Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Steroid Era Not Quite Over in MLB

As another new PED revelation unfolds, it's safe to say more MLB players will be implicated in the use of banned substances, and that list may grow quite large upon further investigation.  This should come as no surprise to anyone, based on what transpired nearly fifteen years ago.

In the immediate aftermath of that PED-aided-homer-happy 1998 MLB season, which saw Roger Maris' single season home run record of 61 obliterated by both Mark McGwire (70 HR) and Sammy Sosa (66 HR), a voice of reason tried to warn the world of baseball of serious trouble brewing.

The voice of reason belonged to Texas Rangers pitcher, Rick Helling, during the '98 MLBPA winter meetings in Nashville.  Helling saw what was happening; the use of performance enhancing drugs had become so widespread, it was forcing normally honest players to jump on the bandwagon just to keep up with the pack.  Helling realized this was making it impossible to maintain a "level playing field" between the users and the non-users; something had to give.

Of course, nobody listened.  Taking the sort of action Helling was recommending would be terribly inconvenient; worse yet, it would be terribly costly.  Sacrificing revenue was a preposterous notion; especially since the fans were clearly enjoying the pumped-up performances throughout The Show.  While the McGwire - Sosa home run spectacle got most of the national attention, attendance throughout MLB was clearly on the rise, along with the home run totals.  The infamous players' strike of '94, which not only wiped out the last couple of months of the regular season, along with the postseason, also alienated millions of faithful fans; many of whom vowed to never attend another game again.  However, all that animosity seemed to fade away with every September home run smashed by the two friendly rivals.  By the time the New York Yankees completed its four-game sweep of the San Diego Padres in a somewhat anti-climactic World Series, baseball was back, with its image restored, quickly regaining its pre-strike popularity.

As the seasons rolled by, the unprecedented power surge continued, as more and more players were mysteriously muscle-bound, hitting balls farther than anyone ever dreamed possible.  It was no mystery to Rick Helling; he continued voicing concerns about PED use at the winter meetings, and the MLBPA continued to ignore him.  By 2001, a brand-new single season home run record had been established (73) by an amazingly pumped-up Barry Bonds, while fans were flocking to games in record numbers.  In the July 2001 issue of Playboy (of course I read the articles), sportswriter Allen Barra suggested MLB was experiencing a new "golden age".  After all, he concluded, "there's never been an era with so many outstanding performances at every level."  How true.

Few seemed to care what caused all those "outstanding performances".  Strangely enough, in that same July 2001 Playboy, there was another article, written by Scott Dickensheets (no kidding), exploring the growing popularity of steroid use among young men ("Steroids - All the Rage").  The author observed that steroid use had become mainstream, since so many "athletes" (role models) were users.  Although baseball players weren't singled-out, they clearly had the motivation to use performance enhancing drugs; for some, it was a competitive desire to perform better than their peers.  For others - as Rick Helling warned back in 1998 - it was simply an attempt to keep up with the pack; from their perspective, the only way a level playing field could be maintained.  Baseball had reached a tipping point right around the start of the new millennium; there were more forces than ever nudging players toward steroid use, and fewer considerations urging them to just say no.

In the meantime, even Lance Armstrong - the all-American boy with an impecable image - was routinely using PEDs to win seven consecutive Tour de France cycling marathons.  He had become the world's greatest athlete; a courageous cancer survivor who battled back to reach the summit of his profession, and stay there for an unprecedented reign of supremacy.  He was Superman, with a girlfriend even hotter than Lois Lane.  When allegations of PED use surfaced, Armstrong steadfastly denied them, citing hundreds of clean drug tests as proof.  He even went so far as to sue anyone who had the audacity to accuse him of what was actually true; and he fraudulantly won many millions of dollars in court over the years, to maintain his squeaky-clean image.  Here's what he had to say during a 2005 interview with Kevin Cook:

"All I can say is thank God we're tested.  When baseball players were charged with using steroids, what was their defense?  Nothing.  Whereas my defense is hundreds of drug controls, at races and everywhere else."

When Armstrong finally came "truly clean" on Oprah recently, it was with little remorse.  To him, his doping routine had  become just that; a "routine" to prepare his body for the grueling challenge of competing in an event that requires extreme stamina, against a field comprised of other PED-aided rivals.  To Armstrong, he was merely doing what he had to do to maintain a "level playing field".
The fact that he got away with it for so long, is almost as amazing as winning all those races.  It makes me wonder if some of Armstrong's tricks of the trade have been used by more than a few MLB players over the years.

We may never know just how widespread PED use was throughout baseball during the peak of the Steroids Era.  Rick Helling had the guts to come forward and voice his concerns.  He saw what was going on; there was little attempt by the users to hide what they were doing.  Surely, there are many others who saw what was going on in their own clubhouses throughout MLB and never said a word about it to anyone.  To this day, they insist they never saw anything suspicious, and of course, all deny ever doing it themselves.

I have a difficult time believing any of them.  Again, we may never know the actual percentage of players who have used performance enhancing drugs at one time or another.  However, I suspect at least half of the players knew precisely what was going on, even if they weren't doing it themselves; and I suspect the players who weren't taking PEDs were in the minority - and probably had shorter careers than they had bargained for. 

After all, it's hard to compete without a "level playing field".  That's why the latest scandal brewing out of Coral Gables, Florida may be a disturbing trend; but it should come as no surprise to anyone that the Steroid Era may not quite be over in major league baseball.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Musial: The Greatest Ever?

It has been one week since St Louis Cardinals icon Stan Musial passed away.  In that brief period of time, Stan the Man has received more media attention and adulation in death than he ever experienced over his entire 22-year Hall of Fame career.  It's nice that he's finally getting some publicity, along with some well-deserved recognition for his greatness; not only as a baseball player, but as a human being.

Musial always seemed to be overshadowed by the likes of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio early in his career, despite being the best player in the National League; at least until Willie Mays came along in the early '50s.  As Musial's career reached its peak by the mid '50s, Mays' and Mickey Mantle's were rapidly ascending -  and grabbing all the headlines.  By the time Musial retired in 1963, he had quietly compiled a Hall of Fame career that was worthy of a first ballot induction at Cooperstown in 1969, with 93.2% of the vote.  What's puzzling to me is how 6.8% of the voters could justify excluding him from baseball's highest fraternity.  Go figure.

Recently, when MLB Network's sabermetric-obsessed expert Brian Kenny compared the career production of Stan Musial to the likes of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Henry Aaron, his conclusion may surprise the vast majority of baseball fans outside of St Louis:  "Saying Stan Musial was among the greatest to ever play the game is probably selling him short.  He may very well have been the greatest all-round player in major league history."

Not to mention its most under-rated superstar, by far.

He was certainly under-rated back in 1999, when MLB decided to let fans vote for the players they felt worthy to be on the All-Century Team.  The top nine vote getters among the outfielders would make the squad (100 total candidates were previously selected by a panel of experts).  Musial finished eleventh in the fan voting, behind Pete Rose - the guy with the most hits in the history of MLB, as well as the guy who made the most outs.  It took a special veteran's committee to add Musial and some other all-time greats who played so long ago nobody had ever heard of them.  Honus Wagner?  Who's he?  (Arguably, the greatest shortstop of all-time)  Warren Spahn?  Never heard of him. (The winningest left-handed pitcher of all-time with 363)

A couple of years after the All-Century Team was chosen, the Godfather of Sabermetrics - Bill James - did a little independent research of his own, and concluded that Stan Musial was the second-best left-fielder to ever play the game (behind Ted Williams) - and the tenth-best player, overall; even better than Pete Rose. 

As early as Musial's first full season (1942), it seemed as though this humble 21-year-old kid with the unique batting stance was destined for greatness.  He played on three World Championship teams for the Cardinals in the '40s - just before the Television Age brought the Fall Classics into millions of homes from coast to coast.  He also won seven batting titles and three Most Valuable Player Awards - the last coming in his greatest season - 1948.  Unfortunately for Musial and his team, St Louis barely missed winning another NL pennant that year; or any other year for the rest of his career, for that matter.  While his destiny for greatness had already been realized, his accomplishments were almost taken for granted; destined to be overlooked by the casual fan.

Case in point:  In 1948, Musial led the National League in every major offensive category, except home runs.  Perhaps Mother Nature is to blame for Stan the Man coming up just one home run short of winning the Triple Crown.  Officially, he is credited with 39 home runs.  Unofficially, he hit 40, but one of those came in a game that was eventually rained-out; so it didn't count.

Just for the sake of argument, let's suppose those rain clouds never materialized; let's suppose all of Musial's 40 home runs counted that year.  With that minor revision to baseball history, add in his .376 batting average (with a .450 OBP) and 131 RBI which also topped the Senior Circuit, and he'd have that coveted Triple Crown.  But he was just getting started.  Musial also led the NL with 133 runs scored, 46 doubles and 18 triples (He led the NL in triples five times in his career).  This combination of pure hitting, remarkable plate selection, power and speed has really never been matched in MLB history.  In fact, no other Triple Crown winner has ever taken the triple crown, as well.

Even minus that extra home run, Stan the Man racked up an astounding 429 total bases while becoming the first National League player since 1930 to have a slugging percentage over .700 (.702 SLG to be exact); a feat that wouldn't happen in the NL again until 1997.

Getting back to reality; Musial's incredible 1948 season is often mentioned merely as a footnote to his storied career accomplishments.  Thanks to some lousy weather, he not only was deprived of a home run title and a Triple Crown of historic significance, he was also deprived of a much higher level of adulation from fans, in general.  Of course, all that stuff didn't matter to him; in fact, he seemed a bit embarrassed when people noticed his greatness.  In 1952, the irascible and brutally honest Ty Cobb created a bit of a stir when he was quoted in a Time Magazine article, "Stan Musial is better than Joe DiMaggio."  Deep down inside, Stan the Man may have agreed with the Georgia Peach's bold assessment, although he modestly replied, "I don't think I've ever been as good as DiMaggio."

Many people would beg to differ, taking into consideration the total package that Musial brought to the ballpark on a daily basis; the key components that made him so great.  Not only was he an elite hitter who rarely struck out; he was incredibly durable - rarely missing a game until the tail end of his career - and he was able to sustain a high level of performance for well over two decades.  Those attributes are rare enough; added to the mix was Musial's genuine humility, his kindness towards everyone he came in contact with, and his unwavering positive attitude.  Essentially, he was a truly great person in all facets of life. 

MLB Network analyst Brian Kenny's closing comment says it all:  "If you had to choose one player in the history of  major league baseball you'd want to be on your team for twenty years - you'd want Stan Musial." 

Millions of grateful Cardinals fans who will always cherish the Musial legacy, agree wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

HOF Class of 2013 Flunking Out

The list of former MLB players eligible for Hall of Fame consideration for the first time in 2013 includes a pair that are among the best to ever play the game - Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.  They also happen to be among the list of players suspected of using performance enhancing drugs, so there's no way either one will be getting into Cooperstown this year.

In fact, it looks doubtful any of this year's new candidates - or holdovers from previous years for that matter - will be getting enough votes to be enshrined.  At last check, even Craig Biggio - what many consider a HOF lock - is only hovering around 70% of the votes (75% is required to be inducted).  It seems as though the voters are making a collective statement:  Nobody gets in.

That's a shame, because there are at least a dozen (try fifteen) candidates that are worthy of Hall of Fame consideration; most notably:

Craig Biggio
Jeff Bagwell
Tim Raines
Alan Trammell
Fred McGriff
Larry Walker
Mike Piazza
Curt Schilling
Barry Bonds
Roger Clemens
Lee Smith
Dale Murphy
Don Mattingly
Edgar Martinez
Mark McGwire

I suppose if I were actually voting, I'd have to leave five of these selections off my ballot (ten is the maximum number of players allowed).  Even though Bonds and Clemens have no chance of getting in, I'd still be compelled to cast my ballot in their favor.  I'm not sure how much the PEDs padded their numbers, but I believe they had HOF credentials before they started juicing; besides, they weren't  alone. 

Actually, I wouldn't want to drop any of the above off my hypothetical ballot, so it's probably a good thing I don't get to vote.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Numbers Don't Lie - Morris Not HOF Material

Jack Morris had a nice career, but was it really a Hall of Fame career?  His won-loss record (254-186 - .577) is just slightly below average for all pitchers who have been enshrined (251-176 - .588).  What should keep him out is his mediocre career ERA of 3.90, which is nearly a run per nine-innings higher than the average ERA for Hall of Fame hurlers (2.96).  In fact, Morris never even had a single season (he played for 18 seasons) when he was able to post an ERA under 3.00.  Those don't sound like Hall of Fame numbers to me.

His supporters tout him as the Pitcher of the Eighties because he happened to win more games in that particular decade than anyone else.  However, that was attributable more to his durability (and stellar defense behind him) than his pitching ability.  Yes, he was a workhorse, but Morris never won a Cy Young Award (his best finish was third-place) and that high ERA is barely better than what an average run-of-the-mill pitcher posted during the time he played (1977-1994).  It's not surprising that his ERA+ of 105 is likewise, only slightly above average (100).  So far, he seems to be a good candidate for the Hall of Above Average to Pretty Good But Not Great.

Digging deeper into the sabermetric evidence, we find that his career WAR of 39.3 is lower than such above-average-to-pretty-good-but-not-great pitchers as Brad Radke, Kevin Brown and Kevin Appier - all solid performers with flashes of excellence who will never, ever  be enshrined in Cooperstown.

It seems that the Morris Hall of Fame candidacy really comes down to that one legendary postseason game - Game Seven of the 1991 World Series - when Morris, pitching for the Minnesota Twins, squared off against a young John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves in a truly classic duel.  Morris would pitch ten shutout innings - good enough for the win - as the Twins finally broke through for the only run of the game in the bottom of the tenth-inning.  As valiant as that effort was, Morris also had more than just a little bit of luck going for him, when the Braves hit him hard in the eighth-inning, but came up empty-handed - thanks in large part to a base-running gaffe by Lonnie Smith.  Still, this effort by Morris on the grandest of all stages was certainly his most noteworthy episode - or flash - of excellence.

In the end, Morris became the iconic hero, as Minnesota won its second World Championship in five seasons; they've yet to win their third.  The perception that Morris was a great postseason pitcher is largely based from that one sensational flash-in-the-pan performance; otherwise, his postseason career amounted to a fairly run-of-the-mill 7-4 record with a 3.80 ERA.  Once again, not exactly Hall of Fame worthy.

If Morris does get the necessary support this year (2014 is his final year of eligibilty), he will supplant Red Ruffing (3.80 ERA) for the dubious distinction of having the highest ERA for any enshrined hurler.  The fact that he managed to win 254 games (I thought 300 was the magic number?) is more a testament to the strength of the teams he spent time with - namely, three World Series champions - Detroit, Minnesota and Toronto.

In Detroit, where he spent the early years of his career, he had the good fortune of having one of the greatest (if not "the" greatest) double-play combinations of all-time playing behind him:  Alan Trammell & Lou Whitaker - both of whom deserve more Hall of Fame consideration than Morris.

With all the controversy surrounding this new batch of Hall of Fame candidates emerging from the dreaded Steroids Era, the time may be right for Morris to sneak in the back door of Cooperstown; no doubt steroid-free and a pretty darn good pitcher with an engaging personality who was a fierce competitor, to boot. 

Another fierce competitor - Roger Clemens - is on the ballot for the first time this year, along with a few others that have been linked to performance enhancing drugs.  It's highly unlikely for Clemens to get voted in this time around; however, it's interesting to note that he managed to win exactly 100 more games than Jack Morris, and he also managed to lose two fewer games than Morris.  Clemens' ERA is almost a point lower (3.12), and his ERA+ is a very Hall-of-Fame-like 143.  I don't know how much of all that is inflated by any possible steroid use; but here's a guy who won seven Cy Young Awards and an MVP Award, and is perhaps the greatest pitcher who ever lived.

How strange it would be to see Morris getting voted into the Hall of Fame while Clemens is forced to wait; possibly for more than fifteen years.