In the Twitter chaos that followed Wednesday’s announcement that no players would be elected to the Hall of Fame in 2013, one tweet glowed like a bottle of andro in a Cardinals slugger’s locker.
Paul Lo Duca (@paulloduca16) – you might remember him as the guy who took Mike Piazza’s place at backstop for the Dodgers in the late 1990s – had this to say.
“I took PEDs and I’m not proud of it, but people that think you can take a shot or a pill and play like the legends on the ballot need help.”
My first reaction was to roll my eyes. My second was to agree with him.
PEDs did not make Rogers Clemens a flame-thrower on the mound.
Rubbing the cream, the clear, the chunky, or anything else on his thigh didn’t make Barry Bonds one of the best baseball players of his era.
What it allowed both Bonds and Clemens to do was maintain that excellence for longer. Instead of wearing out at 33 – which was something both their numbers started to suggest before sudden inclinations – they burst from conversations about being great players to best-of-all-time discussions.
Clemens turned 33 in 1996. He went 10-13 that season for a mediocre Red Sox team. He had an ERA of 3.63 in 242 innings. That’s actually pretty good, save for the win-loss record. But, that was the end of a string of four seasons in which he never won more than 11 games.
Then in 1997, he was traded to the Blue Jays and won 21 games. After the age of 33, he won four more Cy Young awards to run his total to a record seven.
Amazing. Something to sit in awe of, if not for that one thing.
Barry Bonds hit 37 home runs in 1998 as he turned 33. Pretty darn good. Of course, it paled to Sosa and Mark McGwire, who were knocking balls out of the park at Nintendo levels at the same time.
Up to that point, Bonds had 351 home runs, and he was considered to be a more complete player than Sosa or McGwire could ever dream of being.
But that wasn’t enough. His head grew, thanks to his special tonic, and he hit 411 more homers, including those 73 in 2001.
I focus on those two, because they are at the heart of this discussion. They deserved the Hall of Fame before the record-setting numbers. Baseball fans deserved to celebrate them – even if they both were already known as jerks off the field.
They both should have known better.
Clemens is a self-proclaimed baseball-history nut with a deep respect for pitchers of yore.
Bonds is the son of a great slugger (Bobby Bonds) and the godson of maybe the best ever in Willie Mays.
Baseball, above all else, is about the numbers.
They knew that. Better than Sammy Sosa, who loved making funny faces every time the red light went on in the dugout camera. See, Sosa will never understand why it meant something to a guy like me to see a Cub pass Ernie Banks club record for homers.
The Banks that my father, my uncle and my grandfather followed faithfully and marked down in their memories as the best to play at Clark and Sheffield.
The guy that passed Banks should have held the same spot in my mind.
Bonds and Clemens understood that.
Better than Rafael Palmeiro or Jeff Bagwell or Alex Rodriguez and so on. Those other guys saw a chance to cash in, and they did. They wouldn’t have gotten to legend status without those PEDs.
Bonds and Clemens would have. The mold for their busts was already on order.
They did it because they understood what those numbers meant. They wanted more than anything to be the ones to best those marks. To hold that place in the hearts of baseball faithful the world over.
They would do anything to get there, including, apparently, lie about it the rest of their lives despite evidence to the contrary.
And by doing it with a pill or a needle, they killed those numbers we all cared about well before they ever passed them.
So Paul Lo Duca, PEDs didn’t make those two legends. PEDs kept them from becoming such.