The Steroid News Could be Worse

The only thing we know for certain about steroid usage in baseball is that we don’t know anything for certain about steroid usage in baseball.  Leaked information, inconclusive tests and strong suspicions comprise the majority of the “evidence” in this area.  The list of stars that are either clearly guilty or strongly suspected,of using steroids is well known and includes some of the biggest names in the game’s recent history: McGuire, Sosa, A-Rod, Bonds, Ortiz and Clemens.

While we know which players have appeared on various lists, or in the Mitchell report, given the shoddy way investigations and testing have been conducted, it is not possible to know if any player is 100% innocent of steroid use.  There are likely to be more names leaked in the coming months.  Some will be expected, others will not be big stars, but there are some players who, if they were found to be steroid users, would have a greater impact than others.  The question of which players, if they were proven to be steroid users, would have the most devastating impact on the game is a little morbid but still interesting.  It should be mentioned at this point that this article is purely speculative, seeking to explore possible scenarios.  It is in no way meant to suggest that any of the players mentioned are steroid users.

Revelations about individual players using steroids would be the most upsetting if they were established stars, but not power hitters or power pitchers.  Sadly, news that Albert Pujols was taking steroids would not have great power to surprise.  Similarly, news that Tim Lincecum, probably the best pitcher in the NL, was using steroids would surprise people because of Lincecum’s skinny build, but he is not quite a big enough star for the news to truly shake up baseball.  News of Derek Jeter being a steroid user would be upsetting for many, but Jeter is a polarizing figure with more than his share of passionate detractors who would probably celebrate this news, similar to the fact that recent revelations about Ortiz have not exactly been distressing to many Yankee fans.

There are three players for whom news about steroid usage would be particularly catastrophic for the game.  Two of these are Greg Maddux and Mariano Rivera.  These two pitchers were, and in the case of Rivera still are, two of the best pitchers of the last quarter century.  Neither were big power pitchers, but were able to pitch effectively for a very long time.  Maddux, in addition to being one of the greatest pitchers of the last forty years, is something of the anti-Clemens.  Throughout his career, Maddux relied on superior control rather than an overpowering fastball and earned a reputation as the smartest pitcher around. Eventually, Maddux ended up winning more games than the controversial Clemens.  The success of Rivera and Maddux is a feel-good baseball story precisely because of their rather ordinary physical appearance.  Revelations that either had been taking steroids would not only destroy that story, but make it possible, or perhaps necessary, to revisit everything we thought we knew about steroids and make all players suspect.

The player whom a steroid revelation would have the greatest impact is Ichiro Suzuki.  Ichiro occupies a special place in baseball today.  This is partially because his style of play, with an emphasis on speed and hitting for high average, while rarely walking or hitting home runs makes him seem like a throwback to another era.  It also causes many fans to overrate his ability, but that is not the point here.  Suzuki has also become the face of the internationalization of baseball.  During the last two decades or so the growing presence of players from Asia, and other parts of the world, has been one of the few unequivocal positive developments in the game.  Players from Korea, Taiwan and Japan have made Major League Baseball more popular in those countries and have also made the game more exciting for many fans in the U.S.  No player has been more identified with these developments than Ichiro.  News that he too had been using steroids would destroy this story and probably raise unfair suspicions about other Asian players as well.

If Maddux, Rivera or Ichiro discovered using steroids it would be a very bad day for baseball, but it would also be an indication that steroid usage is even more widespread than initially thought and would force fans to rethink the whole steroid question.  While it is unlikely that any of these players are steroids users, and my hope and belief are that they are not, the overall ineptitude of the steroid investigation means that the news may well drag out over several more years, and the news will probably never be good.