Jose Bautista and Steroids: Is It Fair to Ask the Question?

Asher ChanceySenior Analyst IMay 24, 2011

TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 18: Jose Bautista #19 of the Toronto Blue Jays hits against the Tampa Bay Rays during MLB action at the Rogers Centre May 18, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

In 1990, a then known-only-to-his-parents Cecil Fielder returned from a season spent playing baseball in Japan and set the baseball world on fire.  

This was an era in which Fred McGriff had just led the American League in home runs the previous season with only 36, so it was quite the shock when Fielder ended the month of May with 18 home runs.

Fielder announced that he was for real on June 6 in Cleveland, when he hit three home runs in three at-bats, and went on to finish the month of June with 26 home runs, just 10 shy of the previous season's league-leading figure in just under half a season.

Fielder, of course, continued to out-slug the rest of the league through the summer and into the fall, and on the final day of the 1990 season he slugged two home runs to become the first player to hit 50 or more home runs in a season since George Foster in 1977.

The nation's reaction to Cecil Fielder was one of awe.  Not only had Fielder accomplished an amazing feat, but the back-story to it all (coming back from a season playing in Japan after never doing anything of significance in four prior major league seasons) was nothing less than magical.

Indeed, it was not uncommon to hear Fielder described in Ruthian terms.

And, because Fielder's accomplishments came in an earlier, more innocent (and perhaps more naive) time, the notion that his 50-some-odd home runs could have been the product of illicit performance enhancing drugs was very far from our minds.

Unfortunately, we no longer live in earlier times, we no longer have our innocence, and we are no longer naive.  Which makes it difficult to believe that what Jose Bautista is doing is not the product of some sort of illicit wrong-doing.

For those of you who have been living under a rock, for perhaps just not completely paying attention, what Bautista has done since the beginning of the 2010 season, at the age of 29 and 30, has been Fielder-esque.

After hitting only 59 home runs in his first six seasons, over the course of 575 games and 2,038 plate appearances, Bautista exploded in 2010, hitting 54 home runs with 124 RBI and 109 runs while taking 100 walks and leading the AL with 351 total bases.

Not only were the numbers all career highs, but many of Bautista's numbers were better than the combined totals of any two previous seasons combined.

And his 54 home runs marked the first time in three years that any player had hit 50 home runs in a single season.

In case Bautista's accomplishments from last season were not impressive enough, in 2011 he has upped the ante.  

After hitting a mere .260 in 2010, Bautista is hitting .353 in 2011.  He once again leads the league in home runs, but he is now leading the league in runs scored and bases on balls, which translated into a ridiculous .500 on-base percentage and an even more ridiculous .816 slugging percentage.

In case 18 home runs does not sound impressive enough, he has hit those 18 home runs in 38 games played, out of 46 team games.  

His per game pace would put him on pace for over 70 home runs, while his per team game pace puts him on track for roughly 63 home runs.

It all adds up to a pretty amazing development for a guy who two years ago could not find a team to put him on the field every day.  In fact, in a very real sense, it is too amazing.

The history of baseball has generally observed a standard truism, and that truism is that a player is who he is.  

If a guy spends three-to-five seasons in the minors hitting for a mediocre average and average power, then chances are he will hit for a mediocre average and average power in the major leagues.  

If a player strikes out a lot and does not take lots of walks in the minors, that is likely who he will be in the majors as well.

And while there have certainly been exceptions, there has almost always been explanations as well.

When Bobby Veach went from three home runs in 1919 to 16 home runs two years later, it was not because Veach had changed, but because the league around him had changed, becoming more focused on offense and on hitting home runs, thanks to George Herman "Babe" Ruth.

When Roger Maris went from 16 home runs in 1959 to 39 home runs in 1960 to 61 home runs in 1961, he had several things to blame it on: he was still a young, developing player, he switched teams (from Kansas City to New York), joining a better lineup in a more hitter-friendly ballpark, and he had the protection of Mickey Mantle in the lineup.

Maris also benefited from the dilution of hitting and pitching that came with the expansion of the American League, which also delivered career years upon Jim Gentile, Norm Cash and Elston Howard.

George Foster also enjoyed a career year in an expansion year, when he hit 52 home runs while leading the league in runs scored, RBI, and total bases in 1977.

It was in another expansion year that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire made baseball history, but as we all now know, it was not only expansion that was fueling that magical 1998 season; there was also apparently a healthy mix of performance-enhancing drugs.

And so it is that McGwire and Sosa, along with Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, Jason Giambi and Rafael Palmeiro, and numerous others, have established the legacy with which Jose Bautista must live today:

Do something extraordinary, deal with the questions.

But is that fair?  Must all future baseball players suffer for the sins of their ancestors?  Is the repeated violation of the league's tacit, when not explicit, prohibition against steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, to say nothing of the baseball world's trust and adoration, by the game's biggest players a valid reason for us to question the future accomplishments of baseball's stars of tomorrow?

In short: yes.  It is not only fair for baseball commentators, fans and players to question the type of performance that Jose Bautista has produced over the last couple of years, but it is practically our responsibility.

Only by continuing to question and to scrutinize the performance of the game's biggest players can we remind these players, these trustees of our national pastime, that we have not forgotten the sins of the past, and we will not tolerate those same sins in the future.

But at the same time let us be clear: while it may be fair to question, it is never fair to accuse, particularly in the absence of actual evidence of wrongdoing.  

For while it would be naive to refuse to entertain the possibility that Jose Bautista is using performance-enhancing drugs, it would be downright wrongful to accuse him of using PED's without evidence.  

There is a vast sea of difference between being naive enough to assume a player is definitely not using performance-enhancing drugs, and being slanderous enough to accuse a player of using PED's based simply upon incredible performance.

There is also a vast sea of difference between saying rightfully that it is only fair to question the best players when their numbers do not seem to add up, and saying wrongfully that the players deserve it.  

Because, assuming that he has done nothing wrong, Bautista does not deserve our scrutiny, our skepticism, our doubt.  But he has it.

Sure, there are things that Major League Baseball, and the players union, could do to make us less cynical.  Chief amongst those would be testing for Human Growth Hormone, the elephant in the living room of the MLB's drug-testing machinery.

Perhaps if we knew that HGH was being tested for, we could rest more assured that players were not using HGH.

And how's this for a wacky idea: we always find out when a player tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs (see Ramirez, Manny, and see him twice).  How about releasing the names of players who get tested and have negative results?

It is entirely possible that Jose Bautista was tested for steroids last season, but there is no way we'd know.  Perhaps knowing that Bautista had been tested and was negative for everything they test for might go a long way towards salving our skepticism.

Or perhaps not.

At the end of the day, I personally do not know what to believe.  Because as Cecil Fielder has shown us, sometimes crazy things happen, players figure something out, and a guy was never a power hitter and could not hit his way out of a wet-paper bag is suddenly one of the best hitters in the league.

But as Bonds and A-Rod and the Gang have shown us, more often than not, in this era, once in a lifetime performance is chemically induced.

I wish I knew what to believe, but I do not.  I wish was still naive or innocent enough to simply enjoy Bautista's performance without asking why, but I am not.  

Until someone finds a way to prove conclusively one way or another what exactly is going on with Bautista, I will always wonder.

At the same time, I suppose that is only fair.


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