Baseball, Steroids, Players, and Pollsters

By John Sparks

Baseball has been rocked in recent years by the steroid scandal.  Most recently it’s been revelations about Alex Rodriguez.  Roger Clemens and his trainer continue to duke it out in court over whether Clemens was injected with the juice.

John Sparks

John Sparks

Since the worlds of baseball players and pollsters both revolve around statistics, it seems quite appropriate that the Marist Poll should find out what fans think about players who do steroids.  Should they be eligible for the Hall of Fame?  What should become of the records they set?  What does the American public consider more important — a ballplayer’s talent or his character?

Confession is good for the soul, so before you read any further, and in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that the pollsters and pundits from Marist are far from objective when it comes to baseball.

Marist Institute for Public Opinion Director Lee Miringoff is a huge fan of the New York Yankees.  As a youngster, he played second base in the Poughkeepsie Little League with teammate Rudy Crew (former New York City Schools Chancellor).   Lee’s father-in-law is Ray Robinson, a renowned baseball writer who is interviewed elsewhere on this web site.

Marist Poll Director Barbara Carvalho, another huge Yankees fan, has never forgiven Mariano Rivera for blowing the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The poll’s Director of Interactive Media Systems Mary Azzoli lives and dies with the Mets, and yours truly named his dog after his favorite ballplayer Yogi Berra.

Ray Robinson believes there have always been good and bad characters who have excelled on the diamond, but he doesn’t think anyone will judge a player on his character if he’s a .150 hitter.  “He may be a nice guy, but he doesn’t belong in the majors.”  And remember what Leo Durocher said:  “Nice guys finish last.”  Isn’t that what it’s all about — not finishing last, but winning it all?  To do that, every ballplayer since Abner Doubleday has been seeking that competitive edge over his opponents and teammates.

Bernard Malamud wrote a novel dealing with ethical issues and baseball.  The central character in The Natural was Roy Hobbs who more than anything else wanted the people to say when he walked down the street:  “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best player there ever was in the game.”  In the book, Hobbs succumbed to temptation and accepted $35,000 to throw a playoff game.  In 1984 Robert Redford played Hobbs on the big screen, but instead of taking the money, he told the bad guys what they could do with it.  I always liked Hollywood’s version, but I’m not so naïve as to believe that our heroes on the field always take the high road.

Robinson’s knowledge of the game spans the better part of a century.  He saw Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play.  He will tell you Ruth enjoyed his alcohol and that Hack Wilson, who belted 56 home runs for the 1930 Chicago Cubs (a National League record that held until 1998 when Mark McGwire hit 70 and Sammy Sosa knocked out 66), was a “falling down drunk.”  Interesting that many believe both McGwire and Sosa used performance enhancing drugs that year.

Ruth and Hack Wilson are enshrined in Cooperstown.  So where does that leave McGwire and Sosa?  Current sentiment and conventional wisdom seem to indicate they can forget it.

An irony is that sports writers elect players to the Hall of Fame.  Writers in Ruth and Wilson’s days never wrote about their off the field behavior.  In those days they looked the other way and protected them.  It’s a far cry from today’s press.

But, there never really has been objectivity and consistency when it comes to deciding who is elected to the Hall of Fame.  If so, then how can Bill Mazeroski, a lifetime .260 hitter who hit the first walk-off homer to win a World Series, get elected, and Roger Maris, who broke Ruth’s season home run record with 61 in 1961, is not?

On top of that, an asterisk was ordered placed besides Maris’ record by Commissioner Ford Frick who was a former sportswriter and crony of Ruth’s.  After all those years, Frick was still looking after his pal.

Robinson does see some merit in Frick’s decision.  He says that baseball records should be classified into eras — for instance the dead ball era, and the steroid era.

Fine, but how do you decide precisely when one era ends and another begins?  One of my favorite trivia questions is to name the leading home run hitter of the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s.  The trick, of course, is you must relegate players to a specific 10-year period.  Duke Snider, Harmon Killebrew, Willie Stargell, and Mike Schmidt beat out the likes of Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron when you look at it that way.