“Crisco, Bardol, Vagisil. Any one of them will give you another two to three inches drop on your curve ball.” Eddie Harris may have been a fictional character in the baseball classic Major League but he’s pretty damn accurate.
Players will do anything to gain an edge, to have an advantage over the competition, or as in Harris’s case, in order to stay as productive as in the past and keep his job.
Cheating has always been a part of baseball. Whether it is Hank Greenberg and the World Series Champion Detroit Tigers having scouts sit in the center field bleachers to steal signs and inform the Tiger hitters what’s coming, or Gaylord Perry making a career out of the aforementioned spitter. (Perry very well may have taught Harris the pitch and the tricks, ya know, if he was real) Countless others brought sandpaper to the mound to alter the ball or took amphetamines.
Yet with a history of cheating, and cheaters in the Hall of Fame, fans and more importantly the sports writers who vote for the Hall are in an uproar about the modern cheating mechanism: steroids.
Manny Ramirez is on assignment in the minors leading up to his return from a fifty game suspension (maybe the system does work, now). Alex Rodriguez has admitted to using performance enhancing drugs. But do these substances make the player? I didn’t realize that steroids taught you how to hit a curve ball.
More importantly, both Manny and ARod are two of the best players of their generation. As with every other era in baseball people have to take the numbers with the era. No one clamors for dead ball era pitchers with 2.35 ERA’s to be in the hall (the league average was 2.40). In the same sense fans and writers must evaluate players in this era with similar scrutiny. Frank Thomas hit 521 career home runs, but you don’t hear all that many claiming he is a hall of famer.
The problem with baseball is the numbers. Baseball numbers are held sacred simply because of the huge number of games played in a season and long history of the game. You can’t tell a .250 hitter from a .300 hitter simply by watching them every day.
In the same sense, everyone wants to know who the greatest of all time was. The only way to make this determination is through the numbers.
The problem with that is there is no way to make such an assessment. The game has changed so much from its creation in the late 1800s that numbers can’t tell the story, no matter how badly we want them to.
In the end it will be up to baseball insiders, sanctimonious, self-serving baseball writers to determine who is worthy and who is not. It will be a shame to see a generation of ball players black balled simply because of the era in which they live but that seems more and more likely each day.
But for all of those “baseball purists” I’ll remind you that the legendary Mickey Mantle missed the end of the 1961 season because of an infection from an injection site of, you guessed it, steroids. But I guess it is different, he was a Yankee.