Why we can’t talk intelligently about steroids in baseball

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Matthew Artus has a good story up over at NJ.com today. In it he takes Murray Chass to task for his steroids accusations against Mike Piazza.  We’ve covered that here before, but Matthew makes a grand point towards the end of his piece:

Every time we engage in a “Did he or didn’t he?” debate about PEDs in baseball, we stop debating the player’s achievements in the context of his era and his peers. While the players do themselves a disservice by continuing to stonewall efforts to understand PEDs in baseball, they also lack the incentive to do so since an admission will result in immediate expulsion and discredit from the baseball writers’ historical gaze.

If the writers won’t own up to their failure to raise the PED issue at its height and the players will not provide an intimate understanding of steroids in baseball, then how can any of us possibly ever hope to understand what we just saw? … I want to talk about the Steroids Era in baseball, not as a means to vilify players I didn’t like or to vindicate my favorites, but rather as a hope to judge baseball on its merits and in proper context

It’s a great point, and one I wish was made more often. But it has rarely been made, and the reason for this, I think, lies less with the writers themselves than with Major League Baseball.

It was Major League Baseball that decided that the most interesting and important thing about steroids in baseball was who used and who didn’t as opposed to what they meant and how they damaged the game and its users.  It did so when it commissioned the Mitchell Report which had as its climax a woefully incomplete naming of names as opposed to anything approaching a real understanding of the issue.  The writers merely took Major League Baseball’s cue in making this a gotcha game rather than a thorough understanding of PEDs and their role in baseball.

In doing so, the following topics (and many other germane ones) have been utterly ignored:

  • How often did people use?
  • Were the primary users were people who got hurt and were trying to come back more quickly? Stars who wanted to blast their way into the Hall of Fame? Minor leaguers who wanted to become major leaguers?
  • When did users actually start using? High school? College? In the minors? After making The Show?
  • Was drug use a personal thing? Specifically, did guys decide on their own, based on their own personal experiences to use steroids, or was it a peer pressure thing in which certain clubhouses promoted a “steroid culture?”
  • How did players connect with their dealers? Word of mouth, or did the dealers seek out their customers?
  • What dealers — besides the dumb ones named in the Mitchell Report who took personal checks and shipped drugs to ballparks — were the big players?
  • Were the people who didn’t use choir boys who had moral objections, or did fear of the dangers of steroids and/or a belief that they simply didn’t need them inform their decision making?
  • What impact did steroids have on actual performance, both actual and perceived?

But these questions were never answered, never asked. Indeed, the Mitchell Report and everything that has followed has evinced a profound lack of curiosity about such topics.  A lack of curiosity that mirrored the blinkered approach to the matter the press and the game took in the 1990s. To the extent we know the answers to any of these questions the information is piecemeal and, without the imprimatur of Major League Baseball, unofficial, unacknowledged and not at all rigorously researched.

But then again, the Mitchell Report was not meant to answer any questions. It was meant to stop them. To put a bookend on the p.r. disaster that Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco uncorked in 2002. To put a bookend on the steroids era itself, really, and to allow fans, the press and the government to pretend that steroids use was limited to a certain unfortunate time and to certain unsavory group of people.

In this same way, the writers’ current stance on Hall of Fame candidates — the dirty out, the clean in! — is an effort to avoid the tough questions presented by PEDs in baseball.  To impose certainty when there is none. To avoid having to ask why so much was missed before and what, exactly, should be done about it now.

Like the Mitchell Report, the current take by most of the baseball press on steroids is lazy, misleading and close to useless.  And like Matthew Artus, I wish it would stop and that we could move on to properly contextualizing this stuff.  Actually considering the merits of players who were known to use — rather than vilifying them — would be a great place to start.

Joey Votto thinks he can win the Home Run Derby, but hasn’t been invited yet

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Despite having hit at least 20 home runs in eight of his 11 seasons in the majors, Reds first baseman Joey Votto has never participated in a Home Run Derby. Currently, he’s tied for the National League lead in home runs with 20, and he hasn’t been invited to this year’s festivities at Marlins Park.

In the event he is invited, Votto said he thinks he can win it, C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer reports. Votto likened himself to Ichiro Suzuki, a player known more for his contact abilities and mastery of the strike zone than power. “Just think of me as the Canadian Ichiro — Japan has theirs and Canada has theirs,” Votto said. “I could pull homers into the seats at will.”

Along with the 20 homers, Votto is currently hitting .306/.419/.601 with 53 RBI, and 52 runs scored in 313 plate appearances.

Teammate Scott Schebler also has 20 home runs at the moment and Adam Duvall, who made it to the semifinals of the Derby last year, has 16. Neither of them have been approached about participating in the Derby, either. Per Rosecrans, in the event each was invited, Duvall said he would consider participating if he wasn’t an All-Star and Schebler would participate regardless. Votto said he would only participate if he made the All-Star team.

There was apparently some miscommunication between Pete Mackanin and Pat Neshek

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The Phillies won their first game since last Thursday, beating the Cardinals 5-1 on Thursday afternoon. Starter Aaron Nola pitched into the eighth inning, but left with one out. Pat Neshek took the mound with a runner on first base and induced an inning-ending double play on a 3-1 count to Tommy Pham.

Given that Neshek only threw five pitches and the Phillies were staked to a four-run lead, it wouldn’t have seemed unreasonable if the sidewinding right-hander came back out to finish the ninth inning as well. But Luis Garcia had that honor, tossing a scoreless final frame to nail down the win in a non-save situation.

After the game, manager Pete Mackanin said he asked Neshek to go back out for the ninth, but Neshek didn’t want to, per Stephen Gross of the Morning Call. Neshek told the media that Mackanin never asked him. There was also a miscommunication on Wednesday. The combination of Joaquin Benoit, Hector Neris, and Edubray Ramos combined to allow four runs in 2 1/3 innings, helping the Phillies lose 7-6. Neshek never appeared. According to Mackanin, Neshek told him that he wasn’t available to pitch. Neshek said he was told he’d have the day off.

The disconnect between Mackanin and Neshek could speak to a larger divide between the manager and his failing team. The Phillies have underwhelmed across the board due to players like Odubel Herrera (whose head was down and did not see Juan Samuel’s stop sign last night in what became a base running blunder), Maikel Franco, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Aaron Nola (today’s start notwithstanding), and Hector Neris not living up to expectations. The Phillies signed Mackanin to a contract extension last month, but the team has completely fallen apart since then and the latest communications issues certainly don’t reflect well on him. Neither does last night’s travesty of a game.

As for Neshek, he said that going to the Phillies was “the best thing that happened to me in a few years” but also realized, given the state of the team, that it remains very likely he winds up in a new uniform by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. After Thursday’s performance, Neshek is carrying a 0.63 ERA with a 25/4 K/BB ratio in 28 2/3 innings. He very well could be the Phillies’ lone representative at the All-Star Game in Miami next month. That is, if he’s still wearing their uniform. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that the Nationals have shown interest in Neshek.