Noted and famed Baseball Statistician Bill James recently opened up on the Steroid controversy. He takes quite an interesting take on the subject (Cooperstown and the ‘Roids), and his conclusion is diametric to what you would expect from the most recognized baseball historian of our generation. As a fellow member of the SABR baseball stats committee, I’ve exchanged emails with Bill in the past and consider him to be a pioneer in this industry. That said, let's take a few paragraphs to scrutinize his assessment of the situation.
Let’s step right in with a listing of the Bill James arguments with my comments to follow:
If we look into the future, then, we can reliably foresee a time in which everybody is going to be using steroids or their pharmaceutical descendants. We will learn to control the health risks of these drugs, or we will develop alternatives to them. Once that happens, people will start living to age 200 or 300 or 1,000, and doctors will begin routinely prescribing drugs to help you live to be 200 or 300 or 1,000. If you look into the future 40 or 50 years, I think it is quite likely that every citizen will routinely take anti-aging pills every day.
Wow, how’s this for an Orwellian forecast! This first argument by James has very little to do with Baseball, but rather takes a philosophical look at our species eternal quest of youth/longevity and it’s possible impact on the current situation. If James is correct here, then there is a good chance that the hypothesis in the article on Cooperstown and Roids has a very real possibility to come to fruition.
For those who are familiar with The book of Genesis, it is written that men routinely lived to 800-900 during that time period. Frankly I don’t think that’s going to happen again, not unless we can uncover and re-engineer the mechanism designed by the watch maker. Sure medicines have eradicated many of the maladies and diseases that prematurely lowered our life span during our dark ages, but the reality of it is quite straight forward: we have done little via pharmaceuticals to extend our lifespan in any meaningful fashion.
Although steroids may make us younger for a longer period of time, there are well documented complications that actually shorten life spans. Additionally there is no credible research which shows that these steroids or HGH extends life expectancy…essentially it’s nothing more than a delay tactic. Again, in the future researchers may find the biological clock hidden within our DNA framework. Gene therapy may indeed extend our time frame, but that timeframe can not be expanded significantly via todays steroid or its derivatives. Thus I don’t think it’s very likely that there will be a connection between today’s steroid users and tomorrow’s anti-aging promises.
As an analogy, have you ever taken a piece of fresh steak and put it in the freezer? One month later you take it out and during the first few hours of defrost it looks the same as when it went in. Then suddenly, by the time it completely defrosts, it starts to rapidly decompose. If you leave it out long enough it will look, smell, and taste like the month old piece of meat that it actually is. We can’t completely fool nature, we can only delay the inevitable. Steroids delay the ticking clock, the clock will work overtime to get back to where it needs to be, thus the roids do little in extending how long the clock will tick for.
My second argument is this: 1) Eventually, some players who have been associated with steroids are going to get into the Hall of Fame. This is no longer at issue. One cannot keep Barry Bonds,
Roger Clemens, A-Rod, Manny Ramirez, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and all of the others out of the Hall of Fame forever. Some of them have to get in. If nothing else, somebody will eventually get in and then acknowledge that he used steroids. 2) Once some players who have been associated with
steroids are in the Hall of Fame, the argument against the others will become un-sustainable.
I agree with James here, once they let roid player one in, then the line will become blurred. Can we define a little cheating or is it ambiguous? James makes the argument of the player who gets outed after election into the HOF. However there are steps that can circumvent the inevitable. MLB must step in and draw this line (NOW), and they need to do it quickly. HGH is widely undetectable at this time. Manny Ramirez got busted for using a substance which helped get the body back on track after HGH use. Since HGH is one of the substances that is currently undetectable, there are a great many that are probably still using HGH who will not ever get caught within their playing careers. One way to counteract this would be for every player to submit a blood sample at random intervals. With the express understanding that if in the future, their blood samples are discovered to have known performance enhancing substances…all HOF considerations are to be revoked without exception. Yes that is correct, their HOF status must and should be stripped. This is just one way to stop those who are currently flying under the radar of non detect-ability.
3rd argument: History is forgiving. Statistics endure….History will rally on the side of the steroid users in the same way that it has rallied on the side of Dick Allen, Joe Jackson, Orlando Cepeda, Hack Wilson and many others. But with the steroid users, we are not talking about a single isolated “offender”, but about a large group of them, representing the bulk of the dominant players of their generation. The forces that push for their acceptance will get organized much more quickly and will move with much greater force. This, in my view, will make the use of steroids a non-factor in Hall of Fame discussions within 30 to 40 years.
There has always been a debate whether off field issues should affect the status of HOF careers. I don’t think this is a valid argument, as these players and their off field issues are separate and distinct from the statistics that these players posted while in uniform. Whatever your take is here, there is little argument that steroids directly affect the statistics that are registered by the offending players. Thus they should be treated differently from those who violated ethics off the field.
My prevailing thought here has always been that in 50 years there will be a wing in the HOF for the outed players from the steroid era. I sincerely hope that society will always recognize the moral right and never group cheaters with those who held a higher standard.
Fourth argument. Old players play a key role in the Hall of Fame debate. It seems unlikely to me that aging ballplayers will divide their ex-teammates neatly into classes of “steroid users” and “non-steroid users.”
True, but then this says something about the HOF process and its influences. Maybe we need to re-examine those responsible for the HOF election process now while the reshuffle among the eligible member voters is underway.
Fifth argument. Players gaining an advantage by using Performance Enhancing Drugs. But it wasn’t really an issue of some players gaining an advantage by the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs; it is an issue of many players using Performance Enhancing drugs in competition with one another. Nobody knows how many. It would be my estimate that it was somewhere between 40 and 80%. The discrimination against PED users in Hall of Fame voting rests upon the perception that this was cheating.
But is it cheating if one violates a rule that nobody is enforcing, and which one may legitimately see as being widely ignored by those within the competition?
James makes an argument that 80% of the steroid era players where indeed steroid users themselves. WOW, but I am not buying it. Bill James is an insider within the Boston Red Sox organization, but this is an outlandish figure. I’m not sure if has personal relationships with the players, but I can speak for myself here. My inner circle of friends includes both current and former players from varying teams. I know of those who both did and those that did not use these substances during their playing days. From my personal conversations with these players, not from a media vantage point, I am quite convinced that that the roid/HGH users hit a peak of about 20-25% in the early part of this decade. Even if it were 50%, which is highly unlikely, would be fair to argue that it wasn’t cheating because it was the “norm”?
Even if it were 100%, they still cheated those that came before them and those that will come after (assuming a cleaned up arena).
I wrote this critique not to correct James, but rather to debunk his conclusion contained within Cooperstown and The Roids. Without a challenge and because of his influence, there is a strong possibility that this could become a self fulfilling prophesy among Hall of Fame voters. A conclusion that probably doesn’t sit well with James hmself.
In summation I understand James’ take on this controversy, and he makes it quite clear with his final paragraph “I am not especially advocating this; I simply think that is the way it is.” However I can not simply let this go unabated and neither should you. The HOF committee just like any politically elected official is subject to the sentiment of the baseball public. It’s time for us to make a push and convince MLB that it needs to continue it’s mission to punish the cheaters…before this gets pushed under the rug once again. This sport loses it’s foundation if it’s statistics can not be used as a beacon through the generations. Future testing of blood samples as detection technologies improve, with hard line HOF eligibility guidelines should be mandated. MLB needs to send a message to the players: Cheat today…. pay tomorrow.
Do your part and pass on this debate to those who may be interested.