But at a time when spring's renewal should be generating quite a buzz about baseball, increasingly ominous clouds have gathered overhead. Earlier this week the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the names of six players who allegedly received performance-enhancing drugs from the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) were turned over to the federal government. Three of the names are big ones -- Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield -- with Marvin Benard, Benito Santiago and Randy Velarde rounding out the rogues gallery. The players were reportedly given drugs by Greg Anderson, Bonds' personal weight trainer and friend. According to the Chronicle:
Anderson allegedly obtained a so-called designer steroid known as "the clear" and a testosterone-based steroid known as "the cream" from BALCO and supplied the substances to all six baseball players, the government was told. In addition, Bonds was said to have received human growth hormone, a powerful substance that legally cannot be distributed without a prescription, investigators were told.
Agents obtained the information about the baseball players and illegal drugs last September during a probe that resulted in the indictment of Anderson, BALCO owner Victor Conte and two other Bay Area men on steroid conspiracy charges.
The information shared with The Chronicle did not explicitly state that the athletes had used the drugs they were said to have obtained. Bonds, who is baseball's single-season home-run king, and Giambi, who won the American League Most Valuable Player award when he was with the Oakland Athletics, have publicly denied using steroids. So has Sheffield. All three declined to discuss the matter Monday.
The news brings to a fever pitch the speculation which has swirled since Bonds, Giambi, and Sheffield were amog those who testified before a grand jury probing BALCO in December. Athletes from several sports, including track star Marion Jones, football players Bill Romanowski and Barrett Robbins, and boxer Shane Moseley also testified then, as did Giambi's brother Jeremy, but back then none of them were being accused of any wrongdoing. Now every sportswriter with a soapbox on which to stand is ready to play judge, jury and executioner for the three stars without even acknowledging that they haven't been charged with anything. This is ugly, and it's going to get worse.
I certainly don't condone the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but I have a hard time mustering the hysteria that comes so easily to some. Many of the drugs that have been spotlighted over the past several years --think androstenedione, Mark McGwire's juice of choice -- weren't illegal or explicitly banned by MLB until recently, and as Jon Weisman reminds us, you can't retroactively punish or reprimand somebody for something which wasn't a rule at the time. Much of the evidence about their usefulness or their harmfulness is less than conclusive, and as some of the more astute writers have pointed out, credible alternative explanations for notable increases in body size do exist.
As for the "integrity of the game" or the disruption of its statistical continuity due to "dopers," any student of baseball history can tell you that the wide fluctuations in offense over the past century -- the high-offense 1930s and the low-scoring '60s -- keep the current era in perspective. That's what advanced performance metrics are for, kids. And really, does the level of steroid use today create more of a farce than the presence of a color line that banned blacks from the game for over a half-century, or the current syndicate ownership of the Montreal Expos? Is our statistical continuity threatened by McGwire and Bonds any more than it is the high-altitude hijinks of the Colorado Rockies? I think not.
While I want to see the game I'm so passionate about come up with a sensible way to handle the problem, I see the failure to do already in the context of a labor-versus-management war that has waged continuously for the past 35 years. The owners have historically shown a strong aversion to bargaining in good faith and produced union-busting tactics such as collusion and replacement players, and they've offered up a general dishonesty about the game's financial state as well. None of this justifies the players' use of such substances, but the owners' actions haven't engendered the kind of trust necessary for the Major League Baseball Players Association to join the owners in constructing an effective and proactive means of combatting their usage either. While the players' conduct in this matter hasn't ben exemplary, their hands have yet to be forced, and the MLBPA didn't get to be the most powerful labor union in history by selling out its rank and file just to appease a casual fan's notion that everything was a chemical-free hunky dory.
The most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement did include a testing program for the first time. The initial step took place last spring, when all 1,200 players on the teams' 40-man rosters were tested anonymously, with the results remaining confidential. Between five and seven percent -- 60 to 84 players -- tested positive, enough to trigger mandatory testing this spring.
Seeing the policy in the light of the Players Association's right to protect its members, Murray Chass explores the consequences of violating the policy. A player testing positive for the first time is placed in a treatment program, but is subject to a series of fines and suspensions for failing to comply. From there, as Chass reports,
If a player tests positive a second time or subsequent times, he incurs a suspension or fine, ranging from 15 days or a maximum of $10,000 for the second time to one year or a maximum of $100,000 for the fifth positive test result.
A player who is convicted of steroid use in a legal proceeding faces a 15- to 30-day suspension or a maximum $10,000 fine for the first time, to a two-year suspension for a fourth offense.
If a player is convicted of selling or distributing steroids, he faces a 60- to 90-day suspension and a maximum $100,000 fine and a two-year suspension for a second offense.
Some writers have pointed to the recent outbursts by the likes of John Smoltz, Jeff Kent, and Turk Wendell as signs of a fissure in the union over this issue, but as Chass reminds us,
The number of players who have expressed views contrary to the agreement is about the same as those who offer contrary views during labor negotiations — a relative few.
The critics who have been quick to jump on those players' comments should keep them in perspective. Consider the number who have remained silent.
What's disappointing is that the writers reporting these allegations have no qualms about turning this into a witch hunt. The Miami Herald's Dan Le Batard writes:
This is how it is with the hysteria of witch hunts. The volume on the let's-get-'em bloodlust gets so loud it drowns out quieter things, like perspective. Medical studies? Logic? Proof? Oh, we'll get to that later, after the screaming. Or not.
There's an awful lot of ignorance being spewed about steroids these days. Sportswriters have become scientists and psychics, able to divine whether Barry Bonds cheats by looking at his biceps. We're not qualified for this, obviously, but what difference does that make? Larry Walker came to camp skinnier! Let's get him! Todd Helton came into camp heavier! Let's get him! (Angrily shake your pitchfork and torch here.)
...I don't know whether Bonds, Gary Sheffield or Jason Giambi is using steroids. And I certainly don't know how steroids help you hit a baseball (if they were a magic bean, wouldn't baseball be populated by Mr. Universe contestants?). I do know it isn't terribly fair these players are getting smeared by name as cheaters without due process even though this BALCO investigation includes far more athletes than just baseball's.
Without more facts -- remember those?-- I don't have the time or the energy to delve much further into the issue at this time. I will recommend Weisman's coverage of the issue, and John Perricone's as well. Both make some valid points about the need to keep an open mind and a wary eye when sifting through the news surrounding this issue. Keep that in mind the next time your local sportswriter tries to knock a player off of the pedestal he's spent so much time erecting for him.
In the blog world, Travis Nelson of Boy of Summer has a lengthy and thorough piece revisiting the idea of a baseball team in New Jersey. I'm only 1/3 of the way through it, but I'm impressed by the homework Travo has done on attendance, and will heartily suggest that you check it out.
The panel I'm on features Allen Barra of Slate, Jack Curry of the New York Times, Steven Goldman of YES Pinstriped Bible and Baseball Prospectus, Bruce Markusen of the Baseball Hall of Fame, ESPN's Rob Neyer, and Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci. Yeah, some of those guys can write. You could bat me ninth and I'd gladly play on that team, even if there are only seven of us. The otherpanel was no less distinguished: Larry Mahnken of Replacement Level Yankee Weblog, Tim Marchman of the New York Sun, ESPN's Buster Olney, Baseball America's Alan Schwarz, Baseball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan, Joel Sherman of the New York Post, and baseball historian Glenn Stout.
You might want to print these out so that you can read them at your leisure instead of staring at the computer for so long. It should be fun to dig all of this up in October and see where we were right or wrong. Thanks to Alex for wrangling this talent together and for considering me worthy of participating in such esteemed company.
Abraham paints a picture of a booming underground that still hasn't peaked, with blogs springing up and then disappearing with regularity. I don't know about the latter part, but I will say that an astounding increase seems to have taken place over the past winter. The writer goes on to cite a media studies expert who compares the boom to desktop publishing. That observation carries personal resonance; it's an area where my computer savvy allowed me to overcome a lack of training and move onto bigger and better things, as I became a graphic designer without benefit of an art-school background. Viva Apple!
The article starts with Belth and his fine blog, mentioning his interviews with famous personalities such as Buck O'Neill, Roger Angell, and Ken Burns, and it then turns to yours truly:
Belth and many other bloggers were first inspired by Aaron Gleeman, Jay Jaffe and David Pinto, the Willie, Mickey and the Duke of this fledgling genre. They were among the first and are now three of the best-read bloggers.
Jaffe, 34, started "Futility Infielder" three years ago. Once primarily a Yankees blog, he has branched out to cover all baseball.
"I developed a penchant for lengthy lunchtime e-mails involving stat-based baseball arguments. My friends invited me to leave them alone and start a blog," he said via e-mail. "The rest is history. I don't watch very much TV, besides ballgames, or see many movies since I started doing this. I've always got a couple of ideas I'm working on, even if only in my head, to the point where it's become like the music of my mind."
Jaffe and many other bloggers rely heavily on the study of baseball statistics -- known as sabermetrics -- to make their impassioned points. It's a natural mix of their love of baseball and technology.
The Mick of the genre? Wow, that's flattering, although I'm quite sure I don't get nearly as much traffic as Gleeman or Pinto (not that it keeps me awake at nights) or imbibe as much as Mantle. I'll mildly dispute the second paragraph, too, as I've always striven to straddle the line of covering the Yanks but not being limited to them. I can even quibble with Abraham's description of sabermetrics, preferring to rely on Bill James' classic definiton: "the search for objective knowledge about baseball." But hey, it's great to be mentioned, and any publicity is good publicity so long as you spell my name right. So thanks to Pete Abraham for including me in this piece, and welcome to any of you who are visiting this page for the first time because of it.
Any of you coming to this page via your Sunday paper who would be willing to send the page on which the article resides, please drop me an email.
A few weeks back when I participated in the Yankees roundtable on Baseball Prospectus Radio, I commented that despite their upgrades this winter, the Yanks are now so heavily invested in ballplayers who are 30 to 35 or even older that any one or two injuries could cause them trouble given their lack of depth. Joe Sheehan made his prescient comment about the Yanks' ability to assume contracts -- and man, was he right when it came to the A-Rod trade -- but the rest of the panel shared my view.
As did the host, Will Carroll, who doubles as BP's injury expert. Just as he did last year, Carroll is previewing every ballclub in a Team Health Report which shows the level of injury risk for their starting nine, rotation, and closer. Players are assigned the colors of traffic lights which represent an underlying quantification of injury risk. As to what that quantification is based on, Will had this to say:
Like PECOTA, it's a black box in the sense that I don't let it out. FAR less math involved. It's a weighted system of twelve factors starting with position, age, and injury history, but also things like body mass, PECOTA attrition/drop rate, playing time, team's overall health rating, speed of recovery, and a few others, including a couple that are very subjective.
Just to put it in plain English, the "PECOTA attrition/drop rate" to which Will refers is BP's forecast of the chance that the player will either decrease his productivity by 20 percent or more (collapse), or decrease his plate appearances by 50 percent or more due either to injury or poor performance (attrition).
Not all of the Health Reports are in the Premium category, and it so happens that the Yanks THR is a freebie. Will starts this one off by quoting a friend of his who says that everything in the world can be summed up in three words, and while he uses "Good. Expensive. Fragile." to describe the 2004 Yanks, the first three which came to my mind upon viewing the forecast were, "Too many colors." I tossed a few colorful words of my own in there, as you can imagine.
Only four Yankees out of the 15 Will graded get the green light: Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Enrique Wilson (who may not even be the regular second baseman) and Mike Mussina. Eight receive a yellow light, and three -- Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams, and Kevin Brown -- turn up in the red-light district. No sooner was I reading the THR (a day late) than Alex Belth floated an email saying Williams was undergoing an appendectomy and would miss Opening Day. Ugh.
Carroll offered to field my questions on the Yanks' report, and so I jotted down a handful and fired them off to him. What follows is our exchange.
FI: How much of the fact that Jason Giambi was red and Kenny Lofton was yellow is based on the two of them playing the field?
WC: It was a factor, but taking them out wouldn't have changed either significantly. Giambi would be in on age and the lack of comparable successes (at least in the long term) for his knee injury. Lofton was in the middle of the yellow range -- speed players tend to age poorly unless they refer to themselves in the third person.
FI: The news pre-op seemed more likely that Williams would be in center and Giambi would be DHing; does that change anything?
WC: Williams was actually on the cusp of yellow/red and I certainly can't predict appendectomies. Williams is both older, figures to play some in the field -- by design or by default when if Lofton gets injured, and has such a multitude of injuries in his file that it's almost impossible that one of these wouldn't jump up and bite him. Arthritic shoulders, bad knees, reduced speed, and DH doesn't necessarily help. Edgar Martinez has to go through a pretty elaborate stretching regimen before every at bat; Bernie might not make that adjustment.
FI: Good points when you think about those 35-year-old hammies. What color lights would Travis Lee, who they recently signed, and Tony Clark receive?
WC: Lee and Clark are both green. Neither have major recent histories and neither figures to get enough playing time to hurt themselves. 1B is the safest position on the field.
FI: How wide a variation in the eight yellows is there, and if you were able to give some of them plus (closer to green) or minus (closer to red), who would get what?
WC: Internally, there's quite a variation. Lofton is higher, Jeter is medium (thought I'm not terribly worried about him. I'll worry more if I start seeing him dive more knowing that his SS job is under scrutiny) and Sheff is pretty low. Sheffield was one of the more interesting players to research so far. No one believes his hand wasn't broken in the Cubs series. [Sheffield was just 2-for-14 with 1 RBI in the Braves' first-round loss to Chicago.]
FI: What's Kevin Brown's bigger risk, arm or back?
WC: Back, but you have to look at the entire kinetic chain. If he favors his back, he'll put more stress on his arm. I just can't see Brown going 200 innings, but he did it last year. The one thing I can't factor in is someone's pain tolerance.
FI: You didn't really elaborate on Jose Contreras' yellow -- what can you say about him? Is it based on the uncertainty of his age?
WC: No, I use the same data as PECOTA on age. Contreras only has one year in his injury history and that's the part that's uncertain. The biggest negative for him was the expected jump in innings. That's a challenge for anyone.
FI: Steve Karsay's shoulder problems last year were blamed on tendinitis, but now we're hearing that he had rotator cuff surgery. Did the Yankees conceal that? How serious was his tear?
WC: Conceal? No, but they had no reason to tell anyone. If Tom Gordon's agent knew about that, would his price have gone up? Tendinitis and cuff problems are often related. It would take a whole section of a book to explain that -- but luckily that book, Saving The Pitcher, is coming out in April!
FI: Let the record show that I added the shameless linking to Will's innocent plug of his book. Anyway, what about the rest of the Yanks' pen -- Gordon, Quantrill, Heredia, and White? Any glaring risks there?
WC: Gordon's always a risk, but used properly, he'll be fine. The rest don't figure to be major risks for anything "preventable." That word -- preventable -- is a tough one. Bernie gives us a perfect example for just how unpredictable injuries are. Any pitcher can get overused or take a ball off their head and pow -- in an instant the whole rotation or pen has changed. Where the Yankees -- and you touched on this in the intro -- are harder to figure is in how they'll deal with an injury. There's not much in Columbus, but Cashman's just as likely to go get someone from another team as he is to get someone from Triple-A.