Yes, there are already steroids in here …
“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”
– Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz
There’s a quaint and lovely fiction, maintained largely through a great collective silence, which maintains that somehow every player with a plaque in Baseball’s Hall of Fame is clean. Oh, everyone who’s paying attention, at all, does know that various Hall of Famers drank during Prohibition, or were hooked on cocaine in the 1970s and ‘80s, or were hopped up on amphetamines for … well, for decades. And everyone’s okay with that. But somehow there remains this odd fiction that the Hall of Fame has hardly been touched, or maybe not even touched at all, by the insidious tint of steroids and its dark brethren.
But is there any reason to believe that’s actually true?
In a SABR listserv post this week, I was reminded of something that does come up every so often in conversation …
In 2010, when Ken Burns’s THE TENTH INNING first came out, I wrote here about something Washington, DC sportswriter Thomas Boswell said in it. I just watched it again and, through the magic of DVR, can now give the exact quote. Boswell was referring to Jose Canseco’s PED-usage, which first came to light in 1988: “There was another player, now in the Hall of Fame, who literally stood with me and mixed something. I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said ‘It’s a Jose Canseco milkshake.’ And that year that Hall of Famer hit more home runs than he ever hit any other year.”
Who was this mystery man? Assuming Boswell’s account is accurate, we’re looking for a player (presumably a non-pitcher) after 1987 who hit more homers than in any other year, and was elected to the Hall of Fame by 2010. There are only four players who fit this description: Ryne Sandberg, Cal Ripken, Paul Molitor, and Tony Gwynn.
As the voters keep snubbing the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Mark McGwire for alleged usage, we can only wonder how many PED-users they have already elected into the Hall of Fame.
That’s from my friend Bill Deane, who’s got a great new book coming out soon.
Now, let me hasten to mention that I wouldn’t simply assume that the milkshake-mixer was Sandberg or Ripken or Molitor or Gwynn. Boswell might well have missed on that defining detail about the home runs. The rest of it, though? Boswell’s a reputable journalist and I don’t have any reason to doubt that the incident he recalls did actually occur. Of course, we should also allow for the fact that “Jose Canseco milkshake” was simply laced with Creatine or some other perfectly legal substance. We should allow for the possibility that the player was just kidding around. Twenty years ago, you were allowed to kid around.
So maybe Boswell’s story is a lot more noise than signal. We’ll never know unless Boswell or this Hall of Famer opens up. And to this point, nobody’s talking.
As it turns out, I wrote about Boswell’s story four years ago (seems like longer) and concluded with this:
So here’s my advice to voters who ostensibly refuse to vote for anyone under serious PED suspicion … Get out in front of this thing, guys. Try to look ahead five or 10 years. See where this thing’s going to be. And don’t wait for that to happen. Instead of getting dragged, kicking and shouting and screaming all the while, to the inevitable conclusion, take the lead. Do some reporting. Put things into context. Celebrate the players — assuming you can find any — who spoke out against drug use within the Players Association. Write about the impacts of cheating without resorting to ill-devised moral crusades.
More than anything, though? Think through this thing. Lead the way. Do what journalists are supposed to do. There’s no one right answer. But some are better than others.
Four years later, and we’re still waiting. Little reporting’s been done, few players celebrated, almost zero mainstream stories about the actual effects of drugs in baseball. The ball has been moved forward … oh, maybe a couple of inches in the last four years. Which I wouldn’t mind so much, except that the moral judgments are still flying as fast and furious as ever.
What I thought would happen, but hasn’t yet, is that some great players active during that era would swallow their pride and tell us what was really going on back then. They haven’t.
So for the sake of speculation, let’s assume for a moment that Jose Canseco was Patient Zero.
He probably wasn’t; steroids had been in various sports for years before Jose Canseco reached the majors, and it would be awfully naïve to assume that he was the first to conclude the juice might make him a better baseball player. But again, let’s assume he was the guy.
Canseco was a September call-up in 1985 and hit like the dickens. He played well enough in ’86 to garner Rookie of the Year honors, and there’s little doubt that he was already on the drugs by then. I’ve also little doubt that other players, and especially players in the American League, knew that Canseco was doing more than just lifting a lot of weights. So let’s set 1987 as the year in which other major leaguers might first have been tempted to at least experiment with steroids, etc.
Here’s a list of Hall of Famers, elected by the BBWAA, who played in the major leagues after 1986: Reggie Jackson Steve Carlton Mike Schmidt Phil Niekro Don Sutton George Brett Nolan Ryan Robin Yount Carlton Fisk Kirby Puckett Dave Winfield Ozzie Smith Gary Carter Eddie Murray Dennis Eckersley Paul Molitor Wade Boggs Ryne Sandberg Bruce Sutter Tony Gwynn Cal Ripken Rich Gossage Rickey Henderson Jim Rice Andre Dawson Robert Alomar Bert Blyleven Barry Larkin Tom Glavine Greg Maddux Frank Thomas.
Next week, it’ll be 33 or 34, maybe 35 or even 36.
Now, knowing what we know about the ubiquity of PEDs in the 1990s and beyond, is there any good reason to doubt Boswell’s story? More to the point, is there any good reason to think that Boswell’s Canseco Milkshake-slurping friend is alone? Knowing what we know about not only baseball, but about world-class athletes in virtually every big-time sport?
Armed with nothing but the same information we’ve all got, plus an odd story or two picked up along the way, my (very) rough guess is that a week from now, the BBWAA will have elected nearly a dozen players who used performance-enhancing drugs illegally.
Maybe I’m off by a bunch. Maybe it’s not almost a dozen. But I’ll bet just about anything it’s not zero, or one.
Which maybe doesn’t matter so much. My guess is that a HUGE majority of voters have just made up their minds about this, and there’s essentially nothing that could change them. But while it’s now become clear that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will never be anointed by the BBWAA, a few words of truth might well make a difference someday when the Hall of Fame’s various other committees are asked to pass judgment.