Fans Ahead of the Media on Steroids
by Glenn Dickey
Jun 07, 2005

THOSE IN THE media who believe that steroids are The End of the World As We Know It Ė Bob Costas is the latest, with a rant in The Sporting News Ė canít understand why so many fans choose to ignore all the steroids chatter.

Maybe, just maybe, itís because they have a better perspective on the steroids hysteria.

Many fans realize, for instance, that itís difficult to quantify the difference steroids make. All we really know about steroids is that athletes who take them can add muscle mass more quickly if they work out than without them, that they can work out longer without tiring and that they can recover more quickly from injury.

Thatís a powerful advantage. I believe that has been the biggest help for Barry Bonds, because heís been able to recover quickly from injury before this season and heís been able to maintain his strength and fitness at an older age.

But the biggest factor in hitting is not strength but bat speed and hand-eye coordination, which are not affected by steroids. Bonds has had the ability to wait an important split-second longer on a pitch before he decides whether itís in hit hitting zone. He has had great plate discipline, seldom swinging at a pitch out of the strike zone.

Those are the same attributes that made Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks great home run hitters in an earlier era, though itís likely neither one ever weighed more than 175 pounds in his prime.

Jason Giambi has admitted taking steroids. Mark McGwire took a steroids-like substance, which was allowed in baseball, and thereís speculation that he took regular anabolic steroids, too. Perhaps they made Giambi, always a good percentage hitter, into a more powerful hitter. His power numbers jumped with the Aís, but they came at a time when he was moving into his hitterís prime, too. McGwire hit 49 homers as a rookie, and itís almost certain he wasnít on steroids at that point.

Meanwhile, there have been some unlikely players who have either admitted taking steroids or failed a test. Jeremy Giambi and Marvin Benard are admitted steroids users. Sure helped them, didnít it?

In individual sports when athletes compete against a clock, as in swimming and track and field, itís relatively easy to quantify the advantage steroids can give a competitor.

But in baseball, itís pitcher against hitter. If both are taking steroids, who has the advantage? Of the 71 minor leaguers who failed the drug testing, 34 were pitchers. Most likely, the same pattern has been there on the major league level.

MANY FANS KNOW, too, that the argument that the playing field must be level is bogus. There has always been cheating in baseball, and the difference in parks directly affects statistics.

In an earlier column, I cited the clear example of Gaylord Perry, whose spitter, an illegal pitch, got him into the Hall of Fame. Sammy Sosa was caught using a corked bat, and many hitters have tried that tactic.

Managers have tried, sometimes successfully, to steal pitch signs. Groundskeepers have altered the area around the infield foul lines, slanting it toward the middle of the field if their team has good bunters, slanting it away if their infielders are slow to react to bunts. As manager of the Giants in 1962, Alvin Dark had his groundskeeper water the infield around first base so the Dodgersí Maury Wills couldnít get the jump he needed to steal second.

These maneuvers were called game-playing, but whoís kidding? Theyíre trying to cheat, a.k.a. tilting the playing field.

Fans also know that, quite apart from deliberate moves, the park in which a team plays affects the game and its statistics. Home run totals and batting averages have always been high at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. Now, Coors Field is the prime example. Because of the mile-high altitude, balls travel further, so fences have to be further back. That allows a lot of balls to drop in for hits which would be caught in other parks, but itís still a home run haven.

Many hitters have thrived there, and Larry Walker is probably the best example, because he played in Montreal before he came to the Rockies. Walker was a good hitter with the Expos, with a high of .322 and 23 home runs, which did not come in the same year. With the Rockies, he had four seasons in which he hit at least 36 home runs, had one season in which he hit .366 with 49 home runs and had consecutive seasons in which he hit .366, .363 and .379.

No level playing field there.

FANS ALSO know that the fear that statistics from the steroid era canít be fairly compared to those from earlier eras Ė which particularly pains Costas, who acts as if he invented baseball Ė is also bogus.

There have always been inequities in baseball statistics because eras are different. When the Depression hit, baseball owners were desperate for ways to get fans to come to the park, so they juiced up the baseball in 1930. That was the year in which Bill Terry was the last National Leaguer to hit .400 (.401) and Hack Wilson set a major league record which still stands with 191 RBIs, as well as what was then a league record 56 home runs. The Philadelphia Phillies hit .315 as a team and finished last in the National League.

It slowed down some in the years after that, but the Ď30s were overall a time of great offensive stats, which propelled many players into the Hall of Fame.

Thirty years later, it was a pitchersí era, with so many great pitchers that Juan Marichal couldnít win a Cy Young Award. After 1968, a year when Carl Yastrzemski, at .301, was the only American League hitter to top .300, the rulesmakers lowered the mound to give hitters a chance.

By the testimony of Tom House, then a pitching coach, steroids were in use in the Ď60s. Hmmm.

THIS YEAR, there appears to be a slowdown in offensive production and a return to a better-balanced game.

Many media members are jumping at the chance to say that itís because of a strengthened drug-testing program, though an elephant could walk through the holes in the baseball program.

More likely, itís a reaction from the offensive displays in recent seasons. Aís general manager Billy Beane, in a Sports Illustrated article, noted that, because of the offensive explosions, teams have been emphasizing pitching in their scouting. So, now more good young arms are coming to the majors than good hitters, and weíre starting to see the results of that. I wouldnít be surprised if offensive numbers drop even more in the next couple of seasons.

In time, I would hope that writers and broadcasters will realize how theyíve overplayed the steroids story. Fans are already there.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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