A 29 year old outfielder who had never before hit 30 homers in a season suddenly cranks 52 round trippers. A 39 year old swats 40 homers in just 392 at bats. Two aging outfielders, ages 37 and 39, each increase their batting average over the previous season by more than 40 points and hit the second highest home run totals of their respective careers. A first baseman who had averaged 21.3 homers per year in the previous three years pops 51 dingers. Injuries plague and then end the career of yet another outfielder after hitting 56 homers, a number 26 higher than his previous career average.
I wasn’t going to name names, since we have all heard about these guys before, but for the sake of making a point, here they are: George Foster (1973), Hank Aaron (1973), Tris Speaker (1925) and Ted Williams (1957), Johnny Mize (1947) and Hack Wilson (1930). Those were the guys you were thinking of, right? No?
My point is that, while we have some certainty about who used steroids, we can never be 100% sure about dozens of players who have never been implicated… or even some who have been named. Bursts of home run power (seemingly out of nowhere) and surges in offensive output at an advanced baseball age are nothing new to the sport.
Of course, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire admitted using steroids. ARod and Manny Ramirez were caught. The anecdotal evidence against Bonds and Clemens has been piled high, despite some sketchy court proceedings. But what about Jim Thome, Tony Gwynn, Curt Schilling and Albert Pujols? All four of those guys produced some mammoth numbers in the heart of the steroid era. Yet there has been some sort of unspoken agreement among baseball officials and fans that those four guys are the “good guys”, and they were legit. Don’t get me wrong, I hope we never discover evidence against them, and I am among those who believe that they did not cheat. Yet, how do we know? We don’t.
So we must be very careful taking guys like Jeff Bagwell and Rafael Palmeiro and automatically lumping them in with those who have actually been caught or who have admitted using. No matter how much it seems “obvious” that one player or another used steroids to achieve great numbers, we must also leave the door open for the possibility of a handful of naturally occurring amazing seasons that just happened to fall in the steroid era.
It is really sad that we cannot ever know for sure. But blanket labels and dismissive thinking could be blinding us to some legitimately great baseball achievements. Perhaps time will heal some of these wounds.