Originally written on StraitPinkie.com  |  Last updated 11/8/14

With the recent suspensions of Colon and Cabrera, baseball’s shadowed doubts have resurfaced.

 

It was just beginning to feel like baseball again. Excitement was in the air. The pennant races were poised to last until game one-sixty-two, if not beyond. Fan bases in Cincinnati, Baltimore, Oakland, and Washington were double-checking calendars and realizing, “Damn, we have a chance.” Mike Trout and Derek Jeter were defying both sides of age and expectations. And the debates, for once, centered on baseball –on Strasburg’s innings limit, on the MVP race, on the Cy Young candidacy of Aroldis Chapman.

All of these things are still happening. Except the last.

In the span of a single week and two fateful Wednesdays, the names of Bartolo Colon and Melky Cabrera stole the headlines. In the span of two positive tests for synthetic testosterone, baseball’s recent, shadowed past resurfaced in the present. The critics, the doubters, the naysayers were back. And, once more, America’s pastime, though still beloved, entered the cloudy conversation of “Who’s juicing? Who’s clean? Who, if anyone, can we trust?”

Founder of BALCO Victor Conte went as far as to claim that the use of testosterone was still rampant in Major League Baseball, calling into question whether the league’s harsher drug policy was working, and calling into question whether we’ve truly surpassed the Steroid Era. It was a single week on the timeline, but the consequences were numerous.

The debates resurfaced. The doubts resurfaced. And an otherwise incredible, dramatic season fell to the media backburner. It was like going back in time, when ESPN’s coverage of baseball reported from hearings in Congress and every day of the summer was spent speculating the meanings behind increasing bicep size and power numbers. It was a past that no baseball fan wanted to relive. It was a past that dethroned Hank Aaron, first deified then crucified Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, and made Jose Canseco a best-selling author.

It was also a past that was very different from baseball’s present.

I’ll never claim that baseball, or any sport in the 21st century, is clean from performance-enhancing drugs. Obviously, it’s not. And it never will be. But if today’s steroid/PED use is rampant, then what word would you use for the late 1990s? Epidemical? This is a fight that must continue to be fought, as technology and chemistry emerges to challenge the latest tests. But it’s a fight that baseball seems to have been winning. Power numbers have plummeted. Inhuman dimensions have diminished. And the game has substantially changed.

We’re calling this the Year of the Pitcher, part three, for a reason. Guys aren’t crushing home-runs on a daily basis in 2012.

The numbers bear this out. If you average the top five home-run hitters of each season for the past fifteen years, an obvious trend presents itself. The numbers are going down…substantially.

Year Average # of HR Among Top Five League-Leaders; (Players) 1997 50;    (McGwire, Griffey, Walker, Martinez, Bagwell) 1998 58.2; (McGwire, Sosa, Griffey, Vaughn, Belle) 1999 53.6; (McGwire, Sosa, Griffey, Palmeiro, Vaughn) 2000 47.4; (Sosa, Bonds, Glaus, Bagwell, Hidalgo) 2001 59;    (Bonds, Sosa, L. Gonzalez, A. Rodriguez, Helton) 2002 49.4; (A. Rodriguez, Thome, Sosa, Bonds, Palmeiro) 2003 45.4; (A. Rodriguez, Thome, Bonds, Sexson, Lopez/Pujols) 2004 45.6; (Beltre, Dunn, Pujols, Bonds, Ramirez) 2005 47.4; (Jones, A. Rodriguez, Ortiz, Lee, Ramirez) 2006 50.4; (Howard, Ortiz, Pujols, Soriano, Berkman) 2007 47.4; (A. Rodriguez, Fielder, Howard, Pena, Dunn) 2008 40;    (Howard, Dunn, Delgado, Ludwick, Pujols and several others tied) 2009 44.4; (Pujols, Fielder, Howard, Reynolds, A. Gonzalez) 2010 42.2; (Bautista, Pujols, Konerko, Cabrera, Dunn) 2011 40; (Bautista, Granderson, Kemp, Teixeira, Fielder)

 

Comparing the above stats with the Steroid Era timeline makes these trends much more interesting, and perhaps, sheds a new light on the successes of the MLB’s drug policies.

From 1997-2001, steroids were in their heyday. The infamous chase for Roger Maris, the Barry Bonds explosion, the Texas Rangers syringe parties –these were the moments coinciding, and retroactively, defining an era of baseball. On average, the top five home-run totals for these seasons totaled an incredible 53.64, an anomaly in baseball’s recent history.

Then, BALCO was exposed. Secrets were whispered beyond the shadowy corners of baseball training rooms and bathroom stalls. And something had to change. In 2002, baseball finally reacted to what had been a widespread problem for years, and strengthened their bans on substances that included performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). The result was seemingly tangible.

In the seasons from 2002-2006, the numbers declined. The top five home-run totals over each of those five seasons averaged at 47.64 –six home-runs, already, below the trends of just five years before. But, in this time, the hushed whispers became casual chats became mountaintop screams. In 2004, Caminiti admitted his own steroid use before suffering a tragically youthful death. In 2005, Jose Canseco released his infamous book Juiced. From that point on, the secret was out. The change of 2002 wasn’t enough. Baseball had to, after years of neglect, stare this problem in the face.

In the spring of 2006, the MLB introduced its current drug policy –a policy that called for harsher punishments and tougher tests. In the five seasons after 2006, when the policy was able to go into effect, that initial decline of power numbers plummeted. From 2007 to 2011, the average of the Top 5 Single-Season home-run leader averages tabulated to a measly 42.8. In a single decade, the production at the top of the league had dropped over ten home-runs. In the statistical world, that’s what we call a substantial change that seems to go beyond coincidence. In the baseball world, that’s what we call a sign of progress.

As awareness of steroids increased, fans and legislators became incensed, and baseball finally lowered an iron fist. As you can see above, there’s clearly been a change.

But that’s not the story dominating the headlines in the wake of Colon and Cabrera testing positive. That’s the only positive we’re focusing on. Instead, the MLB is once again being lambasted in the world of sports because these tests confirm more than the presence of steroids; they confirm that this drug policy isn’t 100% foolproof. They confirm that this problem, at some level is still out there.

But what people fail to realize is that these positive tests, at some level, show that the system is working. Shouldn’t the relative silence of the NFL and NHL be more disturbing? Shouldn’t we be glad that baseball is proactively finding these cheaters and suspending them? Because something tells me that the rate of PED-use isn’t higher in baseball than football. Something tells me that baseball is just looking a little harder for it. Because we made them. Because we, as baseball fans and legislators, decided it mattered.

In the wake of these reports, Cabrera and Colon have been vilified. They’re cheaters. They’re usurpers of cash. They’re stains against the game.

This is the type of conversations that happen when names become numbers and cease to be human beings.

For example, we see that Bartolo Colon never reached 100 innings pitched from 2006 to 2009, then suddenly, threw over 160 in 2011 and over 150 in 2012. Conveniently, we overlook that the rest of his 2009 numbers (4.19 ERA, 10 hits/nine innings, 5.5 strikeouts/nine innings) don’t look that much different from his 2012 numbers (3.43 ERA, 9.5 hits/nine innings, 5.4 strikeouts/nine innings). But we begrudge him the durability.

We don’t see the human aspect –the pitcher past his prime, riddled with injuries, rendered irrelevant. If there’s an option that can slow that fall from grace, return a man to the game he loves, and give him a chance to last a full season, should that not tempt him? Can we really begrudge him that?

In the numbers world, we see that Melky Cabrera’s 2010 was beyond mediocre. He hit .255/.317/.354, slammed only four home-runs, stole only seven bases. We see that 2.3% of his fly balls that season went over the fence.

Then 2011 happened. He hit .308/.339/.470. He hit 18 home-runs. He stole 20 bases. 7% of his fly balls were now leaving the park.

Then, against all odds, 2012 happened. He was hitting .346/.390/.516. He’d already hit 11 home-runs, already stolen 13 bases, and 6.7% of Cabrera’s fly balls were leaving the park.

One second, he was one of 2012’s best stories –an All-Star MVP, a player overcoming years of disappointing mediocrity, an anomaly. The next, he was a cheater –a cheater chasing a contract.

What we fail to see is that he was a player seeking a chance to, yes, earn a living. In a substance, he saw the chance to improve his game, to insure that he wouldn’t end up in AAA earning middling salaries, to make his family and friends proud. He saw a chance to realize the dreaded potential that had once been placed on his shoulders. He’s not a villain. He’s just a weaker version of the player that says no to drugs and suffers in mediocrity. There’s a difference. It’s not redeemable. But it’s also not detestable.

But with all that being said, I want them to be caught. I want baseball to be as clean of cheaters as possible. I want the game’s achievements to be accompanied with fascination rather than speculation and doubt. With every suspension, I hope that another player is deterred from making the same choice, no matter how tempting. I even hope that the punishments get harsher so fewer will take the risk.

Perhaps we should also be paying attention to the reactions of their peers. Reportedly, players aren’t so empathetic anymore; they’re upset. They’re upset that teammates would put team and season at risk for selfish reasons. They’re upset that fellow players would soil the name of baseball. They’re upset that this stuff is still out here. Does that sound like the reactions of a league in which the problem is rampant? In the early 2000s, players were defensive and dismissive. Now, they want the problem solved.

But the problem hasn’t been solved. That much is clear. Colon and Cabrera are but the most recent faces of the notion that baseball is not yet rid of performance enhancing drugs.

But the conversation that has followed is sickening and misplaced. To throw the entire game beneath the same microscope that we put it through in the early 2000s is to ignore the progress that has happened before our eyes. Look at Jose Bautista, then look at a picture of Barry Bonds circa 2001. Tell me, then, that we haven’t made progress. Tell me then that nothing has changed.

Tell me, then, that amidst all of this shadow and doubt, that there isn’t something also worth celebrating.

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