UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Fisk missed the point: There's more to this story than just steroids

"But this is the point I want to make: When you talk about steroids and you talk about what it means to the game, the three greatest home run hitters of all time -- Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, right? When they were 39 years old, how many home runs do you think they averaged? The three greatest home run hitters of all time averaged 18 home runs at age 39. Now, how many home runs did Barry Bonds hit when he was 39? He hit 73!"

-- Carlton Fisk from this story

I guess when it comes down to it, this is the thing that bothers me most about the steroid screaming: Why is it that people have to bring all of these crazy exaggerations to the party? Why can't we just talk about this stuff without getting livid? Why can't we just do what Joe Paterno suggests we do about all of our problems, all of the mysteries, all of the disagreements: Just ask questions?

Look, I think just about everyone in America believes that steroid use and the massive weight training that goes along with it played a major role in the home run explosion of the 1990s and 2000s. Players got a lot stronger, and being a lot stronger they hit more home runs (especially opposite-field home runs). That isn't hard math. It is a simple baseball fact that 16 of the 17 biggest home run seasons in baseball history (measured by home runs hit per game) have come since the 1994 strike, which seems to be when steroid abuse ratcheted up. The only other year that sneaks in there is that nutty 1987 season, in which the baseballs were apparently punched up with helium and rabbit juice.

I'll take just a moment to note here that 2009 -- which supposedly represented a return to normalcy because there is steroid testing in place and because nobody in either league hit 50 home runs, and nobody in the AL hit 40 -- was actually the 10th biggest home run season ever. The home runs were just more spread out. The huge home run numbers have been sanded down, but there were only 17 fewer home runs hit in 2009 than there were in 2002. There were MORE homers hit per game than in 1997, the year Mark McGwire hit 58 and Ken Griffey Jr. hit 56 -- the year that led into the year.

In 2009, 54 players hit 25-plus homers -- fourth most in the decade and sixth most all-time. Home runs are still flying.

Here's a funny statistic that I have not seen mentioned much: The 2009 New York Yankees hit more home runs than any Yankees team ever. More than any of the steroid era Yankees teams. More than the 1961 Yankees. Fifty percent more than the '27 Yankees. It seemed to go relatively unnoticed for a couple of reasons:

1. Because no Yankees player hit 40 home runs in 2009.

2. Because New Yankee Stadium was reportedly a pinball machine.

The New Yankee Stadium thing was pretty significant. The Yankees hit 28 more home runs at home than on the road. More to the point, they hit 46 more home runs at home than they did in 2008.

Home runs hit by the Yankees at home:

2009: 1362008: 902007: 1072006: 1112005: 1262004: 1262003: 1062002: 1082001: 1162000: 1171961: 112

So, you would have to say that home ballpark played a role in the record-setting home run numbers. Well, of course it did. And this is the point that I can't help but think people miss all the time: Of course steroids played a role in the home run years. But maybe, just maybe, there were other factors. Lots of other factors....

Stadiums: New Comiskey Park -- what has become a massive home run hitters park -- was introduced in 1991. Camden Yards, a big home run park, opened in 1992. Baseball was expanded to high elevation Denver in 1993, and the homerlicious Ballpark at Arlington opened in 1994. Kansas City moved in the fences in 1995 and turned Royals Stadium into an absurd home run haven. Before 1995 the Royals had never given up more than 163 homers in a season (and from 1985 through 1994, they averaged 107 homers allowed). From 1996 through 2003, they allowed on average more than 200 homers per season. They waved the white flag and moved the fences back after 2003 and the home run numbers have normalized. Baseball also added high-elevation Phoenix in 1998.

The strike zone: Before the 1963 season, a group of baseball people were worried that hitters had gained too much of an advantage. They were thinking, I suspect, about Roger Maris' home run record and some other big offensive seasons (more on this in a second). And they decided to expand the strike zone. At the time they claimed that they only were expanding the zone to "pre-1950 standards" but by expanding the zone from top of the shoulder to bottom of the knee, they were actually going bigger than the strike zone had ever been before.

It had a massive effect on the game. Massive. The strike zone was not the only factor in the 1960s hitter outage -- the main point here is that it's never just one factor. As Bill James has written, the stadiums in those days tended to be pitcher-friendly. The hitters in many parks were not given a hitting background -- they were staring into white signs and white T-shirts. There were more night games... and the lights weren't all great. The umpires were not especially vigilant either about checking the heights of the mounds. At Dodger Stadium in particular, they were like pro wrestling referees. The mound kept getting higher and higher... and, yes, there were RULES about this sort of thing. But nobody was paying attention to the rules. The Dodgers were in fact cheating. But, as we like to say, nobody was testing.

Sandy Koufax at home (1962-66): 57-15, 1.37 ERA, 23 shutouts, 754 K's, 142 walks, .822 WHIP.

Sandy Koufax on road (1962-66): 54-19, 2.57 ERA, 10 shutouts, 690 K's, 174 walks, 1.04 WHIP.

Koufax was still a dazzling pitcher on the road. But he was not the dominant force -- wasn't NEARLY the dominant force -- that he was at home. It is accepted baseball wisdom that Koufax found himself (and his control) in 1962. It's striking that at Los Angeles Memorial Stadium, Koufax was 17-23, with a 4.33 ERA and 188 walks in 364 innings. Dodger Stadium, and the high mound, and the larger strike zone probably played a role in helping Koufax find himself.

But Koufax was only one half of the dominant combo. What about Don Drysdale? He was a good pitcher before 1962 --- he was 79-64 with a 3.30 ERA and he twice led the league in strikeouts. Then the move to Dodger Stadium:

Don Drysdale at home (1962-66): 49-28, 2.27 ERA, 10 shutouts, 559 K's, 148 walks, 1.01 WHIP

Don Drysdale on road (1962-66): 49-42, 3.24 ERA, 10 shutouts, 548 K's, 166 walks, 1.16 WHIP.

Now, to be fair, a big part of this is that Drysdale was awful on the road in 1966 (6-13, 4.65 ERA)... but the main point is that Drysdale was pretty much the same pitcher on the road from 1962 through '66 that he was before that year. But he was a full run better at Dodger Stadium.

So -- higher mounds, bigger strike zone, better pitcher's stadiums... and we had the most remarkable pitching era since Deadball. From 1963 through '68...

Bob Gibson punched up a 1.12 ERA in '68, the best since Dutch Leonard, and nobody has touched him since.

• Sandy Koufax put up the best sustained stretch of pitching in memory; many will tell you he's the best they ever saw.

Juan Marichal went 151-65 with a 2.51 ERA.

Denny McLain won 30 games.

• There were 14 season with an ERA of less than 2.00 -- these included legends (Koufax, Gibson, Phil Niekro), some really good pitchers (Tommy John, Luis Tiant, Dave McNally) and some surprises (Dean Chance, Joe Horlen, Bobby Bolin). In the 15 seasons leading into the high-strike zone era, there had only been one season with an ERA of less than 2.00 -- Billy Pierce's 1.97 in 1955.

• An interesting stat: The American League had not batted less than .250 since Deadball. Consecutively, from 1963 through '68, the league batted .247, .247, .242, .240, .236, .230. That last year, famously, only Carl Yastrzemski hit .300. The National League batted .250 or less in four of those six seasons.

The point is to show how just a couple of seemingly small factors -- a slightly bigger strike zone, an almost imperceptibly higher mound, a few good pitcher's parks -- could wildly turn baseball's fortunes. Enforcing the height of the mound in 1969 balanced things slightly. Adding the designated hitter to the American League in 1972 balanced things a touch more. But just a few things, none of them diabolical in nature, turned the game upside down.

I suspect -- it would be a hard thing to prove, but I do believe -- that the strike zone shrunk dramatically in the 1990s. Offense was going to save the game. The high strike was completely taken away. Anything above the belt -- and some pitches at the belt -- seemed to be automatic balls. This is a perception -- I don't know if anyone has done a study measuring the 1990s strike zone. But it sure seemed smaller. And, as shown in the 1960s, a change in the strike zone can have overwhelming ramifications.

Expansion: In 1961 the addition of two teams to the American League -- pushing the league from eight to 10 -- had a fairly dramatic effect on some individual performances. Roger Maris, of course, hit 61 home runs*, Norm Cash had his preposterously great year (later admitting that he corked his bat), Jim Gentile had his preposterously great year, Mickey Mantle hit his career-high 54 homers, Rocky Colavito hit his career-high 45 homers, Dick Howser had a rather spectacular rookie year, and so on.

*I don't mean to put an asterisk anywhere near Maris' record, but I did find it interesting that these were the pitchers whom Maris hit multiple home runs off of in 1961:

• 3 off Jim Perry (10-17, 4.71 ERA -- before he found himself)• 3 off Frank Lary, who had a good year• 3 off Pete Burnside• 2 off Eli Grba, who had two vowels in his first name and one in his second• 2 off Ray Herbert• 2 off the 34-year-old, moderately effective Billy Pierce• 2 off Gene Conley (11-14, 4.91 ERA)• 2 off Russ Kemmerer• 2 off Ding Dong Bell, who gave up 32 homers that year• 2 off Bill Monbouquette• 2 off Pedro Ramos, who, rather remarkably, led league in losses FOUR STRAIGHT YEARS. Consecutively, he lost: 18, 19, 18, 20. It is a unique achievement.

In 1962 the addition of two teams to the National League -- pushing the league from eight to 10 -- created a few huge years. Tommy Davis' remarkable .346, 27 homers, 153 RBIs, 120 runs scored was probably the most eye-popping of the bunch. He would lead the league in hitting again in 1963, but he never got within 10 homers, 60 RBIs, 45 runs of that numbers extravaganza. Stan Musial at age 41 -- and having not hit .300 since 1958 -- hit .330. Mostly, this was the case of a few pitchers' years -- Drysdale, Koufax, Bob Purkey, Jack Sanford -- having some big years.

In 1969 there was more expansion. And seven players hit 40-plus homers -- as many as 1968 (1), 1967 (2), 1966 (3) and 1965 (1) combined. In fact, 1969 was just one short of the record for most 40-plus homers seasons... and that record was set in 1961, the last AL expansion year.

In 1977 two teams were added to the American League. And the league hit 10 points higher and slugged more than 40 points better. Graig Nettles was the only player in 1976 to hit 30-plus homers; he hit 32. Six players hit 25 or more homers that year. But in 1977 nine players hit 30-plus homers, and 11 more hit 25 or more. The point is that expansion does change the dynamic.

And there was expansion in the 1990s. Colorado and Florida joined in 1993. Arizona and Tampa Bay joined in 1998.

Better bats and better equipment: The bats have the thinner handles, which apparently allows them to whip more. And the bats are solid now, dense, players don't have to bone them. Manufacturers layer them with coats of shellac. How many home runs would Hank Aaron have hit with these bats?

The better equipment can be something as simple as body armor (allowing batters to feel more confident as they crowd the plate) or as complicated as LASIK surgery. It is the new weight training techniques and legal supplements -- a player doesn't have to do steroids to become much stronger than he would have been 30 years ago.

There are so many other factors or possible factors. I don't know. What about the scouting reliance on the radar gun (perhaps pushing strong-armed pitchers with no command and subpar breaking stuff to the big leagues)? What about the ever-shifting sensibility of strikeouts (how many home runs would Gehrig, Kluszewski and Kiner have hit had they swung from the heels with two strikes and been willing to strike out 150 times?). How much of a factor was baseball's strategy shift from speed and defense to power (the demand for home run hitters will usually increase the supply)?

There are countless other things... it's always more complicated than people want to make it. The problem is that whenever you try to talk about the whole picture, people will think you're trying to downplay the evil of steroids. And this is just not a good time to be downplaying the evil of steroids. It seemed to me that people were beginning to come to grips with the Steroid Era, a time without testing, a time when I imagine hundreds of players cheated, when hundreds of players used some form of performance enhancer to help out in the workout room and help coax them through long seasons and give them some extra strength. But with the backlash against Mark McGwire, I sense that, no, we're not there yet. You can bet that players who used steroids won't be coming out to apologize any time soon.

And that brings me to the Carlton Fisk quote at the top of the post (which, by the way, was removed from the original story). I am a very big fan of Fisk's. I loved the way he played the game. I loved the toughness he brought to it. He was all ballplayer. But the quote really struck me, and not only because he got it completely wrong. The quote again:

"But this is the point I want to make: When you talk about steroids and you talk about what it means to the game, the three greatest home run hitters of all time -- Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, right? When they were 39 years old, how many home runs do you think they averaged? The three greatest home run hitters of all time averaged 18 home runs at age 39. Now, how many home runs did Barry Bonds hit when he was 39? He hit 73!"

OK, first, the numbers are all off. At age 39, Babe Ruth hit 22 home runs -- and and it isn't like Ruth was famous for keeping himself in shape. Willie Mays hit 28 home runs at age 39. Hank Aaron hit 40 home runs at age 39. So that's an average of 30 per player, not 18. Not close to 18. None of the three hit 18. And not only that: Carlton Fisk at age 39 hit more than 18 homers, too -- he hit 23.

He got the Barry Bonds thing wrong, too. Look, at any age, hitting 73 home runs is going to be an eye-opener. But, in fact, Bonds hit the 73 when he was 36 years old. At 39, he hit 45 homers -- a lot, absolutely, and the most ever for a player 39 or older. But it ain't 73.

So, the point that Fisk wants to make is based on entirely faulty information. Whatever. I guess the thing I wish is that old ballplayers -- especially great old ballplayers like Fisk -- would look a little bit deeper rather than falling into the "In my day, we had to walk uphill through the snow" act. Can't we have a conversation? Can't we talk about this without constantly expressing our own moral superiority?

Yes, players were using steroids, and that use of steroids does indeed -- as Bob Costas put it the other day -- make their numbers inauthentic. But let's talk about that for a second. Did illegal amphetamines that were apparently a part of every-day baseball in the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s make those numbers inauthentic? I don't know. There is every reason to suspect that the Los Angeles Dodgers broke baseball's rules -- in letter and in spirit -- by raising the mound above the limits. Does that make those numbers inauthentic? I don't know.

And beyond cheating: Does playing in an all-white league make every number before 1947 inauthentic? And it's not like the league was fully integrated the day Jackie Robinson stepped on the field -- it took a decade or more, so maybe all numbers before 1961 are inauthentic. And the game did not really open up to Latin players until the 1980s -- just look at one country, the Dominican Republic. The only regulars from the Dominican Republic throughout the 1960s were the Alou brothers, Julian Javier, Rico Carty and Manny Jiminez (for one year). Even in 1979 there were only five regulars in the big leagues (Carty, Cesar Cedeno, Pepe Frias, Alfredo Griffin, Frank Taveras).

In 1985 alone there were 12 regulars -- including stars like George Bell, Tony Fernandez, Pedro Guerrero, Tony Pena and my guy Julio Franco. And of course the last 20 years, you have MannyBManny, Papi, Tejada, Vlad Guerrero, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Beltre, Alfonso Soriano, on and on and on. And these are just the hitters -- we're not even getting into Pedro and Bartolo Colon and so on.

So what is authentic? I am not defending those players who cheated -- they knew it was wrong, they knew why they were doing it, they knew -- but I don't even know who were those players and neither does anyone else. Was it 50% of baseball, like Ken Caminiti said long ago before he was bullied into backtracking? Was it MORE than 50%? Were teams complicit? Were people behind the scenes in baseball quietly cheering? Or, worse, were they putting subtle and perhaps even not-so-subtle pressures on players to get stronger, however necessary? And how much of what we saw was steroid-induced? Was it 90%? Was it 40% How much?

We don't know. And while some people seem endlessly interested in standing on soap boxes and shouting down at the cheaters who have been caught or have come forward for whatever reason, it seems like we don't want to know. Yes, the era may be defined by steroids, but it's like people don't want to hear that steroids were not the only reason that people hit a bunch more home runs. There are a lot of reasons people hit home runs.

For instance, there was a player, a really good player, who had never hit more than 26 home runs in a season. He was a good hitter but he was just not a 30-home run guy. And he was also a catcher, which meant that it was likely that his body had taken a terrible beating and had worn down.

But this is the point I want to make: When you talk about the three greatest power-hitting catchers of all time -- Mike Piazza,Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra, right? Well, there's Josh Gibson, of course, but we don't have his numbers. When the three power catchers (Piazza, Bench and Berra) were 37 years old, how many home runs do you think they averaged? The three greatest power-hitting catchers of all time averaged 11 home runs at age 37. How many do you think our guy hit? He hit 37!

Of course, our guy is Carlton Fisk. And I am not suggesting that he did anything illegal -- I am, in fact, entirely convinced that he did not do anything illegal and never would. But he had never hit more than 26 homers in his career. And he was a 37-year-old catcher -- no 37-year old catcher had ever hit even 20 homers before. And at 37 he hit 37 home runs because, well, baseball isn't always easy to reduce to a few indignant words.

See, there's a lot that goes into baseball. Stuff usually isn't black or white, up or down, left or right. It's complicated. Carlton Fisk, of all people, should know that. If it makes people feel better to shout "fraud" in a crowded theater, hey, it's a free country. But it seems to me there's already enough noise out there.

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.