Nelson Cruz, Melky Cabrera and the silent majority
We’ve been talking about this stuff for more than a decade now -- talking about it and talking about it and talking about it -- but I guess we still don’t know how everybody feels about baseball players who use performance-enhancing drugs. Every time it seems like we’re getting close to understanding the topic, some sign or signal or trend seems to blow up everything.
Of course, we know how SOME people feel. We know some of us are outraged by the steroid users, the HGH users, the cheaters. Some of us feel like these players stole something important from baseball with all their tainted home run records and faux legendary performances -- something the game can never quite get back. Some of us (including some Hall of Fame voters) find it hard or impossible to forgive.
On the other hand, though, some of us think the whole steroid thing has been overblown, that the moralism surrounding the issue has become as tiresome as the steroid use itself. Some of us think the attempts to shun and ostracize baseball players who used steroids so they could work out harder and come back from injuries more quickly has pushed past reasonableness and that the annual Hall of Fame “did he or didn’t he” dance has drained all the fun out of the baseball.
Some of us feel this. Some of us feel that.
But every time the consensus seems to be collecting in one area, there is a bold sign that, no, we’re still locked in a stalemate. Take Ryan Braun. It sure seemed like we were supposed to be very angry with Ryan Braun. His was a particularly infuriating case. You will remember the details: In late 2011, a month after Braun had been named league MVP, it was leaked that he had tested positive on a drug test and was in line for a 50-game suspension. One anonymous source said it was the highest testosterone level ever recorded by Major League Baseball.
Well, Braun appealed the decision by bringing into question the way his sample was collected and delivered. He won the appeal -- “on a technicality” according to the New York Times -- and the whole thing might have died quietly. Instead, Braun decided to do an unappetizing touchdown dance press conference which included his Nelson Mandela-esque soliloquy: “I’ve always stood up for what is right … today is about everybody who’s been wrongly accused, and everybody who’s ever had to stand up for what is actually right.”
The technical term for what Braun did at the press conference, I believe, is: Lying. Last year, he was powerfully linked to the Biogenesis mess -- that South Florida Carl Hiaasen novel of an anti-aging clinic and baseball player PED farm -- and while at first Braun tried to separate himself through various means (lying) he eventually accepted a 65-game suspension and said he “made some mistakes.”
Those darned mistakes.
So, much of the talk at that point was how people would boo Braun, how rough it would be for him on the field and so on. Well, this year, Ryan Braun is not having a particularly good year. He’s hitting .284/.336/.488 -- all three splits the lowest of his career -- and he’s a mediocre right fielder at best.
Right now, the fans have him fifth in the outfield All-Star voting, in range of getting a starting nod. That would be fifth in the All-Star voting, way ahead of Jason Heyward and Hunter Pence and Justin Upton and Mike Morse, all of whom arguably are having better years, and Billy Hamilton, who is a lot more fun.
You may say: Well, that’s Milwaukee fans stuffing the ballot box. Maybe. Except for this: Are you really saying that Milwaukee Brewers fans are stuffing the ballot box?
And also this: Braun is not alone. Baltimore’s Nelson Cruz IS having a good year. A great year, in fact -- he was tied for the league in homers and RBIs. He, too, was suspended for his connection with Biogenesis. And he’s leading all American League DHs in votes -- he has more votes, in fact, than Derek Jeter in his final season. Could Baltimore fans be stuffing the ballot box, too?
What about Toronto fans? Melky Cabrera at the moment has enough votes to be an American League starting outfielder. Cabrera failed his drug test back in 2012, a year the Giants were on their way to the World Series, he was suspended for 50 games, and people seemed to be griping that he didn’t even deserve a World Series ring (he got one). Now he’s having an OK year and he has a very real chance to start in the All-Star Game.
So what does it mean? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. We don’t know. Ten years of analysis and takes and government intervention and self-promoting baseball public relations and everything else, and the truth is we still have no real clarity on how we feel about steroids and other more powerful drugs in baseball. Nobody wants it in the game. We know that. But is it a scourge on the game? Is it a misdemeanor at worst? Is it a Hall of Fame disqualifier? Is it just like other kinds of cheating (greenies, spitballs, corked bats, etc.)? Is it even a factor when voting for All-Star teams?
For fun, I put up a little survey in an effort to find something like a consensus on such things. Here was the conceit: You have 12 hypothetical baseball players who, by the numbers and by their performance, are clear-cut, no-doubt Baseball Hall of Famers. But each player was a bit different.
You have to decide whether or not each of the 12 is a Hall of Famer.
If you like, you can take the survey yourself … but I’ll give the latest results here. More than 3,000 people took the test.
Player 1: Great person, unanimously beloved, signed every autograph, treated everyone with respect.
Hall of Famer: 95.2 percent
Not a Hall of Famer: 4.8 percent
Comment: Well, the point was for Player 1 to get 100 percent of the vote -- there’s no real reason to NOT vote for him -- but as you can see about five percent decided to vote against this imaginary player everyone loves who had clear-cut Hall of Fame credentials. This is pretty realistic, actually. Willie Mays got 94.7 percent of the vote.
Player 2: Unlikeable person, terrible teammate, generally despised in the clubhouse, booed often.
Hall of Famer: 89.3 percent
Not a Hall of Famer: 10.7 percent
Comment: A few people decided to pass on the terrible teammate but the vast majority did not see moodiness or egotism as a reason to keep a player out of the Hall of Fame.
Player 3: Cheated regularly in what most would consider an on-the-field, baseball-centric way (threw spitballs, corked bats, maliciously spiked players to gain an advantage, etc).
Hall of Famer: 63.6 percent
Not a Hall of Famer: 36.4 percent
Comment: Here is the first shocker. I full expected this kind of cheater to get three-quarters of the vote, minimum. This sort of cheating -- Gaylord Perry’s spitball, Babe Ruth’s likely bat-corking, Ty Cobb’s spike sharpening -- seemed to have become a part of baseball’s lore. This is the game of: If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.
But almost 40 percent of the voters found this kind of cheating to be offensive enough to keep a player out of the Hall of Fame. I find that interesting, even if this isn’t anything resembling a scientific poll.
Player 4: Had one or more famous on-the-field incidents that embarrassed baseball (spit at an umpire, threw a bat at a pitcher, pitched a fastball at a player’s head, started fights, etc.)
Hall of Famer: 89.4 percent
Not a Hall of Famer: 10.6 percent
Comment: Voters clearly weren’t too bothered by incidents like this.
Players 5: Popped amphetamines regularly in the belief they kept him more alert.
Hall of Famer: 83.6 percent
Not a Hall of Famer: 16.4 percent
Comment: Voters did not really seem to care much about greenies either. I have a theory about this, which I will talk about in the next comment.
Player 6: Used steroids a couple of times before testing was put into place and stopped because he felt like they did not work well for him.
Hall of Famer: 87.7 percent
Not a Hall of Famer: 12.3 percent
Comment: Here’s shocker No. 2. Almost 90 percent of voters seemed to have no hesitation at all voting for someone who tried steroids a couple of times. It’s easy to make too much of a silly poll like this, but this does touch upon a theory of mine. I’ve always thought there are two main reasons why people are against steroid use in baseball.
1. Using steroids is WRONG.
2. Using steroids makes a players’ performance inauthentic.
The first -- using steroids is wrong -- is a big and bold topic, and it covers a lot of ground. Steroid use can be wrong for dozens of reasons. You might think steroid use is wrong because it’s cheating, because it’s illegal, because it sets a bad example for kids, because it hurts honest players, because it’s bad for your health, because it messes with nature and so on and so on.
But the second -- this is Bob Costas’ point of view -- is that while steroid use may be wrong, that’s not why steroid use should keep players out of the Hall of Fame. The Costas view is that players have ALWAYS cut corners and cheated in various ways. If I understand his viewpoint -- and we’ve talked about it at length -- I don’t think he sees a big MORAL difference between using steroids and popping amphetamines; in both cases players are using drugs that are illegal without prescription to improve their play.
But he sees a gigantic PRACTICAL difference between the two. He does not think amphetamines altered players’ performance in a big way, but he thinks steroids did that. The reason he would not vote, say, Mark McGwire into the Hall of Fame is NOT because he thinks McGwire committed some sort of unpardonable baseball sin. It is because he believes, without steroids, McGwire would not have been a Hall of Fame player.
This difference is really not subtle … and there are strong signs that many voters in this poll agree with Costas. The high total for amphetamine users suggests that people are not as bothered by greenies because they do not fundamentally alter players’ performance. And the Player 6 vote is even more pointed: Here you have a player who used steroids a couple times. But he stopped because he could not see the benefits. He cheated, but the cheating did not make him a better player. And 87.7 percent of the voters say he’s a Hall of Famer.
Player 7: Used steroids for much of his career before baseball tested, felt badly about it, admitted it and worked to prevent kids from using steroids in the future.
Hall of Famer: 75.7 percent
Not a Hall of Famer: 24.3 percent
Comment: Well, 75 percent of the BBWAA is enough to get a player into the Hall of Fame. Of course, this wasn’t the BBWAA voting … and this probably wasn’t specific enough. I was thinking a bit of McGwire when writing the description -- and McGwire received just 11 percentof the vote this year. But looking back I realize there are many reasons people do not vote for McGwire. Some, like Costas, don’t think he was truly a Hall of Fame player. And many others felt his admission and apology fell short.
Player 8: Used steroids before testing, lied about it, never did come around to admitting it.
Hall of Famer: 61.3 percent
Not a Hall of Famer: 38.7 percent
Comment: I’m surprised how close this vote total is to Player 3, the one who threw spitballs or corked bats. It’s almost like these voters were saying: Cheating is cheating.
Player 9: Used steroids and other PEDs after testing, was caught, promised to never do it again, was never caught again.
Hall of Famer: 59.2 percent
Not a Hall of Famer: 40.8 percent
Comment: Similar to Player 8. I actually am a little harder-line on this … I think it’s quite a lot worse using PEDs now, with testing in place and with clear guidelines, than it was in the wild 1990s when nobody seemed to know the rules and nobody seemed to care.
Before you say it -- there’s no doubt in my mind that players in the 1990s knew that PED use was cheating. But at the same time, I’ve always thought that MLB was more than tacitly encouraging steroid use by having no drug testing, by celebrating the power numbers, by plainly looking the other way. The Selig Power Hour Era was the work of many people, including an uninterested media and public that has long shrugged at steroid use in, say, the NFL. But it seems like only a handful of players are taking the fall after baseball steroid use became a national cause.
Now, I think there are no excuses and there is no gray area: If a player uses steroids, he’s cheating and he’s going to be punished severely if caught.
Player 10: Was convicted of killing someone two years after retirement when he was no longer involved in baseball.
Hall of Famer: 58.5 percent
Not a Hall of Famer: 41.5 percent
Comment: Well, this wouldn’t make for much of an induction day. But the majority of these voters held their noses and voted for the murderer. This gets at something else, something I have written about: When a player is elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, is that meant more as an honor for the player or is it meant more to record the best players in baseball history for posterity?
Of course, Hall of Fame inductions are BOTH honor and historical record. But what is the main purpose? If the main purpose is to honor the player -- sort of a Nobel Prize of baseball -- then, yes, you can see why someone who cheated or committed some sort of unforgivable crime has no place receiving that honor?
But if the point is for posterity, then it’s hard to see NOT putting in a great player because of other flaws. History is messy. The people who should be remembered for their excellence in one way were often very flawed people in many other ways. There are many who say, for instance, that Barry Bonds should be inducted into the Hall of Fame and the various things we know about him and steroids should be boldly noted on his plaque.
O.J. Simpson is still in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was undeniably a great football player and that’s why he’s there. The rest is the rest. How you feel about that probably tells you what you think Hall of Fame should be.
Player 11: Gambled on baseball games and threw games on more than one occasion.
Hall of Famer: 11.8 percent
Not a Hall of Famer: 88.2 percent
Player 12: Gambled on baseball but never threw a game and tried hard to play every game straight.
Hall of Famer: 55.1 percent
Not a Hall of Famer: 44.9 percent
Comment: These were the two lowest vote totals of the whole group. It’s pretty clear that these voters still think gambling -- not steroid abuse, not greenie abuse, not cheating in some other way and not even breaking one of the ten commandments -- is baseball’s cardinal sin. Well, it is the one posted in every baseball clubhouse.
And I’m sympathetic to Pete Rose’s Hall of Fame case but I also believe this: He’s not going into the Hall of Fame. Not now. And probably not ever.