BY: ABACUS REVEALS
The sports world at large, from pompous pundits to soccer moms, has chosen to take umbrage at the intravenous antics of the San Francisco Giants’ Melky Cabera and Bartolo Colon of the Oakland A’s and brand them as cheats. Each player has accepted a 50-game suspension from MLB for the use of a banned “performance-enhancing” substance detected by an analysis of a urine sample submitted by the player, as per the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Some are offering this as evidence that the sport, while not quite pure, is far cleaner than it has been in recent years and continues to move in the right direction. A recent column by Jayson Stark of ESPN offers considerable data that shows a sharp decline in power numbers since 2005 when Congressional intervention induced the implementation of the random, required urine tests.
But the good vibrations for the effectiveness of the program are hardly unanimous. Positive test results indicate that ballplayers are still, you know, using forbidden pharmaceuticals. Cabrera and his people were even concocting some convoluted cover story, allegedly. A cloud of suspicion continues to hover over the achievements of 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, despite the unprecedented reversal-upon-appeal of his suspension for the same offense.
NoCal’s Bay Area is represented in the current conundrum not only by suspended athletes, but also by the voice of Victor Conte. The BALCO buddy of Barry Bonds has re-emerged to opine that MLB’s testing procedures are inadequate, suggesting that as many as half the players are still utilizing banned substances. He even offered his expertise to MLB, via Erik Kuselias of NBC SportsTalk—for free, so as to assuage his conscience, he contends.
The culture of baseball, at all levels of play, is rife with written rules and unwritten conventions. Among the latter is the notion that “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” Coaches carefully parse the language of the rulebook in an attempt to invent new ways to gain a competitive edge—until the rule gets re-written.
Laziness, the lack of hustle, not tryin’, that’s when you should feel shame and offer an apology. Just ask Jimmy Rollins, ManRam or Shoeless Joe Jackson.
But when the umpire is signaling an out, should the fielder who didn’t really make the catch reveal an empty glove, or just “sell” the official’s incorrect ruling?
Catchers are taught to “frame” pitches. What catcher at one time or another has not “pulled” a close pitch onto the corner of the plate?
Nolan Ryan was said to be a master at planting his foot several inches in front of the rubber on the most significant of pitches.
A little cork in the bat, a little scuff to the ball. It’s all part of the mystique of the game, like the hidden-ball trick.
For a century of more, such issues of fairness (as well as safety issues like beanballs and overly aggressive play) were handled internally by the fraternity of players. The outcomes and decisions were pretty universally accepted.
The baseball crisis that required outside intervention involved a team deliberately losing the World Series at the behest of gamblers. But it seems that as long as the competition “between the lines” has been fair and genuine, the culture of the game has been able to police itself—even through issues as thorny as integration, expansion and labor strife.
Almost 60 years after the Black Sox Scandal, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn introduced the phrase “Best Interests of the Game” to the modern sports vernacular. Oakland owner Charlie Finlay, a man ahead of his time if there ever was one, was going about the business of dismantling a championship team while its stars still had value and before any more were lost to free agency. But citing concerns over competitive balance, Kuhn vetoed certain transactions, and in the blink of an eye, lawyers and judges were involved.
Fast forward about a quarter of a century. A brutally contentious labor negotiation had cost baseball a World Series and a fair chunk of its popularity. The good ship MLB was set right, though, by the most dazzling display of power hitting in its long history, as decades-old standards were falling with stunning regularity.
But before long, Commissioner Bud Selig and his three wise monkeys—Speak No Evil (Palmeiro), Speak No English (Sosa), Speak No History (McGuire)—found themselves testifying in Congress, and mandatory drug screening became reality.
Baseball is a game that requires a combination of flexibility, endurance, coordination and reflex. For generations, any kind of weight-training was deemed counter-productive for a baseball player and thus an uncommon practice. Of course, this viewpoint has long been debunked; strength gains do not necessarily inhibit baseball’s pre-requisite skills. Indeed, advances in training and nutrition continue to enhance performance in all our games.
So, too, do advances in medical science enhance sports performance—not to mention longevity and quality of life. (Steroids and HGH do exist as legitimate treatments for genuine maladies, after all.)
That’s the thing about this stuff…it works—in observable and measurable ways. The effect of an improved workout regimen and better diet can likewise be demonstrated.
Consider the string of high-profile athletes who have traipsed off to Europe in the past two or three years to receive some new-fangled blood-spinning treatment. Rave reviews seem to be increasing business. Why Europe? Because this procedure has not been approved for use in the Good Ol’ USA.
Therein lies the problem facing any sports league or anti-doping agency. At what point does the legitimate attempt to improve performance become an unfair advantage deserving of reprimand?
It’s OK for a ballplayer to improve his visual acuity by means of a surgical procedure performed by a certified professional.
But a doctor may not prescribe certain substances (HGH, for example) to treat an injury more effectively and/or expediently. A doctor may not prescribe certain substances which are known to facilitate recuperation from strenuous exertion. (Yet a league will gladly generate advertising revenue from the manufacturers of male-enhancement products. Hmm!)
The rules under which any contest is conducted are established and modified for the purpose of maintaining the integrity of the competition—to give both the offense and defense a fair and reasonable opportunity to succeed. Several years ago boxer Antonio Margarito was discovered to have used a little plaster of Paris while taping his hands for a fight. Talk about a performance enhancing substance, huh? Naturally, the opponent, Boxing Commission and world-at-large cried foul, and Margarito was summarily disqualified and suspended.
In 1999, Barry Bonds played his first season under the influence of unapproved performance enhancers (according to Williams and Fainaru-Wada’s iconic Game of Shadows). Bonds had packed on a very noticeable 15 pounds of upper-body muscle in the off-season through the use of a body-building steroid provided by his trainer and life-long friend, Greg Anderson. The additional muscle mass caused a serious elbow injury that put Bonds on the shelf for nearly two months, as well as nagging problems with his legs. Despite playing only 102 games and posting a paltry .262 batting average, he hit one home run for every 10.4 at-bats, the highest frequency of his career to that point.
Better product and more informed usage, abetted by MLB’s lack of a testing program and Barry’s obsessive drive, then produced “the greatest five consecutive seasons of any hitter in baseball history.” (page 282, Game of Shadows) The Bonds experience shows clearly that (a) performance is indeed enhanced and (b) there are consequences, both short- and long-term, to the use of anabolic steroids.
What’s less clear, though, is whether this is creating an unfair advantage that needs to be outlawed. Is it remotely possible that the supervised use of these pharmaceutical medications is just the next evolutionary step in the development of the game—like the use of fielding gloves, or the invention of the specialized relief pitcher? How will athletes be training in 20 or 50 years? And are not all these “tweaks” introduced for the explicit purpose of enhancing either individual or team performance?
Regarding age and longevity, it is sometimes said 60 is the new 40. (Abacus’ old assets can only hope!) Then Roger Clemens would be the new 36. He might have a few innings left in him after all.
Inventive men like Abner Doubleday and James Naismith would hardly recognize their games as they now are played. Similarly, we are not likely to be too entertained by the games as they were played in their infancy. A fair bit of performance enhancement took place in between.
There are inherent physical risks involved in all our games, even our leisurely-paced national pastime. (Just Google “Tony Conigliaro” if you need a reminder.) The human body was simply not designed for all that exertion, contortion and collision. Can you remember a time when the word “oblique” was an adjective meaning “indirect” rather than a noun meaning “ballplayer’s body part, prone to frequent injury”?
Yet the participants make the decision to play and to excel.
The manner and extent of an athlete’s training is likewise a matter of choice, with its own set of inherent risks and rewards.
While Bay Area baseball fans are sure to be miffed at losing a key contributor to each of their teams in the midst of a drive for the post-season, they need to bear in mind that Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon are far more victim than villain in all these shenanigans.
How is it you young folk put it?
Don’t hate the player, hate the Game!
By: Abacus Reveals
Last Friday (Aug. 3), CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees recorded his second complete game of the 2012 season, the 35th (in 374 starts) of his impressive and highly profitable 12 year career. CC’s lived up to his reputation as a workhorse this season, despite a brief stint on the Disabled List, providing manager Joe Girardi with at least seven innings of work in 13 of his 19 starting assignments. That 68 percent rate of Long Starts ranks fourth in the majors currently.
Sabathia’s was MLB’s 87th complete game this season. In 2011, CG #87 was notched six weeks sooner, on June 19, when Tiger MVP Justin Verlander, Jason Vargas of Seattle and Tampa Bay’s “Big Game” James Shields (who was best in baseball last year with 11 CG’s) all turned the trick.
At the current pace, MLB pitching will amass 136 complete games, equaling the total of 2008—and that is the second lowest total EVER. Even the labor-ravaged season of 1994 produced over 100 more than that paltry output.
2011 had shown an increase in CG’s for the fifth consecutive year to 173, but that would have been barely a good month throughout most of the history of professional baseball. One hundred years ago, in 1912, 16 pitching staffs combined for 1,431 complete games. In 1928, there were 1,172 CG’s; in 1948, 797. (In those years, an MLB season was comprised of 1,232 games, compared to the 2,430 games played with today’s contingent of 30 teams.)
1968’s “Year of the Pitcher” saw Denny McLain’s 31 wins, Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA and 889 CG’s. (’68, by the way, is one of only two seasons in baseball’s long history when the MVP’s of both leagues were pitchers, the 1924 showing of Brooklyn’s Dazzy Vance and the Senators’ Walter Johnson being the only other occasion.) There were over 1,000 CG’s in 1978, 622 in 1988 and 371 in 1993.
From 1995-2003, only one season saw fewer than 200 complete games (2001’s 194 the exception), but the pendulum was already in motion, with total CG’s bottoming out at 112 in 2007.
So, where have all the complete games gone?
Professional baseball has expanded and evolved with the times in its near century and a half of existence. As designated hitters, divisional playoffs, quality starts, wild cards, pitch counts and all manner of specialization have joined in the game, the role of and expectations for a pitcher no longer seem to include finishing what you start.
Certainly the increasing tendency for teams to rely on statistical analysis and situational substitutions accounts in part for this strategic change. Before sailing off into retirement last year, didn’t Tony LaRussa micro-manage his Cardinals to a World Series title over a Texas Ranger pitching staff crafted in the image and likeness of Nolan Ryan (he of the 222 career complete games)? Perhaps the “copy-cat” nature of professional sports in general also has contributed to this season’s reduction in CG’s.
But this paucity of complete games seems more than simply a trend. Consider our current so-called “iron men”: former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez has completed 21 of his career 228 starts; current MLB leader Verlander, who has six CG’s, is 20 for 221 in his career; Shields, last year’s Mr. Automatic with 23 of his 33 starts lasting at least seven innings, has 17 CG’s in 206 overall starting assignments. Shields’s teammate David Price (3-111) and Tim Lincecum of the Giants (8-178) need bullpen assistance in over 95 percent of their outings.
Philadelphia ace Roy Halladay is the current king of the finishing starters with 66 CG’s in 367 games, a percentage comparable to Hall of Fame-bound Greg Maddux. But this rate, roughly 15 percent, pales next to Maddux’s contemporary “Blackjack” Morris (175-527) and the Yankee great of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s Whitey Ford (156-438), who chalked up CG’s twice as frequently. Morris (5-13) and Ford (an impressive seven complete games in his 22 World Series starts) maintained this pace in the postseason.
However, it is Mr. Gibson’s record of endurance that stands out most. Not only did he throw both the first and last of his team’s pitches in 53 percent (255-482) of his regular season starts, he pitched 81 of the 82 innings in his nine World Series appearances, good for a 7-2 record and two rings. Interestingly, Gibby lost his final World Series contest, Game 7 in 1968, to the Detroit Tigers and Mickey Lolich, who was throwing his third CG of that series despite working on two days’ rest. (Gibson had won Game 7 of the 1964 Fall Classic over the Yankees under the same circumstances.) Eight complete game, one covering 10 innings, in nine tries—Wow!
The sports wisdom of the ages contends that momentum in baseball is to be found in “tomorrow’s” starting pitcher.
If so, then momentum in modern baseball has a shelf-life of only five or six innings.