With Mark McGwire coming forth recently and admitting that he took steroids during the record-breaking 1998 season, we now know that the top 6 home run seasons in baseball history are tainted. What I hate most about the “steroid era” isn’t just trying to figure out which seasons are tainted, but how this era harms the eras of the past.
I grew up a fan of baseball in the 1980s, the decade which most analysts would agree was the most balanced decade in baseball history. Because of this balance you did not see anybody hit 50 home runs in a single season, and you saw very few instances of pitchers dominating the game like Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax in the 1960s. Although it is very possible steroids were introduced before this decade, I think we can agree that steroids were at best on the periphery. There are exceptions to this rule – Jose Canseco (who became the first 40-40 player in major league history in 1988), and possibly Mark McGwire, with maybe a few other players thrown in.
This takes me to my two favorite players in the 1980s – Don Mattingly and Alan Trammell. Mattingly exploded into baseball in 1984 when he batted .343 and won the batting title. He followed that with 145 RBIs in 1985, the most for a single season throughout the 1980s. He went to 6 All-Star games, and won 9 Gold Gloves at first base. He finished his career with a .307 lifetime average and over 2,100 hits. These numbers would be considered marginal to get Mattingly into the Hall of Fame, based on him having 4 huge seasons in baseball, and several good seasons. The issue with Mattingly was a back injury he sustained in 1987 that plagued him for the rest of his career. From 1990-1995, Mattingly never hit higher than .304 and did not amass more than 17 home runs in a season. Mattingly has yet to get more than 30% of the votes needed to get into the Hall of Fame.
Next is Alan Trammell, who played from 1977-1996, as a slick fielding, quick short-stop who had great bat control. In 1980 he batted .300 for the first of seven times in his career (as a comparison, Cal Ripken accomplished this 4 times in his career, Ozzie Smith did it once, Pee Wee Reese hit .300 one time, Luis Aparicio hit .300 one time, and Phil Rizzuto hit .300 one time – all of these short-stops are in the Hall of Fame). Playing as a contemporary to Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Cal Ripken, Trammell still managed to earn 4 Gold Gloves and 6 All-Star appearances. In addition he won the MVP of the 1984 World Series, and was a career .333 hitter in the playoffs (it is also not fair to compare playoff experience of players before 1995 to current players, because under current MLB rules the Tigers would have made the playoffs 5 times during Trammell’s career instead of twice). Last, compare Trammell’s 1987 season to Derek Jeter’s 1999 season (easily considered Jeter’s best) – the stats are almost identical. Trammell ended his career with a .285 average, and over 2,300 hits from the short-stop position. Again, as with Mattingly, Trammell battled various injuries throughout his career, and has gotten little consideration for the Hall of Fame.
Where do I go with all of this? First, consider the timing when Mattingly and Trammell could be considered for the Hall of Fame. Mattingly was eligible for voting for the first time in 2001. This was 3 seasons after Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs, and 2 seasons after he hit 66 home runs. In addition, in 2000, Jason Giambi (who also used steroids) won the MVP award with a .333 average and 43 home runs. Several first basemen in that year alone had seasons that trumped Mattingly’s best, making Mattingly’s numbers (particularly his power numbers) seem average at best for his career. The question is how many of the players in 2000 were using steroids, and how did this effect the votes for the Hall of Fame?
Similarly, Alan Trammell was eligible for Hall of Fame voting in 2002. Looking at the short-stop position around that time we find Alex Rodriguez who hit 41 home runs in 2000 while batting .316, and 52 home runs with a .318 average in 2001. You also have Miguel Tejada hitting 30 home runs from the short-stop position in 2001 (another known steroid user). These along with Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter (and I am not saying they juiced, but how do we know who did and didn’t?) were what voters saw as they were considering Trammell’s numbers, which now do not look as impressive despite the fact they compare very favorably to short-stops of prior eras of baseball.
Last, the production of Alan Trammell and Don Mattingly were both harmed by nagging injuries they dealt with throughout their careers. I question how effective they would have been if they had used a substance which helped them simply heal from injuries. This is the excuse often used by players who were caught using illegal substances. We already know that performance enhancing drugs prolonged the career of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. How fair is it that Mattingly, Trammell, and a whole host of other players now have to be compared to players who cheated to fight injuries and prolong their careers? This is a side effect of the steroid era I don’t think gets addressed properly, and the part that angers me the most. The integrity of the game, going all the way back to the beginning is now put into question, and the players who did not cheat are the ones who pay the price.