What Does the Present Tell Us about the Past?

Jacob Luft of Sports Illustrated makes an important observation regarding Sammy Sosa’s resurgence in an era of steroid testing.

The bigger question has more to do with how Sosa’s return to form jibes with our lingering disillusionment of the 1998 Home Run Race and The Steroid Era in general. I mean, it was a fraud, right? It was in the papers and everything. We’re supposed to feel guilty for having cheered Sammy and Big Mac all summer long while they pursued Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs, right?

But with every blast Sosa launches, he disturbs the widespread perception of The Steroid Era (capital letters). We’ve painted a lot of players from the same time frame with the same broad brush as cheaters. And maybe they were cheating. But maybe there were other factors, too (i.e. expansion, smaller stadiums, lively baseballs, bad pitching, etc.) that had a lot to do with it. At what point do we stop revising history and start giving Sosa and Barry Bonds credit for what they are doing right now under a different set of conditions?

The truth of the matter is that blaming steroids for the power surge among the media is like wearing an alligator on your shirt in high school: it’s what the in-crowd does. Never mind that other possible explanations exist, and few have pointed out that testing hasn’t lessened power in the two-plus years of testing—home runs are down a bit this year, but this is probably due to low temperatures (also, see here)—or that pitchers are being busted just as frequently has hitters.

I’m glad that somebody noticed.

9 Responses “What Does the Present Tell Us about the Past?”

  1. Ron says:

    Yes there are other reasons homeruns went up. Maybe those other reasons (and corked bats?) were why Sosa hit so many homeruns. It’s worth pointing out of course that Sammy is not linked to BALCO. He was not featured prominently in “Game of Shadows.” He wasn’t mentioned in Jose Canseco’s book (I think). So there is a bit of difference between him and Bonds, McGwire or Giambi.

    Also let’s not get all excited about what Sammy has done in a month and a half. Lesser players have had better starts to a season. He needs to show it for the whole year before we start saying, “See. Sammy didn’t need steroids if he even took them.”

  2. Andrew says:

    JC, as a college professor I’m sure you know all the “cool kids” in college where alligators on their shirts too 🙂

  3. Mike says:

    No matter what, you still have to hit the ball. My neighbor couldn’t consistently hit a baseball 300 feet all juiced-up and I don’t think Eddie Brinkman could either.

    An aluminum bat only adds, on average, about 8 feet of distance – so how much distance do steroids add to one’s swing?

  4. Nolan says:

    1) The “you still have to hit the ball” argument is absurd. No one has *ever* suggested that steroids increase one’s ability to make contact with the ball. The suggestion has been that, once you’ve made contact, steroids help you hit the ball *farther* (the importance, in baseball, of hitting the ball far is obvious).

    2) It’s frustrating that the sabrmetrics crowd, of which I consider myself a member, consistently neglects to consider that steroids could be the determinative reason why *certain* players hit home runs while other reasons (expansion, etc.) explain while home runs in MLB went up *in general*. What is so difficult about holding those two ideas at the same time? It’s quite obvious that steroids helped Barry Bonds hit more home runs than he otherwise would have. It’s equally obvious that other factors contributed to the reason why the league-wide home run rate went up.

    3) There is literally zero evidence linking Sosa to steroids other than the ridiculous arm-chair b.s. like “Well, look how muh bigger he got” stuff.

  5. Real BBBB says:

    Hey JC,

    I typed a reply on Saturday, but for some reason it never showed up???

    Anyways, my first two points were identical to what Nolan just said. I would just like to add that expansion in both 93 and 97 contributed greatly to the offensive explosion which occured in the 90’s.

    *Steroids do other things besides add muscle/strenth to a body (which would add distance to a ball, which would result in more HR and fewer warning-track fly balls). They allow one’s body to recover quicker meaning that aren’t as sore after an extra inning game or a day game after a night game. No one ever mentions these, but they are things to consider.

    *It’s clear that Sosa used ‘roids. First, his HR totals jumped from 30-40 all of a sudden to 50-60. Second, his head grew (just like Bonds). Tons of people get bigger and stronger by working out, but how many people do we know of that have the seen the actual size of their head (not neck, but entire head) increase in their 20’s/30’s?? Third, Sosa got extremely upset and pissed off when confronted by an SI reporter who offered to go have him take a steroid test free of charge about 4-5 years ago. Fourth, he conveniently forgot how to speak English when questioned under oath at the Congressional hearings regarding steroids…Think those are all coincidence.

  6. Mike says:

    Well…how much does it help? I’m sure that there are plenty of other ball players who use steroids. Why aren’t their HRs up?

    Look, you still have to have talent. Barry Bonds does – the roids aren’t responsible for all of his HRs. So…tell me exactly how many HRs were a result of the roids?

    Ten? Twenty? All of them?

  7. fgfggf says:

    Real bbbb – You’re arguement is flawed. Sosa’s skull grow. any evidence? His power went up? It happened at his natural peak. Honestly, your evidence against Sosa is slopshod at best. Then you have the audacity to bring up the Rick Reilly situation – ROFL, as if some crack pot reporter coming out of the blue asking you to take a steroid test because he questions the legitimacy of your homerun power wouldn’t piss you off? What Sosa did is what any self-respecting person would do.

    And I would like to point out that steroids don’t necessarily increase homerun power, but more along the lines of making you get stronger, so you yourself could focus on increasing your strength at a faster rate.

  8. Nolan says:

    First, it wouldn’t be illogical to think that steroids would help some players more than others. For instance, those players who hit a lot of balls on the ground, rather than a lot of fly balls, would be helped less than those who *do* hit a lot of fly balls.

    Second: “look you still have to have talent.” I’m sorry, who is saying otherwise? No reasonable person is arguing that steroids would transform me into an All-Star. The point is that it could take a 40 home-run hitter to, say, a 70 home-run hitter.

    Finally, we have no way of knowing exactly how many of Bonds’ home runs are due to steroids. However, we do know that his home run rate increased by 50% *after* the guy turned 37 – that means a lot of home runs. This runs counter not only to everything we understand about baseball but, more fundamentally, to everything we understand about the human body. However, in my view, it really isn’t important to know how many home runs were due to ‘roids – I’m not even sure what we would do with that information. The point is that he cheated, that his cheating allowed him to break Aaron’s record (probably) and that with this information, hopefully, baseball will step in and do something to stop this farce.

  9. byy says:

    Of course, Nolan, you are failing to take into account steroid usage by pitchers, which could of easily stripped Bonds of homeruns, especially during his “pre-roid” years.

    Anyway, Will from BP has something interesting to say regarding baseball’s currently testing policy.