Remember when home run binges were universally celebrated and there was hardly any suspicion as to how and why they were happening?
Wouldn't it be great if we could get back to that? Except, you know, for the right reasons this time around?
It sure would be, and I do believe it's possible. It's just that there's a long road ahead, as home run binges were stripped of the right to be taken at face value sometime after the late 1990s and early 2000s.
You'll recall that there were a lot of home run binges in those days, much to everyone's approval. There certainly should have been more suspicion, but nobody was up for it.
Then the walls holding back the ugly truth crumbled. Players stood in front of a grand jury and then in front of Congress. Jose Canseco wrote a book. Tom Verducci wrote an article. Sen. George Mitchell conducted an investigation. Many angry words were shouted inside ballparks and written on paper.
Through it all, an entire era received the asterisk that it had coming all along. The baseball world transformed from a blissfully ignorant place into a police state in which suspicion is prevalent and readily applied to anything that recalls memories of the Steroid Era.
That means home run binges. It's impossible for one of those to happen now without The Question popping up at some point.
Chris Davis is a guy who can tell you all about it.
Davis, in case you somehow haven't yet heard, is making a bit of history this season. After hitting 33 home runs in 2012, the Baltimore Orioles slugger already has 33 home runs in 2013. He's the first player with at least that many homers at the All-Star break in over a decade, and he is on pace to be the first player to top 60 home runs since, you know, back then.
Thus, The Queston. In true modern fashion, Davis' first face-to-face encounter with it was on Twitter:
With this answer, I assume Davis was hoping to shut a door that had opened only a crack. Instead, what he did was open the floodgates.
BaltimoreSportsReport.com picked up on the Twitter exchange. Eventually, Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote a column with the headline, "Orioles’ Chris Davis raising eyebrows along with suspicion."
ESPN's Rick Reilly then confronted Davis and made him deny it, only to launch into a tirade of his own suspicion in a column that bore the hook, "Baseball's past casts a shadow of suspicion that Chris Davis can't escape."
It all amounts to the people's interrogation of Davis. He's done nothing wrong so far as anyone knows, but this is his punishment for making everyone remember all those home runs that everyone now regrets cheering for not that long ago.
It was just a matter of time before it happened, and his interrogation is hardly the first of its kind. Jose Bautista went through the same thing only three years ago.
Damien Cox of The Star fired up the speculation in August, writing a blog post titled "Gotta At Least Ask the Question." Shortly after, The Globe and Mail was making Bautista deny it, and shortly after that, Bob Frantz of the San Francisco Examiner was saying he wasn't convinced Bautista was clean.
The narrative is essentially the same as the Davis narrative, with whispers, questions, denial and more questions.
It'll be the same for the next guy to go on a home run binge, and the next guy after him too. And so shall it continue, until the baseball world is able to trust that all of the latest home run binges are actually trustworthy.
What's it going to take? Time, first and foremost. Beyond that, the best teaser word that I can think of is "understanding."
I'm convinced just by looking at the numbers that the Steroid Era is well and truly over, as 40-homer seasons have gone from being commonplace to being special occasions again and power at the plate, in general, is way down.
The decline happens to coincide with the implementation of testing and the Mitchell Report, which my logic abacus tells me makes perfect sense.
What we're in now, however, are still the early stages of the cleanup process. It wasn't ever going to be an easy process, and it's proving not to be.
The league has a good drug policy in place, but things like the six PED busts that occurred in 2012 and now the ongoing Biogenesis scandal are sending a loud-and-clear message to fans that it's not good enough.
The bright side, such as it is, is that MLB understands this.
While their means are highly questionable, the league is going hard after the Biogenesis guys to prove that it can, and will, keep its house in order. No matter what happens there, the next step is probably going to be toughening up the penalties for juicing. It's what commissioner Bud Selig wants, and some players are also all for the idea.
Tougher penalties probably are going to happen. If they do, then the risk of using is going to be more level with the potential reward for using, which, in theory, will make for an even smaller number of cheaters than there already is.
An environment such as that is one in which everyone would be able to trust things like home run binges more willingly than they're able to now, as that would make it easier to conclude "He must be clean" than "He must be getting away with it."
In the meantime, both fans and media members can get busy weaning themselves off The Question by understanding that the foundation upon which it sits is a flawed one.
It's based on the assumption that sudden and huge increases in home run power must be coming from unnatural strength gains. That was the lesson of the Steroid Era, but it's one that ignores the reality that it takes a lot more than physical strength to pile up home runs.
This is something that Frantz didn't even bother to consider when he was posing The Question to Bautista:
Personally, I have no idea whether Bautista’s explosion into the history books was a result of anything more than tweaking his batting stroke, studying pitchers or unleashing a genie while dusting off an old lamp.
Translated: "I'm not going to bother considering whether there's an innocent explanation for Bautista's sudden power surge. It's easier for me to just sit here and be skeptical and then tell you all about how skeptical I am because I want you to be skeptical too so we can be skeptical together."
Had Frantz actually been interested in finding out whether there was an innocent explanation for Bautista's newfound power, he could have done the responsible thing and asked Bautista directly.
Either that, or he could have just spent a few minutes on Google.
ESPN's Buster Olney and Jason Grey found out everything there was to find out about why Bautista was suddenly hitting for more power in 2010. It turned out he had new power because he had a new swing, one that he had worked very hard to perfect. The home runs were Bautista's reward for his hard work.
Now here we are with Davis, and this time it was Reilly who did the honor of ignoring whether there's an innocent explanation for Davis' power surge:
Davis can explain everything, of course. He says he went from Bernie Williams to Ted Williams because "I'm just making more consistent contact," he says. Also, he switched to a bigger bat. And he fixed a couple of holes in his swing.
But this is a guy who's spent most of his career bouncing from the bushes to the bigs. In fact, in four seasons of facing Triple-A pitching, he hit only 54 home runs. Now, in one major league season, he's on pace to hit 62? That must be some new bat.
Evidently, Reilly didn't read what Grantland's Jonah Keri wrote about Davis' evolution into an elite power hitter. After asking some questions and digging through some numbers, Keri was able to break down how Davis had completely revamped his preparation regimen and how he transformed himself from a power-hitting brute into a more complete hitter.
As with Bautista, all the home runs are Davis' reward for hard work.
It's information like this that threatens the foundation of The Question. Steroids and other PEDs can transform hitters physically, yes, but there's no pill or injection that can make a hitter alter his swing mechanics or come to a better understanding of the art of hitting.
This is the "understanding" part of the equation. Essentially, it's the willingness to believe that there are other forces in this world besides PEDs that have the power to give hitters more home run power.
Will there always be an element of suspicion whenever a hitter who didn't previously hit a lot of home runs suddenly starts hitting a lot of home runs?
Yeah, probably. That's a good bet based solely on the fact that contrarians can be found wherever there are people rooting for something.
But it's really not hard to imagine a future in which people are rooting for sudden home run binges to continue more openly and more optimistically than they are in these early post-Steroid Era days.
All it's going to take is some time for the Steroid Era to fade further into the distance and for people to come to grips with the notion that the Steroid Era is not an ultimate authority on how home runs are hit.
Note: stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com
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