2009’s Cooperstown Confidential that Mantle was injected with a steroid/amphetamine concoction to Koufax having anything and everything injected into his arm so that he could take the field to former pitcher Tom House’s admission of using steroids in the 1960s, complete with outing unnamed teammates and opponents.

This is the context for 61.

Now we’re up to 1998.  Steroids are now developed in highly sophisticated laboratories.  Players have access to the highest quality workout enhancers around and compete with each other to try to newest and greatest concoctions.  Even the possibility of making changes at the genetic level sounds more like science fact than science fiction.

This is the context for 70 and later, 73.

So, what does this all mean?

MLB has made great strides in recent years at finally negotiating a proper drug testing regiment, with some of the stiffest penalties in American sports.  Forget asterisks and footnotes and simple crossing out of inconvenient numbers.  There’s nothing mutually exclusive about celebrating the great home run seasons of Ruth, Maris, McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds.  Mark McGwire’s abilities can be fully appreciated without required a diminishing of Roger Maris.  One can appreciate Barry Bonds without Babe Ruth rolling over his grave.

But numbers?  Pure?  There’s no such thing.  Never was, never will be.

 

Dan Szymborski Posted: January 14, 2010 at 04:56 PM | 24 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Pat Rapper's Delight Posted: January 14, 2010 at 06:05 PM (#3437523)
Bravo, Dan.
   2. RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: January 14, 2010 at 06:10 PM (#3437525)
This wasn't as funny as the Podsednik signing.
   3. Matt Clement of Alexandria Posted: January 14, 2010 at 06:14 PM (#3437530)
In Ruth’s time, anabolic steroids were unheard of, though Pud Galvin experimented with monkey testosterone and there are stories, perhaps apocryphal, about Ruth injecting himself with extract from sheep’s testes. Suffice it to say, there weren’t many distributors of the high-quality enhancers we see today and players didn’t have the sophisticated training regimens designed to take advantage of the drugs.
The "monkey gland" cocktail was invented in Paris in the 20s, and the bartender gave it that name, historians think, because of beliefs among some of his customers that one could use extracts of monkey testicle for rejuvenation. The idea was that this was a refreshing, rejuvenating drink.

2 oz gin, 1 1/2 oz fresh orange juice, 1/3 oz grenadine, dash absinthe, shake with ice, strain, squeeze orange peel over the top and drop in as garnish.
   4. Dan Szymborski Posted: January 14, 2010 at 06:17 PM (#3437533)
MCA, that sounds delicious, though I'd up the gin!
   5. Matt Clement of Alexandria Posted: January 14, 2010 at 06:23 PM (#3437536)
I think lowering the orange juice could also work. I should try that, maybe just 1 oz fresh orange juice.

Using grenadine made from actual pomegranate juice helps, though it's hard to be cost effective unless you drink craploads of grenadine for some reason. And the legalization of (some) absinthe in the US is one of the greatest things to happen for drinkers in the last decade. The real stuff beats the pants off Pernod or Herbsaint. Ah, damn, I said I was gonna be working "all day" back at 10 am.
   6. Drew (Primakov, Gungho Iguanas) Posted: January 14, 2010 at 06:30 PM (#3437543)
Ah, damn, I said I was gonna be working "all day" back at 10 am.


You can set your own hours? I am 1000% jealous.
   7. Thermos Posted: January 14, 2010 at 06:34 PM (#3437546)
Well done, Dan.
   8. Drew (Primakov, Gungho Iguanas) Posted: January 14, 2010 at 06:40 PM (#3437552)
Thanks Szym--you reminded me why the groupthink on PEDs here at BBTF is warranted. My only concern is that there's no way to know how much each generation was helped by their advantage of the moment. I suppose in some way it is unarguable. If one thinks they can quantify all of those advantages to a degree that they could say "yes, the 1990s were the decade in which the greatest numbers were most aided by PEDs", I suspect that person would either be lying or be the first person on the planet to have been able to do this.

God, that was incoherent. This is what the flu does to me.
   9. birdlives is one crazy ninja Posted: January 14, 2010 at 06:55 PM (#3437567)
Fast forward to 1961. Baseball has just expanded, both in teams, and in talent, thanks to the integration of players that would have been kept out in Ruth’s time. There was no Balco in 1961, but performance-enhancing drugs did exist, in an age where “Better Living...Through Chemistry” was a popular advertising slogan. Amphetamines, now banned by every international body, were just becoming popular in baseball, providing the players’ coffee with an oomph that hazelnut-flavored creamer just can’t match. Steroids became rampant in sports, starting with the introduction of Dianabol, the first American mass-produced anabolic steroid, in the late 1950s.

Citations on this information? I'm interesting in checking this info out.
   10. Dan Szymborski Posted: January 14, 2010 at 07:16 PM (#3437591)
Citations on this information? I'm interesting in checking this info out.

Chafets talks about it. There were also a lot of rumors about the Dodgers using in the late 50s (and we know they were already widespread by the end of the 60s). There's an article on Snider and amphetamine use that I'm looking for and can't find at this moment (but I'll keep lookign).
   11. Walt Davis Posted: January 14, 2010 at 07:44 PM (#3437634)
The Black Sox threw the Crusades?
   12. Dan Szymborski Posted: January 14, 2010 at 07:51 PM (#3437650)
Steroids became rampant in sports

Now this one is easier. Bill Gilbert did a huge expose in the late 60s for SI. Football wasn't just turning a blind eye - teams and coaches were actively providing steroids to players. The Chargers in particular were providing steroids to their players by 1963 and drug companies were actually secretly providing steroids to high-schoolers during the same time frame.

David Meggyesy wrote an autobio in the early 70s about his career and said while he didn't see it personally, NFLers were getting information about how to dope up from track and field athletes.

In weightlifting, the Russians were using testosterone on their athletes by the early 50s.
   13. birdlives is one crazy ninja Posted: January 14, 2010 at 08:04 PM (#3437670)
Steroids became rampant in sports

Now this one is easier.


But was steroids rampant in baseball?
   14. Dan Szymborski Posted: January 14, 2010 at 08:11 PM (#3437685)
But was steroids rampant in baseball?

At that point, probably not. As I noted, weight-training wasn't huge in baseball yet. But it certainly seems that there's a very good likelihood that they were on the periphery (with cases like Chafets's research about Mantle and later, House).

The media narrative that everyone in baseball suddenly discovered this drug that had been in sports for more than 30 years between 1992 and 1994 is absolutely tripe.

And, it's worth noting, Maris's career and circumstances are such that he would be assumed to be a steroid user today without any additional evidence. The sudden increase in homers (right after Dianabol hit the market), the very early breakdown, the hair loss, the personality conflicts at the end of his Yankee stay, his early death to cancer, are all explainable in and of themselves, but definitely demonstrate the dangers of jumping to conclusions.

And it's always worth noting that one of the most claimed results of steroids, cartoon bodies, looks to be pretty bullshit given the number of players that have been busted that nobody would remotely think of as muscle-bound freaks.
   15. tfbg9 Posted: January 14, 2010 at 08:14 PM (#3437690)
I've read the same arguement in many steriod threads here at the site, and mostly agree.

I also believe that every reasonable effort ought to be continued to make MLB as PED-free as possible.
And that includes measures like frozen blood samples grandfathered-in.

The HOF thing will sort itself out. Especially if/when we learn that some guy already in was a user.
   16. The Polish Sausage Racer Posted: January 14, 2010 at 09:56 PM (#3437798)
The media narrative that everyone in baseball suddenly discovered this drug that had been in sports for more than 30 years between 1992 and 1994 is absolutely tripe.


Well, obviously. I remember hearing Canseco was juicing back in the 1980s and I was only a casual fan. It's like everyone has collective amnesia about this.
   17. Athletic Supporter can feel the slow rot Posted: January 14, 2010 at 10:12 PM (#3437810)
Amphetamines, now banned by every international body, were just becoming popular in baseball, providing the players’ coffee with an oomph that hazelnut-flavored creamer just can’t match.

Spoken like someone who's never had a good hazelnut-flavored creamer. Yum!
   18. Olaf Posted: January 14, 2010 at 11:16 PM (#3437870)
Dan, we need you to write/host a "sabermetric mixology" blog (here or elsewhere). Trust me, crunching numbers is much more fun when you're toasted!!
   19. JC in DC Posted: January 15, 2010 at 03:36 AM (#3438048)
Dan:

In all due respect, this is a bad piece. Your section on the context of 1961 is irresponsible, mixing unsubstantiated claims about the "rampant" use of steroids in sports with unverifiable and very thin assertions about what Mantle was injected with. That is no "context." That's just junk. As DMN would say, the claim about "rampant use" in sports is so vague as to be meaningless. I just did a quick 10 minute search of journals through my University's electronic library, and there's nothing supporting your meaning of that phrase (implying that steroids may have been in baseball). The most one can find is that steroids were being used by SOME Olympians but did not spread much beyond the Olympics until later ('70s and '80s). I grant that's just a quick search, but it's grossly unfair to Mantle or Maris or anyone to claim THAT'S the context of their achievement, and especially to do so without citation. I daresay I'm not even sure you need to make that claim to support your correct point that numbers are "contextual."

But I also think that that's a somewhat tired and uninteresting claim. Sure, the numbers are "contextual", but they're also numbers and have long been meaningful for baseball fans. I'm sure I'll be accused of romancing the stone, but I grew up thinking 61 was significant, and we all knew George Foster was the last guy to hit 50. I wonder if our "contextualization" has overwhelmed the thing we were contextualizing, you know? We were drawn to understanding the context by the numbers. I wonder if, when the numbers are less meaningful, we'll care about either?
   20. sportznut Posted: January 15, 2010 at 05:15 AM (#3438130)
I'd like to see a few of these ZiPs projections put on steroids, personally.
   21. DetroitMichael Posted: January 15, 2010 at 06:31 PM (#3438481)
If there was no cheating in 1961, then Roger Maris would have been on the Kansas City Athletics team, not the New York Yankees. Would he have hit 61 homers for the Athletics? Who can say? The home ballpark was more offense friendly than Yankee Stadium I was but Maris presumably would have had fewer plate appearances playing for a less productive offense.
   22. Enrico Pallazzo Posted: January 16, 2010 at 09:23 PM (#3439235)
Well, obviously. I remember hearing Canseco was juicing back in the 1980s and I was only a casual fan. It's like everyone has collective amnesia about this.

I was watching an ESPN Classic game of the 1988 WS (may have been the ALCS), and they had a between-inning pre-recorded interview with Jose Canseco asking him (very casually, it seemed) about any possible steroid use due to apparent rumours about it. I don't remember any mention whatsoever about the S word before or after that segment.

I chuckled. And then I wondered, where were the burning crosses and white hoods in 1988?
   23. An Athletic in Powderhorn™ Posted: January 16, 2010 at 10:31 PM (#3439268)
Would he have hit 61 homers for the Athletics? Who can say? The home ballpark was more offense friendly than Yankee Stadium I was but Maris presumably would have had fewer plate appearances playing for a less productive offense."


Maris had 698 PAs for the '61 Yankees. Assuming his PAs/team PAs remained the same, he would have had 690 for the A's. This doesn't count the PA boost from taking PAs from Jim Rivera, Deron Johnson and Leo Posada and giving them to Maris. NY's park factor that year was 95. KC's was 101. According to ballparks.com, Municipal Stadium's 1961 dimensions were

lf: 353
lcf: 390
cf: 421
rcf: 387
rf: 353

Those look quite a bit deeper than Yankee Stadium's, particularly in rf. Maris was a pull hitter, right? (I remember reading about complaints that Yankee Stadium's short right field corner cheapened the record.) I don't think it's likely he'd have hit more homers in KC than in NY, though he might have had better slash stats.

I do find the idea very intriguing. If Maris hits 60+ homers with the sadsack A's, then what? Would he receive nearly as much sportswriter venom breaking Ruth's record if he isn't wearing pinstripes? Would he still get the occasional HoF support he does now? If he's not playing next to Mantle, does he get the acclaim he deserves? How does he do in the '60 and '61 MVP votes when he's playing on terrible teams?
   24. calhounite Posted: January 21, 2010 at 06:53 AM (#3442877)
this is not about past era's relative impurities and imperfections. This is about the systemic use of peds. Every sport has had to go through a ped transistion to reach the correct verdict. Don't try to measure their impact. They are a disqualifier period.

A sport has time to come to grips with this. The mid early NFL 70's players were blubbering roid maniacs. The 70's are still considered legitimate because in the face of blatant use and competitive distortion, the NFL moved to outlaw roids. A transistion has to happen.

Baseball in the 60's to mid 80's were NOT infested with roids. Why? Because baseball was considered a flexibility sport and adding strength was considered counterproductive.

The 90's., when the philosophy changed, MLB players wer the blubbering roid maniacs. And the transistion that should have come in the 90's, with roids known by everyone connected to MLB to being widely used - outlawed, and the events happening during the decade viewed as legitimate due to s*** happens - DIDn't happen.

This was and is a massive screwup, and trying to relate it to past impurities and imperfections has no relevance at all. MLB remains the ONLY competetive sport/organization that just let roaming, mechanized steroid robots run wild - no attempt at regulation, actually promoting roids..

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