Here in Brooklyn, where -- along with Manhattan -- baseball-as-we-know-it evolved, the game remains an inexhaustible topic when boys and men of summer meet and chat along our bluestone sidewalks and in our barrooms both raffish and classy. As the author of a recently published book on the life and death of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, I am often invited to comment on the modern game and consistently surprised by the dubious reactions I get when I mention the names of players in recent decades whom I strongly suspect have buoyed their careers on seas of steroids. Then I usually express a simple guideline: "Look for the anomalies."
Exhibit number one obviously is Barry Bonds, who in 1991, at age 27, hit 25 home runs, and in 2001, age 37, whacked 73. The most credulous of my companions will concede that such an increment is highly unusual, at which point I suggest that it is in fact unprecedented in the history of athletics. I might even recite a little limerick I once strung together:
Growing older, like Aaron and Ruth,
Barry Bonds sought the Fountain of Youth.
Not a hole in the ground --
In a lab it was found,
And a very long way from the truth.
Such anomalies did not first appear in the 1990s when artificially bulked-up Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa disintegrated decades-old home-run records. The first instance that I'm aware of is the 1973 Atlanta Brave season of Davey Johnson, better known as a champion manager than as a slugging second baseman. That's because he wasn't a slugger, except in '73, when he knocked 43 of the 136 homers that he collected in a 13-year career. Those who attributed this amazing spike to the home-run-rich atmosphere of Fulton County Stadium must not have been watching when Davey, still with Atlanta, produced only 15 clouts the following year.
I wonder what Davey was thinking during 1989, when Kevin Mitchell, whom he had managed with the New York Mets, raised his homer total for the Giants to 47 after hitting 19 in his full previous season.
Those Mets are my team and the team of many of my barroom interlocutors, and I've noticed that the latter, like the fans of any club, are most resistant to suggestions that one of their own boys has transgressed the country's pharmaceutical laws. One of the most popular Mets of all time was Mike Piazza, who in the 1990s and beyond strung together a remarkable series of outstanding offensive seasons in Los Angles and New York. Especially remarkable -- in fact (here's that word again), unprecedented -- for a catcher.
Piazza was the last player selected by the Dodgers in the 1988 amateur draft -- in the 62nd round -- and then only because his father was was a close friend of Manager Tom Lasorda. His chance of even reaching the major leagues was miniscule. Yet he would become by far the most productive catcher in history. Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey had slightly better lifetime batting averages, yet Mike hit more than 100 more home runs than the two of them combined. He hit just 38 more than Johnny Bench, but MIke's lifetime batting average was 41 points higher, at .308. Comparisons to Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella and and Gary Carter are similar. I have no lab report in front to me to prove that Piazza was juiced, but I will argue over a glass of any brand of beer that it is very, very likely.
And, by the way, so, apparently, was the man he displaced as the Mets' catcher, Todd Hundley, who had broken Campanella's single-season home-run record and was later named as a client of the steroid-peddler Kirk Radomski, who had haunted the Mets' locker-room.
Like a lot of alleged steroid-users, Hundley's body broke down prematurely. The stuff is illegal, after all, because it is health- and life-threatening. The player who in 2002 blew the lid off the secret of steroids in baseball, Ken Caminiti, died of a heart-attack two years later, at 41. Now in this season of 2009, New York baseball fans have been stricken by concussive reports of Yankee star Alex Rodriguez's detected steroid use and his and Met slugger Carlos Delgado's disabling by hip injuries requiring surgery. It is not logical, of course, to conclude that Delgado, therefore, was also using steroids. Nor MIke Lowell of the Red Sox, nor Chase Utley of the Phillies, nor Alex Gordon of the Royals, who all recently have lined up for hip operations. And wasn't it necrosis of the hip that ended the legendary feats of Bo Jackson in both baseball and football a decade or two ago?
But back to Delgado of my Mets. One of the anomalies that raise the question of steroid use is extraordinary disparity in performance between successive seasons or even within one season, suggesting periods when a player was and was not using the stuff. Such as during the then 36-year-old Delgado's 2008 season, when he was batting in the .230s with just a handful of home runs through May before taking off dramatically in June and continuing to soar for the rest of the season, finishing with 38 homers, 115 runs batted in and a .271 average. Carlos told Sports Illustrated ithis February that "not one time" had he had he ever taken steroids, and his interviewer, Tom Verducci, believed him. But that was before his hip started to crumble.
Yes, it's possible that Carlos Delgado was being truthful, but the sad reality is that so many players have lied about steroids that it is impossible to believe anyone's protestations, particularly when there are glaring anomalies on record. I think of Roger Clemens, continuing to lie to the Congress and the country with his trousers fallen and bunched at his ankles. He and others, such as Bonds, are latter-day disciples of Lenny Bruce, who advised straying husbands always to "Deny it! If your wife finds you in bed with another woman, deny it!"