Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 23, 2015

Once Things Settle Down, An Old Story Will Remain

As the new baseball season approaches its third full weekend, the schedules of most major league teams are nearing the ten percent completion mark. While many months and many, many games remain, perhaps it’s not too soon to draw some initial conclusions about how things will play out this year. The Mets will post the first 130-plus win season in the history of the Great Game. At the other extreme the Brewers will set a new record for futility, with an abysmal final record that will be the mirror opposite of the team from Queens. For all those wins and losses, neither New York nor Milwaukee count as the most surprising team. That honor goes to the Houston Astros, who are on their way to locking up the American League West; a remarkable turnaround for a team that lost 111 and 92 games its first two years in the junior circuit.

Among individual records, the 73 home run mark set by Barry Bonds in 2001 is doomed. Seattle slugger Nelson Cruz will beat that mark by more than a dozen homers, and even has a shot at toppling Hack Wilson’s 85 year old record for single season RBIs. On the mound ageless Bartolo Colon will be the first 30-game winner in the majors since 1968, which may be about the time Colon’s career began. On the flip side of that achievement, it’s been twelve years since a pitcher lost 20 games in a season, and nearly four decades since one season produced multiple cases of such futility. But barring having their seasons cut short by injury a shockingly long list of hurlers are set to post at least 20 losses.

Of course fans know full well that the chances of any of those projections becoming reality are infinitesimal. We are still at that stage of the longest season where small sample sizes allow one to project fantastic results, both good and bad, that will be long forgotten come autumn. Hot starts are fun to watch, and teams that are slow out of the gate can make for agony in the stands, but no squad ever won a pennant nor was any single season individual record broken in April. It is the nature of a sport in which achievement is often measured not by outright success as by the ability to limit failure and of a season that stretches over half the calendar and 162 games, that teams and players alike tend to revert to the mean. An isolated winning streak or batting slump in time yield to more familiar, and predictable, results.

That is true both on the field and unfortunately off it as well, as recent stories have served to remind. Wednesday the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reversed the obstruction of justice conviction of Bonds, who retired from the San Francisco Giants with both the individual and career home run records that many fans refuse to acknowledge. A case that began with Bonds’s testimony to a grand jury in 2003 and led to a conviction on just the one minor count in 2011 has now come to nothing more than a decade after it started. With this week’s decision, Bonds and Roger Clemens, the two most prominent widely suspected users of performance enhancers from the period in baseball that came to be known as the Steroid Era, can both claim to have faced criminal charges connected to their activity and been found not guilty.

The court of public opinion has been harder on the home run king and the right hander with seven Cy Young Awards and 354 wins. Neither player has been able to generate more than half the support needed to win election to the Hall of Fame through their first three years of eligibility. With the Hall’s decision to reduce the time a former player may remain on the ballot from 15 years to 10, there seems little chance that either will ever get into Cooperstown without stopping first at the ticket window.

The debate about the Hall of Fame and Bonds, Clemens, and others from that time in the Great Game will no doubt go on even after the subjects no longer appear on the annual ballot distributed to eligible members of the BBWAA. What it shouldn’t obscure is the fact that any reference to the Steroid Era as a discrete period in baseball’s history that is over ignores reality. Baseball now has the most aggressive PEDs testing program of any sport, and a clearly structured set of penalties for violators. That’s progress of a fashion, but also entirely necessary because violators remain.

Already in spring training and the first weeks of this young season four pitchers on major league rosters have tested positive for the steroid stanozolol. As reported in news stories that sometimes seemed like a cascade, each was suspended for 80 games. Over the past six seasons, nearly 125 minor leaguers have been caught using the same easily detectable drug. We are less than two seasons removed from the Biogenesis debacle, which resulted in the suspensions of 13 major leaguers. While the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez became the poster boy for that scandal with his season-long suspension, the list included this year’s early leader in home runs, the Mariners’ Cruz.

In stock car racing the old saw is “if you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’.” No one would suggest that applies to baseball, where even when PEDs were most prevalent the number of players using them remained a small minority. But whether a big leaguer trying to prolong a career or a prospect in the Dominican hoping to escape a life of abject poverty, our heroes and those who would be are all human beings. Fallible just like the rest of us, and sometimes weakened by the siren call of temptation.

The early season statistics can be mind-boggling, but fans know that in time more familiar numbers will return. Consistent stories do not quickly disappear, either on the field or off. For those about the latter, the collectively bargained structure of penalties for PEDs violations codifies this reality. Violators now serve their punishment and in a country that revels in second chances return to the field. They may be booed on the road, but they are heroes at home. Where does that leave the poster boys for a supposed era that in its extremes has abated, but in full hasn’t ended, and in truth never will?


  1. Are you insinuating that the Mets really won’t win over 130 games? I’m offended. Actually, I’d still be kind of surprised if they top 90 wins, though I’m not looking forward to the losing streak that might be necessary for them to come down to reality. But we can dream… 🙂
    Nicely done,

    P.S. Once they start regularly injecting kids with steroids to get higher test scores, the upper middle class that now largely decries PED’s will come to embrace them, though maybe not A-Rod, since he’s a dickhead anyway.

    • Hi Bill,

      However the Mets fare over the remainder of the season, that was one heck of a homestand! You are probably right about PEDs, and even as a Yankee fan I will say that you are definitely right about A-Rod. Thanks as always.


      Michael Cornelius


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