Steroids Story Fizzles
Remember the wild claims earlier in the year that Barry Bonds could land in prison because of supposed perjury in his testimony in the BALCO case? That ceased to be a possibility when federal prosecutors plea bargained with BALCO owner Victor Conte and Bondsí personal trainer, Greg Anderson. Each will serve four months in prison but they are not required to give information or even names of athletes to whom they gave steroids.
On the field, both home run and run production were down in early season, and the tightened drug policy was supposed to be the reason. Now, though, it seems that unusually cold weather in early season was more of a culprit than a lack of steroids.
At midseason this year, home run and run totals were still down from the totals of the last two years at the same time, but not as much as the decline from 2001 to 2002. In í03 and í04 there were an average of 2.14 and 2.15 home runs a game; this year, itís 2.06. Runs scored for those years were 9.58, 9.56 and, this year, 9.27. But the highs for the five-year period were posted in í01, 2.3 home runs, 9.70 runs per game, and the lows the next season, 2.01 and 9.16.
The biggest factor in the decline in both home runs and runs in the first half of the season may be the absence of Bonds and the fact that Sammy Sosa and Jim Thome combined for just 16 homers in that time.
Individually, many of us thought that Jason Giambi would be a test case because Giambi, who has admitted to taking steroids, had a big jump in home run production with the Aís in early career. Giambi, who had a series of health problems last year, started slowly this year, but he regained his stroke and heís hitting for power again, 10 home runs in this month. Giambiís power surge with the Aís now seems more likely to be a result of his maturation as a hitter. Good young percentage hitters often learn to look for a pitch they can drive as they gain experience, and that causes a jump in their power numbers.
NONE OF THIS will surprise those who have looked at this issue rationally. As the identity of steroids users becomes known, there have been as many pitchers as sluggers. So, as I pointed out earlier, if a pitcher on steroids is throwing to a hitter on steroids, who has the advantage?
It isnít just power pitchers and sluggers on the steroids list, either. Alex Sanchez was the first to be outed; his glove needs steroids more than his body, as Giants fans have learned to their dismay.
Though critics of steroids use pointed to the muscle/weight buildup for sluggers, the chief benefit has probably been the ability to recover more quickly from injury. I think thatís why Bonds has been able to recover quickly in previous years, though it was no help for him this year after knee surgery. Itís also why youíve seen 160-pound players test positive for steroids.
It was always simplistic to think that the big power numbers which were put up in the last 15 years were because of steroids, while dismissing factors like a juiced-up baseball, new parks which were more hitter-friendly and weak pitching. Now that there are more young, quality starters coming into baseball, thereís more balance in the game.
Frankly, I think most fans put this issue behind them as soon as the season started, except for those who want to use it as a reason to bash Bonds. One of the reasons newspapers are failing is that theyíre not listening to their readers, and this was a classic example. The steroids story remained a big one in the media, while it was largely forgotten by fans.
For the most part, fans just want to see the action on the field, and theyíre aware that there has often been cheating in some form in baseball. Gaylord Perry, who openly admitted throwing an illegal pitch, the spitter, was honored last Saturday night by the Giants, with whom he started his Hall of Fame career.
DONíT TAKE this to mean that I condone the use of steroids. I think all professional sports should do as much as they can to rid their sports of steroids.
At the same time, though, we have to be realistic. Athletes will do whatever they can to get an edge. Thereís been talk of eliminating amphetamine use, for instance, since I first started covering baseball in the '60s, but those close to the game think amphetamine use is more widespread than steroids.
Meanwhile, weíve been sending the wrong message to high school players Ė and to amateur players in other countries. Felipe Alou noted that the high incidence of steroids use among Latino players stems from the impression those players have that taking steroids is a tremendous advantage. And where do you think they got that idea?
Itís the same with high school players. Making coaches responsible for stopping steroid use among their athletes, as some have suggested, is totally unrealistic. Itís hard enough just to get coaches for that thankless job, without burdening them with this.
Itís past time to put this into perspective. Congress should butt out and the media should look to more legitimate stories. Fans already have.
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