Thursday, January 6, 2011

A few thoughts on the Steroid Era

Take a look at the Single-Season leaders in Batting Average. Go ahead, we'll wait. Maybe you're lazy, and don't want to. So allow us to do some copying and pasting:

1. Hugh Duffy - .440 - 1894
2. Tip O'Neill - .435 - 1887
3. Ross Barnes - .429 - 1876
4. Nap Lajoie - .427 - 1901
5. Willie Keeler - .424 - 1897
6. Rogers Hornsby - .424 - 1924
7. George Sisler - .420 - 1922
8. Ty Cobb - .420 - 1911
9. Tuck Turner - .418 - 1894
10. Sam Thompson - .415 - 1894

Of the top 10 highest batting averages recorded in a single season, six of them came before 1900, and eight of them before 1920. What is your initial reaction? Something along the lines of, "Yeah, but that was the Dead Ball Era?"

It's widely accepted to be a unique period in baseball history. Of those ten players, seven are in the Hall of Fame (Tip O'Neill, Ross Barnes, and Tuck Turner aren't). O'Neill is the only one who would actually be eligible for the Hall of Fame as the other two didn't play ten seasons.

If you're thinking, "The game was just different back then," you would be absolutely correct. If you are a proponent of the Hall of Fame and what it stands for, then you look at the above numbers and qualify it for what it is - an era in history which took on a different dimension, and has since evolved.

We don't study world history and think, "21st century civilization is bullcrap, because they all had FourSquare and Twitter and whatnot. Telegraphs: That's when civilization was pure."

Another table, if you will, and I bet you can guess what it represents:

1. Barry Bonds - 73 - 2001
2. Mark McGwire - 70 - 1998
3. Sammy Sosa - 66 - 1998
4. Mark McGwire - 65 - 1999
5. Sammy Sosa - 64 - 2001
6. Sammy Sosa - 63 - 1999
7. Roger Maris - 61 - 1961
8. Babe Ruth - 60 - 1927
9. Babe Ruth - 59 - 1921
10. Jimmie Foxx (and Hank Greenberg, Ryan Howard, and Mark McGwire) - 58 - 1932, 1938, 2006, 1997

Yes, seven of the ten seasons with the most home runs came within a five-year span (1997-2001). So, it's been labeled the Steroid Era. But does it not just mean that the game took on a different dimension from those that came before it? Does the availability of technology (medicinal and otherwise) change the fact that 1994-2004(-ish) was a different time in the game?

Or is it because, this time, writers are accountable for their own actions? Bernie Miklasz has an excellent column today in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. An excerpt:

We're many of the same voters who looked the other way and glorified McGwire — godded him up, really — when he was filling those stadiums, creating excitement and selling extra newspaper copies in the late 1990s. The struggling print-news industry needed a boost, and McGwire was our performance-enhancing story. His muscle drove home runs and single-copy sales.

And what proud, card-carrying member of the BBWAA wants to be reminded of that now? We've found religion on the steroids issue, and it is never too late to convert.

That's a remarkable piece of accountability and journalism.

Had the Steroid Era happened (if you don't count amphetamines) in the late 1800s, how many of the BBWAA would be writing "If Ring Lardner had any balls at all, then he would have..." articles?

At our favorite Phillies blog, Crashburn Alley, they have a post on boycotting the Hall of Fame, and it's a poignant and interesting read. But I still can't see holding the Hall of Fame responsible for how the voters choose their candidates. Think of it in terms of American Idol. That show sucks, and I haven't watched it in years, because people are - collectively - stupid ("One of us is not as dumb as all of us" mentality) . If, in your mind, the Hall of Fame should become like American Idol, it's certainly your prerogative.

We just shouldn't be so shocked that the BBWAA is collectively ignorant (you know how hard it is to get 75% of 581 people to agree on anything?), and to take it out on the institution that has nothing to do with how the BBWAA votes (aside from refraining to guide their choices) and makes the voters figure out for themselves who best represents the era - whether that era encompasses using rolled up socks for a ball, or performance-enhancing drugs - isn't fair.

The Steroid Era doesn't need an asterisk. It's a walking asterisk, just like the Dead Ball Era.