Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bob Ryan on McGwire, Steroids, and the Hall of Fame

Bob Ryan posted his Hall of Fame column today.  While I don't agree with all of his decisions (voting for Jack Morris), I respect the process in which he made his decisions.  Within his piece, he posed a somewhat unique opinion on the topic of steroids and the Hall of Fame that I thought I'd share with you
I haven’t voted for Mark McGwire in the first four years he’s been on the ballot. I need to hear some serious contrition, but it has not been forthcoming. You call that stuff he was saying during last spring training a meaningful apology and/or explanation? I don’t. “It didn’t enhance performance’’? Stop it
Let’s get back to Messrs. McGwire, Bonds, and Clemens for a moment. There is no unanimity of opinion about what to do with these guys. Some voters are of the opinion that if juiced pitchers were throwing to juiced batters, there’s nothing we can do about it now. The numbers are the numbers. Let ’em all in. As time goes on, more and more voters will think that way. And one day in the late teens, I may wake up and say, “You know what? Those guys are right.’’ I’m not ruling out that possibility.
I don't have any problem with Ryan's stance on McGwire.  While I think McGwire should be in the Hall of Fame, I understand his reasoning for not giving him his vote.  He's not saying he'll never vote for him, or other suspected or admitted steroid users; he's saying he wants some actual contrition before making that next step.  We can argue all day about whether or not going on 60 Minutes and giving a tear filled interview shows enough contrition, but some of his comments do show that perhaps he's not being completely honest with himself.  Ryan's point of view is logical and rational.  I can stand by that.  I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see someone that's open-minded about the possibility to voting for an admitted steroid user, rather than just shut the door and lock it forever.

Unfortunately, several members of the BBWAA don't view candidates of the steroid era in the same manner. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that steroids were the primary cause for the home run spike between 1994-2004 because I honestly don't know the answer.  I can tell you there appears to be a strong correlation between steroid use and power hitting, but that's as far as I can go.  Correlation does not prove causation, and I haven't seen indisputable data either proving or disproving the steroids hypothesis.  Sadly, there are plenty of journalists who prefer raw emotion to rational thought.  Those are the ones who use their Hall of Fame vote to cast moral judgment on players of their choosing without even a basic understanding of how PEDs may or may not have impacted the game of baseball. 

A couple of months back, I read a very interesting (and rather lengthy) study about how changes in the composition of major league quality baseballs may've have contributed to the spike in home runs during the steroid era.  This phenomenon isn't unique to the steroid era as it had happened a few times throughout baseball history including including the "Rabbit Ball" era of the 1920s. the 1977 season, and the 1987 season.  While this hypothesis doesn't disprove the steroid argument, it's convincing and certainly clouds the steroid argument with a shred of doubt.  The idea that steroid use helps improve a player's power output is conventional wisdom.  It's an obvious, logical answer to a complicated question or problem.  Frequently, conventional wisdom, once exposed for all of its flaws, is disproven to be nothing more than a hoax.  This may or may not happen with steroids and power output, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did.  

Additionally, I find it to be laughable that people claim to "know" not only who did steroids, but also can measure the impact of PED use without doing a shred of research or objective analysis.  Outside of a few select players, we know very little about who did or didn't use performance enhancing drugs.  We also don't know how many warning track fly balls were converted to home runs as a result of steroid use.  That's impossible to know without a ton of research and statistical analysis.  Considering most fans and writers have a tough time grasping advanced statistics like WAR, wOBA, and UZR (through no fault of their own, mind you), I don't how they could possible "know" the answer to those questions. 

Furthermore, suspecting Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza of using PEDs, while assuming players like Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey, Jr. were clean is not nothing more than an exercise in moral masturbation.  (Note:  I'm not saying any of those players did steroids.  I'm only pointing out the inconsistencies in thought process.)  We don't know that for sure.  There wasn't testing prior to 2004, so why are we pretending to "know" something we actually do not know?  Because we, baseball fans and writers, are angry.  We have to direct our anger at someone.  Pointing fingers at bulky sluggers with high home run totals (like Bagwell and Piazza) is convenient.  Jeter and Griffey, on the other hand, are considered heros "who played the game the right way," and have a true "baseball player's body type."  It's possible they didn't do steroids--perhaps even likely.  But assuming there's no chance they used PEDs is foolish.

All I ask is that everyone keep an open mind regarding the impact steroids have had on the game of baseball.  There's still a huge knowledge gap between what we know, and what we don't know.  Making irrational judgments based on a few weak facts and characteristics is grossly unfair.  We need to wait until we have the full range of facts available to us before we pass judgment on someone we suspect of wrong doing.  If we're going to extend this courtesy to suspected voilent criminals, shouldn't we extend this same courtesy to suspected PED users?

1 comment:

  1. Chip in answer to your text no I don't think it is an angry post. Very logical arguements. Personally I'm 99% certain (in my mind) that Jeter and Griffey didn't use 'roids but there's no way for me to know for sure it is just opinion. I would vote for Bonds or Clemens in the first ballot anyway because as far I'm concerned they were hall of famers before they started taking 'roids. I'm assuming that to be between 97 and 99 that it began but again that is just an assumption. Well written.