A Lifetime of Asterisks: A Perspective on What to Do with Stats from the Steroids Era

Before the season and during the A-Rod steroid outing, my brother had suggested that the each of the three D’s of 3-D Baseball discuss his perspective on what should be done with the statistics of the Steroids Era. Of course, we never really got around to it. But in the wake of Manny’s high-profile suspension and Clemens’ groundhog-like resurfacing (if he saw the shadow from his third ear, does that mean another six weeks of steroid-related news?), I feel that it is, once more, an appropriate time to address this issue.

This whole discussion would be rendered moot beyond an individual suspension if this concerned any other sport. The reason why the impact is so great on statistics in baseball is that the numbers are what define the game. Only in baseball do arbitrary numbers like 61 and 755 represent something so vital and eternal. One of the worst things about steroids is that they are working to strip these numbers and those who achieved them of their vitality. Because of this, it is clear to me that those who use steroids have no respect for that which makes baseball so special, and something needs to be done with their statistics as a result.

Unfortunately, this may be the only thing regarding steroids that is absolutely clear. One muddy aspect about steroids and the Steroids Era is how it compares the distorted numbers of other eras throughout baseball history. It would be incredibly naïve to say that steroids have been the only external force to impact offensive statistics in baseball throughout the course of time, so why pay much regard to their impact without considering the effects of these other eras? For example, the Dead Ball Era of the 20th Century’s first two decades gave way to Lively Ball Era in the 20’s and 30’s, where the core of the ball and several bats were corked to inflate power numbers. The 70’s brought with it a lowered mound and the start of the designated hitter. Even today we’re seeing smaller ballparks and more hitter-friendly bats that may be contributing more to offensive spikes than steroids themselves.

Such external influences are inevitable in baseball, but steroids stand out from these era-defining traits because they demonstrate a conscious choice on the part of the individual. However, this issue becomes much cloudier once more when you consider the sadly deep history of cheating in the sport. From the shady tactics of early players like John McGraw and Ty Cobb to the sign stealing of the ’51 Giants to the spitballers and the corked bat users of the modern era, baseball is rife with individuals who have chosen to sully the good name of the game for personal gain. While these instances may not have defined their respective eras, there is no doubt that, at the very least, they impacted personal statistics to varying degrees.

The punishment for those caught either altering the baseball or corking their bats has been – much like those caught using steroids – a suspension and/or a fine. So why would we need to do anything with the statistics of steroid users when there is no such historical precedent with other instances of cheating? For starters, taking a steroid affects all aspects of a player’s game with only one use, whereas a pitcher putting Vaseline on a ball or a hitter using a corked bat only affects one play at a time. If a player is caught doing one of these, his statistics are essentially revoked for the plays in which they applied, so there is somewhat of a precedent for this on a diminutive scale. More importantly, though, citing that the baseball community didn’t do enough to alter statistics on past grievances is not solid grounds for saying that it should do nothing to address current problems. If we have a chance to preserve the integrity of today’s game and its future, then we shouldn’t let passive behaviors of the past influence that.

There’s also the issue that many of the players whose stats were affected by steroid use are guys that have never officially been linked to steroids and likely never will be. The faces of the Steroids Era – guys like Bonds, Clemens and McGwire – are probably never going to be proven to have taken steroids. They’re certainly not going to admit it themselves. This becomes very important when considering what should be done about what to do with stats during this period because these are the guys who have challenged and broken a number of the cherished records in baseball. If the goal is to preserve the integrity of baseball’s sacred numbers, what good would it do to alter stats when we don’t have any definitive proof that the suspected records were the product of steroids?

Clearly, this is a complicated problem with “yeah, buts” on practically every angle of the issue. Before beginning this essay, I was gung-ho about holding players in this era accountable by throwing out their stats in order to preserve the 61’s and the 755’s. And while I still hope to find a way to keep these numbers significant for my children, I realize that it may not be quite as easy as I had once hoped. We can’t take away a player’s numbers based on speculation. And thanks to Selig and the powers that be in baseball who never implemented the necessary testing and punitive measures at the beginning of this era, we may never have that proof.

One measure we can put in place that might help, however, is to remove individual stats from players who did test positive for steroids during the period in which they used. It would serve as a punitive measure to discourage players from using (or at least for testing positive), but such a tactic would obviously have its biggest impact on people who used in the past and are outed later. A-Rod, clearly, is the main example we have of this today, but he’s also a very sensitive case in that his admission, not a positive test, is why we know he used throughout his time with the Rangers.

Doing this would raise two justifiable concerns: it’s not fair to hold a player accountable based solely off of self-incrimination, and it would deter others from admitting their steroid use. Regarding the former, I realize that this reason would likely prohibit anything like this from ever happening, particularly when it concerns A-Rod’s stats. However, I believe that A-Rod’s stats belong more to public records than they do his own private collection because they will soon be held as the standards for future generations. I’m not saying he should go to jail for this – that would infringe on his individual rights. Because the significance of his numbers is public domain, however, I feel that this becomes a non-issue when discussing the fate of his stats. By admitting his past use, A-Rod was bold enough to accept the consequences of his actions. This, I believe, should be one of those consequences.

Regarding the latter concern, I’m not really all that interested in hearing any more posthumous admissions of steroid use from athletes, so I’m not terribly concerned if they stop doing it. I’m a little sick of seeing special pieces on ESPN of heavy steroid users who are burdened by their guilt fifteen years after the fact and try to redeem themselves with a public confession. Until we get a confession from an active player – which will never happen – these confessions won’t have any impact on the current climate of the game. Besides, it’s not as if Bonds or McGwire are going to admit to anything, especially since perjury is now involved.

The simple fact of the matter is that unless new information surfaces that links the players from this era that have eclipsed the game’s sacred numbers to steroids, the solution I’ve presented won’t really mean anything. And while I used A-Rod as an example, I’m not attempting to use this essay and the solution I discussed as an attack on him. While I don’t feel ashamed at the anger I’ve felt against him for finding out about his steroid use, I acknowledge the fact that the way in which we were presented this information was egregiously unfair, and it probably never should have happened. But like A-Rod said, baseball is much bigger than Alex Rodriguez, and as the news about Manny has proven, the steroids issue itself is beyond the focus of one individual.

Sadly, we may never have an effective way of resolving our anger as fans toward the guilty parties, and we may just have to endure a lifetime of asterisks.


Kincaid said...

Thanks for writing this. I'm not sure when I'll get around to writing mine, because there are so many other topics I want to study and address right now, but I'll get to it.

Perjury isn't really an issue for McGwire because he more or less took the fifth in his testimony. Seeing now the legal trouble Bonds and Tejada have faced, and potentially Clemens, it would seem that McGwire actually did the smart thing in forsaking his public image in the short term and removing himself from any legal repercussions. Even if he admitted using now, it wouldn't really contradict anything he said under oath, so he's pretty much in the clear (no pun intended).

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