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A Spectre is Haunting Albert Street: Cheating in the Modern Game

This post is a reaction to DexFarkin's excellent piece "If You're Not Cheating, You're Not Trying", published on Bluebird Banter 7 February 2013.

Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

The other day, DexFarkin wrote an absolutely brilliant article distilling some of the ethical arguments against PED use through the lens of baseball's long, sordid history of cheating. In it, Dex touched on many of the different aspects and perpetrators of historical cheating: the usual suspects from John McGraw to Billy Martin (though, sadly, he left out one of my personal favorites, The Freshest Man on Earth). If you haven't yet read the article and you can only read this one or that one, don't bother reading the rest of the this one (don't worry, SBNation, you already got the page hit here).

Anyway, the article essentially synthesized that it's important to consider baseball's history before becoming holier than thou about PED use. The article is so good that it almost crosses the line between simply being persuasive and becoming manipulative. Who wouldn't be persuaded by a logical flow of ideas presented in a well-written, historically accurate, concise article? I know I was. However, after reading it and ruminating on it for a little while, I felt like it had exposed me to a logical trap:

1) Players were either PED users or non PED-users. Players who used PEDs were cheaters. Thus, whether or not players were cheaters is a simple binary question and cheating is an ethical violation.
2) However, PEDs can very easily be redefined to include greenies, use of which was so widespread 40 or 50 years ago that almost no one could be considered "clean".
3) Furthermore, cheating has been around since baseball began, so no one in history can be considered clean.
4) Thus, considering the issue of whether PED use should constitute cheating as a true ethical violation is an oversimplifying standard that punishes largely indiscriminately since almost every other player was cheating as well.

Now, I consider this to be a logical trap because, although the reasoning seems to follow -- one needs only to read the article to be persuaded to its simplicity -- this line of reasoning is, itself, an oversimplification. It treats whether a player was a cheater or not in binary. In fact, as the article even suggests, all forms of cheating are not equivalent; most importantly, they do not have the same impacts on the game.

The form of cheating that generally induces the worst gag-reflex is fixing games to appease gamblers. Throwing games calls into question the very integrity of the game's results and, as the article pointed out, when the result is the World Series, these are the most scrutinized results of the season. As a quick aside, unless I'm mistaken, the 1917 and 1918 World Series were likely fixed as well, though because of World War I, there was not enough political will to actually pursue relatively unimportant things like the integrity of the World Series. In any event, steroid use is currently being seen as a close second in gag-reflex induction magnitude.

Now this isn't simply because steroid use by power hitters lets those hitters club more homeruns (see Figure below). It's because steroid use by the absolute best of those power hitters allowed them to break two of the sport's most revered records: the single-season record (many times!) and the career homerun record. Heck, those two records are two of the most hallowed records in all of sports. Who knows exactly how many hits Pete Rose (let alone Ty Cobb) had, how many stolen bases Rickey Henderson (let alone Lou Brock) had, how many strikeouts Nolan Ryan (let alone Walter Johnson) had? But, if you're reading this, there's a good chance you know how many homers Hank Aaron (and Babe Ruth) had during their careers. There's a good chance you know exactly how many homers Roger Maris had in 1961.

It took almost 40 years for Maris to break Ruth's record by one homerun in a season with an extra eight games. Ruth's homerun record was so revered at the time that they decided to put an asterisk next to Maris's record, simply because MLB had extended the season. Maris's record stood for another 40 years before McGwire and Sosa didn't just break the record but shattered it, and in the same season to boot, with McGwire hitting 15% more homeruns than the previous record and Sosa hitting 8% more. Sosa would go on to hit 60+ homeruns in 1999 and 2001 as well. In 2001, Barry Bonds didn't just break 60, he set a new record, 73 dingers, 20% more than Maris had hit.

In the 80 some-odd seasons since Babe Ruth had broken into the league, there had been two 60-homerun seasons. In the four seasons between 1998 and 2001, there were six. To make matters worse, even after it had been well established that Bonds had been juicing, he broke the most coveted record of all, Hank Aaron's 755. If you don't think the career homerun record was all that big of a deal, keep in mind that when Hammerin' Hank ended the 1973 season just one shy of the Babe's 714, he enjoyed an offseason where he received death threats and hate mail.

Entering the 1998 season, McGwire, one of the game's most prolific sluggers was 34 years old. During his prime years, between 1992 and 1997, McGwire mashed to the tune of an astounding 58 homeruns per 550 at-bats. During the next four seasons (the last four of his career, between the ages of 34 and 37), he'd go on to hit almost 200 more, an average of 69 per 550 plate appearances. Between the ages of 34 and 37, his homerun output had increased by almost 20% relative to his prime years between 29 and 34.

But McGwire had been juicing his entire career so a 20% increase in homerun output is actually minor compared to players who didn't start to use PEDs until they had already established major league careers. Sammy Sosa (who baseballreference lists at 6'0", 165 lbs!) entered the 1998 season in his prime at 29 years old, during the previous five seasons he'd seen a true power surge, hitting homers at a rate of 34 per 550 plate appearances. Between 1998 and his age 37 season in 2005, that output increased 41% to 48 dingers per 550 at-bats.

Finally, Bonds, who bears the most ire for breaking not just the single-season record but the career record as well, experienced an increase in homerun output of 40% in what should have been the decline and twilight of his career. Between 1992 and 1997, Bonds hit 43 homeruns per 550 at-bats. Between 1998 and 2005, that jumped to 60 homeruns per 550 at-bats between 1998 and 2005.

Interested in knowing how much effect tailoring Yankee Stadium had on Babe Ruth? During the three seasons the Babe played at the Polo Grounds before the Yankees got the boot (ages 25 - 27), Ruth hit 58 homeruns per 550 plate appearances. During the next five (ages 28 - 33, including his 60 homerun season in 1927)? Forty-nine.

Now, I'm not trying to intimate that Dex's article claimed that all cheating was alike. But it's pretty easy to read it that way. Don't.

Thanks to the Weakerthans for today's post title.

Legend: This figure demonstrates the number of 45 homerun seasons in each decade. In the 2010's there has been one 45-homer season (by Jose Bautista!), which has been extrapolated out to 3.33 for the decade.