Steroids or Jackie Robinson?


I’ve been trying to stay away from the steroids story for a couple of reasons.

Now, let me say, I do understand that posting material such as my “The-pitcher-who-must-not-be-named has been named… so now what?” article makes it hard for me to say I’ve been completely staying away from it. I do find it to be a compelling story at times… and I think there are several different topics of conversation that are as interesting as the bigger ones drawing all of the media interest. But the thing is…

First, I’m just tired of so much of it right now. If it’s one thing on Monday, then it’s another by Wednesday with a promise of bigger and more shocking to come by the weekend.

And second... well… I’m just not sure I care. Oh absolutely it’s been fun watching players apologize for what they were caught doing, all while struggling to make sure they don’t admit to a darker secret that hasn’t been revealed during their I’m so sorry moment. But I’ve reached a point… see item number one, tired… where the reality is setting in with me that this is much ado about something, but I don’t know if it’s the really important, life altering, super-duper-incredible something everyone seems to want to believe it is.

The other day I got an e-mail from the brother-in-law. We like to play this game when it comes to our conversations. Basically, it’s kind of poke the sleeping bear with a stick arrangement. And when those conversations drift over to sports… well… all bets are off. And whenever I try to use Mark McGwire in a story… oh lord… it never ends. I get accused of protecting Markey-Warkey… and I get asked when I’ll accept the truth about Markey-poo… and I could go on, but you get the picture.

And that’s ok. Partly because more often than not I deserve it… and partly because I happen to know that on Mike’s side of the bed is a framed picture of Rodney Harrison.

But in one e-mail Mike thought I had gone too far. In my February 12, 2009 diary entry, I presented this beauty:

…on top of this entire mess… what do you do when a dirty pitcher was throwing to a clean hitter? Do those outs count? I mean… we could go on forever trying to sort out the ground rules for what does and doesn’t count. Could we actually see championships forfeited? All depends on how far people are willing to go…

A dirty pitcher throwing to a clean hitter and starting to examine every out? Clearly… as Mike was arguing to a silenced and attentive jury… Bob is nuts.

Well… here’s my defense.

No. I’m not nuts. At least, this isn’t the material you should be using as evidence.

I don’t ever expect things to reach a point where we start talking about such amazingly specific moments as one at bat. Instead, I wanted to explore a where are people likely to stop mentality. If you want to throw out the hitting… it stands to reason you should examine the pitching. And if you’re saying that players were able to pound home runs or add some extra zip to a fastball when they shouldn’t have rounded the bases or recorded a strikeout, then you’re kind of saying the pitcher’s ERA shouldn’t get hammered by giving up that home run… and the hitter shouldn’t suffer either.

Let’s consider the world around us. People are tinkering with the most minute of details all the time. We live in a time where facts and figures and truth and opinion are not only readily available, but they can be researched, written and distributed at blistering speeds. We live in a time where the sacred hitting statistics of my youth… batting average, home runs and runs batted in… have been redefined by categories like on-base percentage and runs scored and all sorts of other things. Pitching statistics such as earned run average, wins and losses have been proven virtually insignificant when determining the true value of a player.

And speaking of value… we have investigations into the value over a replacement player. People can tell you which fields really are paradises for pitchers. And these details are getting easier and easier to find and use.

In short… oh yes… someone will definitely find out what pitchers Alex Rodriguez faced during that time period he has acknowledged taking performance enhancing drugs. And someone will be doing the same for those stepping into the box against the-pitcher-who-must-not-be-named.

I want to take this a step further though.

We can go back over the entire history of baseball and find items worthy of special note. And yet none of these items… moments… rules… whatever… to my knowledge has resulted in special categories of individual records.

Oh sure… National League versus American League. I know. And that is true. There is some consideration given for a record set in one league as opposed to that of the other. But this is almost exclusively for single season records… and more often than not, it is the better of the two that people remember as the record.

In the past twenty years, we’ve seen major league baseball add four organizations and replace numerous ballparks with beautiful facilities. We’ve seen training practices improve for players… technology make gigantic advances to record keeping and preparation… and at least the appearance of different uses of specialists and situational managing. There have been questions about the baseballs being wound too tight… and humidors brought in.

All of that… and the big story is steroids.

In the past forty years we’ve seen designated hitters and free agency. Go back fifty years and the height of the pitching mound changes. And eventually we can go back and find quite possibly the greatest change ever… with Jackie Robinson center stage.

Does anyone want to tell me that steroids is more important than Jackie Robinson?

Does anyone want to tell me that steroids are more significant as far as changing the game and the competition than integration?

I’m not looking to start some debate about what is and isn’t illegal or a reflection of society at the time. Different conversation. Instead, what I am saying is that steroids is, simply put, the flavor of the day.

Oh… it’s a good flavor. A strong and popular flavor. It’s the grapes or the cherries in the popsicle box, and not the green ones. Steroids is an important issue, and one of the most significant in decades.

But before all of these people go fixing something… specifically deciding what records do and do not need to be erased, footnoted, or held to ridicule… determining how we view specific players and accomplishments… I think it’s much more important we step away and try to add some perspective.

Baseball has always been a game that could be measured by its history… by its numbers… and by the passage of time. More than any other sport, the names span the decades. Hockey and football and basketball disappear for many people before 1970, or possibly 1960. Not baseball. Not Ruth… nor Williams… nor DiMaggio… nor Robinson.

And there has always been controversy in those numbers. What would have happened had so many potentially amazing seasons not been spent instead serving in the military? How many players can be considered with that question?

What would have happened if medical procedures… so many now common today… had allowed for career ending injuries to instead by minor amounts of lost time?

And what about seasons being the same length… and ballparks being different dimensions… and the list just keeps going on.

But part of what makes baseball so beautiful… so wonderful… so compelling… is the very existence of these arguments as not just valid, but also as unanswered. Would Babe Ruth’s numbers have been different if all of the best players in the world competed in the same league? Valid question… still unanswered… and he remains today quite arguably the greatest player ever in the game.

So I don’t really care about steroids as much these days. You can’t tell me who is and isn’t using them… or who did or didn’t use them… and have a complete list. And in my memories are great moments of players and events that are significant to me regardless of the test results.

Maybe that’s different for you. Maybe those test results tarnish some memories. It happens. But as time goes on, for those subjects you love, you don’t remember the green popsicles… you remember the grape and the cherry.

There’s a great quote from the movie The Breakfast Club that I think sums this all up nicely: “Screws fall out all the time, the world’s an imperfect place.”

We used to have this joke about first aid. The idea basically went like this… rule number one is to stabilize the situation. Make sure no one else gets hurt, and make sure that those that are hurt don’t get worse.

Baseball… and it’s players… aren’t perfect. And occasionally, there are some loose screws. There are people to blame and the steroids chapter is still being written.

But everyone… please… two steps back… take a deep breath.

There’s time to investigate it more… and time to punish others for violations that today are still undiscovered. Let’s just try to not make it worse. And let’s try to remember how important it really isn’t.

This is the game we love… and the game we’ve shared with each other… and the steroids story is a footnote. A big footnote… lots to reference… but a footnote. One that time will place appropriately in importance, much further down a list than many people today want you to believe it ever will be.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at