Sunday, February 8, 2009

Steroid MVPs

I don't think I'm any different than many, many other baseball fans when I say that I've spent a lot of time this weekend reading the news - and the reaction to the news - of A-Rod's positive steroid test results during his 2003 MVP season. There's a lot of good reaction to the news online right now (ShysterBall, The Common Man, Joe Posnanski [that story may or may not be taken down by the time you read this], Rob Neyer, Baseball Think Factory, Bugs & Cranks, to name a few), so I won't bore anyone with my thoughts. I can't say anything that hasn't already been said.

Instead, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the four MVP seasons that we know - with confessions and/or legitimate proof - were won while under the influence of steroids. This list of four winners might be a little controversial since you're not going to find Miguel Tejada's 2002 campaign or Pudge Rodriguez's 1999 campaign or any of Barry Bonds' 2001-2004 campaigns on it, but that's not meant to be a political statement about their alleged use or anything of that nature.

To put it simply, I couldn't decide on a good definition of "proof". As Dave Heushkel points out, 14 out of the last 26 MVP winners (2 per league since 1996) are under some kind of suspicion of steroids. But, even realizing how damning of a statement that is, that isn't what concerns me. Suspicion is one thing, but the fact that we already have proof that four MVP winners were using steroids during their MVP seasons is big enough for me. And, yes, I realize that Tejada and Bonds and Gonzalez were all named in the Mitchell Report - the difference here is that there's no direct evidence, like positive tests or confessions, that the steroids were used during their MVP years (though with Bonds, the issue is more that I don't know exactly which of his four consecutive MVP seasons had him using the cream and the clear... someone else probably knows, I'm sure).

With those qualifications, here are the four MVP seasons that we know occurred while under the influence of steroids and what writers were saying about them at the time:

Jose Canseco, 1988 AL MVP
Proof of Use: Confessed to use numerous times, most notably in his book Juiced.
What They Were Saying: "Canseco, the first player ever to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a single season, is the most feared hitter in baseball. Besides his sheer power (major league highs with 42 homers and 124 runs batted in last year), Canseco hits for average (.307). His strikeout totals also have been dropping steadily, so he obviously is becoming a more selective batter. Combine patience with power to all parts of the field and pitchers just don't have many ways to pitch to him, other than not to pitch to him at all."

Ken Caminiti, 1996 NL MVP
Proof of Use: Confessed in a 2002 Sports Illustrated article two years before dying at the age of 41.
What They Were Saying: "If reigning MVP Ken Caminiti recovers fully from reconstructive left shoulder surgery, which doctors project to sideline him early this season, the Padres will deploy a third baseman whose hustle, Gold Glove defense and 40 home runs led them to 91 wins. But Caminiti's shoulder was a mess: two torn tendons, torn cartilage and bone spurs."

Jason Giambi, 2001 AL MVP 2000 AL MVP
Proof of Use: Admitted to the BALCO grand jury of using steroids during the 2001 - 2003 offseasons. Later, admitted and apologized to the public.
What They Were Saying: "Superstar slugger Jason Giambi should transform the sluggish offense and make the Yankees favorites to win the World Series again... The front office's off-season obsession was to increase the team's on-base percentage, and Giambi led the league in that category at .477 - 148 points higher than Tino Martinez, the player he replaces. Giambi, whose swing is tailor-made for Yankee Stadium, should have a monster season."

Alex Rodriguez, 2003 AL MVP
Proof of Use: Results of anonymous testing from 2003 were leaked to the press after the FBI raided the labs.
What They Were Saying: "[The Rangers' infield] is the building block of the franchise - and it all starts with Rodriguez, who has won three straight AL home run titles. The reigning league MVP is the centerpiece of the infield, the team's on-field leader and its statistical star."

Steroids have been part of baseball for 20 years now, apparently, and it's not something that anyone is too happy about. For better or worse, we need to figure out a way to fit this reality into our perception of the world. Sadly, these four "convicted" MVP winners are already proof enough that we have been rewarding the use of steroids for decades. How, then, can we blame anyone looking to compete in that environment? What's more, how can we as fans allow ourselves to simply wipe away the last 20 years of baseball? We may have played a part in all of this - we did buy all those tickets once the balls started flying out of the park - but the game isn't only about the home run record. It's about what we get from it - the experience of going to the park, cheering for our team, slapping palms with friends and strangers, sharing our passion with our kids - that keeps us coming back.

There are countless moments that I can remember as a fan from the last 10 or 15 years - from flying up to Seattle's new Safeco Field to see Cal Ripken play for the first time in my life, to meeting certain special people for the first time outside the ballpark, to seeing Craig Counsell catch a ball that bounced off the Miller Park roof during Game 4 of the NLDS - that tell more about why I love baseball than any one Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez home run ever will, and those memories needn't be wiped away in an ill-advised wish to "clean the slate." Certain aspects of the game need to be reviewed and placed into proper perspective, but our enjoyment of the sport and the joy that we have received from it should not just be thrown away. We are more than the home run, and that shouldn't be forgotten.


Anonymous said...

Jason Giambi won the mvp in 2000 not in 2001. Ichiro won in a huge upset in 2001 with Giambi finishing in second.

lar said...

Thanks for pointing that out. I could've sworn I double-checked that.

I don't think it changes the overall point, but I appreciate the correction.