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When it comes to PED use and the numbers, uncertainty reigns

By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer

Absent steroid use, how many times would Mark McGwire have gone yard? There's only one correct answer. (USATSI)
Absent steroid use, how many times would Mark McGwire have gone yard? (USATSI)

Hall of Fame cases: Luis Gonzalez | Moises Alou | Lee Smith | Fred McGriff | Don Mattingly | Jack Morris | Rafael Palmeiro | Sammy Sosa | Edgar Martinez | Jeff Kent | Alan Trammell | Larry Walker | Mark McGwire

Earlier in this space, we examined the Hall of Fame case of slugger Mark McGwire. Obviously, there's no discussion of McGwire or any number of other players of his era without an acknowledgement of the PED use that was a part of the game.

McGwire, of course, is an admitted user of anabolic steroids, and as such it's defensible to withhold Hall of Fame support for him on those grounds. The same goes for Barry Bonds, whose use of PEDs is heavily documented, and any of those who tested positive along the way. Personally, I'd vote for any player whose numbers merit induction, but I understand and respect that others are not similarly inclined. What I object to are the "campaigns of speculation" against players like Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and -- in some bizarre quarters -- Craig Biggio. Absent evidence, how can you not support these obvious Hall of Famers? Innuendo and the untrained eyeball test simply aren't enough, but that's a topic for another day.

A corollary to all of this -- and why I'm writing this -- is the idea that we can know with any semblance of accuracy how steroids affected the game on the field. What we don't know about the manifestations of PED use in baseball utterly dwarfs what we do know. I'm comfortable saying it all made a difference, mostly because of the somewhat warped aging curves we saw during the era. Contrary to widely held opinion, elevated run-scoring levels are absolutely not evidence of widespread PED use. After all, pitchers used PEDs, too, and other factors -- new hitter-friendly ballparks, possible irregularities in the baseball itself, rapid expansion -- also influenced the balance between pitching and hitting. Another line of thinking goes something like, "If they didn't help, players wouldn't use them." I certainly don't buy this, in part because the placebo effect is quite strong, and I don't think players have a sensible enough of a remove to judge what's working and what's not. On another level, some players believe that phiten necklaces make them better, so perhaps they're not to be trusted on matters of efficacy.

As stated, though, I think PED use aided performance. However, we absolutely don't know to what extent. Yes, McGwire's lofty home run totals in St. Louis were surely helped along by his steroid cycling, but this is a player who, as a far-less muscled 23-year-old, led the majors with 49 home runs. The devastating power was there the whole time. Absent steroids, would McGwire in 1998 have hit 70 bombs (if indeed he was using at the time)? Almost certainly not. But would a clean McGwire, given the other structural factors in place, have hit 65? Fifty-five? Thirty-five? No one -- and I do mean no one -- can say with any simulacrum of a hint how many homers those banned substances tacked on to what would've been his "natural" total.

We know this intuitively, of course, but so many pat, false certainties infect this debate that it bears remembering that -- refrain forthcoming -- what we don't know outstrips what we do know. Moreover, we probably never will know. Simply put, it's likely not possible, at least any time soon, to undertake any kind of randomized controlled trial of a Schedule III illegal substance that may be harmful to the user and to do so merely in the service of understanding how it helps the test subject hit a cowhide orb.

We know, for instance, that the amphetamines used widely by the previous generation of ballplayers enhance athletic performance, and -- as mentioned -- we know that steroid use increases muscular strength and muscular endurance. But which one helps ballplayers more, the "greenies" favored by some players of the 1960s and 1970s or the "juice" used by those of a more recent vintage? Like most of you, I'm inclined to say the latter, but I'm making a bit of a leap in believing that -- a leap that squares with anecdotal evidence and general horse-sense, yes, but a leap nonetheless.

Circling back, there are but two paths for those voting against McGwire on the basis of his admitted PED use: the first is that he's disqualified by having used steroids regardless of what difference they made, and the second is that he's disqualified because his use of steroids enabled him to assemble a Hall-worthy career. It's the second stance that's problematic. That, again, is because we simply don't know whether McGwire sans PEDs would have hit 400, 450, 500 or 550 home runs. How many would he have hit? Fewer than the 586 he did hit, it can be said. Beyond that, the continuum of possible answers is long and full of the plausible.

To be sure, nuance and subtle shading don't play well when it comes to "wedge issues" such as this one, but we'd all do well to acknowledge that, widespread puffery aside, we don't know as much as we think we know. That goes for a host of things, but for our purposes it goes double for the steroids era and the speculative exercises that still flow from it.

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