Mike Pizza is the best-hitting catcher in MLB history. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. I know that arguments can be made for the likes of Josh Gibson, the Negro League great, and those arguments are what is fun about being a baseball fan.
I grew up idolizing Johnny Bench as a young kid. He wrote the book on the sweep tag, he was a catching artist and a feared clutch hitter in one of the greatest lineups in baseball history. His arm was a cannon. He came along mostly before modern medical science could keep us all playing, repair our broken joints and ligaments, fuel our bodies in remarkable ways. So generations can argue. There are those who would throw in Yogi Berra or his Yanks backstop predecessor. Pudge Rodriguez is next on the list to be considered…
And now that Piazza is headed to Cooperstown, the PED pundits are frothing at the mouth to discredit his candidacy, much less his election. It is the nature of the sports talk beast. Too many of us, pros and fans alike, seem to relish every opportunity to bring people down, and people in my industry – sports media – are more about opinions – their own opinions, than realities currently.
I covered Piazza on a regular basis while on the west coast as CNN Sports reporter based in L-A during the mid-1990s. He hit the ball so damn hard. And yes, I saw him without his shirt. I can’t tell you about acne. I didn’t think he even looked like he lifted weights. He had a lineman’s build. He was in his 20s and early 30s, of course. He denies having used steroids, but frankly, I could care less.
I think it’s a load of crap that guys waited until the steroid thing exploded – after the game finally got around to formally banning PEDs – to express outrage. Guys worked out to get stronger, had personal trainers and every year in the game was potentially worth a million (then millions) for somebody who could stick around. Some guys took supplements. Sure, guys took steroids and PEDs. It got worse as baseball stood by and built smaller ballparks and frenzied for crazy home runs.
We saw it in the press. As far as I’m concerned, those guys and gals who cover sports or the game who jumped on the bandwagon to rip the players who may (or may not) have used PEDs in front of our own eyes, are missing the point. Where was your outrage at the time? Bud Selig was commissioner of the game, and after the fact, in the greatest stretch of mock denial I have ever witnessed, he acted publicly as if he had just realized there may have been an issue with PEDs on his watch. It was on his watch. Selig seems to blame everyone else, yet if it were a business like most others, or one where he was elected by the public, he would have been booted at the next election or forced to step down because it happened right under his nose, and he should have addressed it earlier.
Baseball didn’t address steroid use, and what we broadly refer to as performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) today, until they addressed it. They put in testing for it. They put in policies against it. Minor League Baseball is part of the deal. People take it seriously now, that PEDs and steroids particularly are bad for the game MOVING FORWARD.
At that moment, and only at that moment, should we have gotten righteous about the issue. Up to then, it was overlooked, accepted, even embraced. Brady Anderson? Bret Boone? We celebrated them, too, when their bodies underwent seemingly overnight changes of Marvel Comics proportions. It was an era in the game. Period. There was the dead ball era. The foreign substances era. There was the live ball. (Babe Ruth?) There was the WWII era. There was the pitching mound change. There was the beginning of expansion and divisional play. The Designated Hitter era. Expansion again? There was/is even a fitness era that prevails, and clearly led to a bastard offshoot with steroids. But players today are bigger and faster and stronger and have at their disposal the very best of modern medicine and health and fitness techniques.
The steroids era is over. To not vote someone into the Hall – or to even use innuendo in the absence of proof as a reason to keep them out – is self righteous and ass-covering behavior by my peers. Yes, they are entitled to their opinions, but are they just mad they accepted it while it was happening? That they were lied to by players accused? And don’t even get me started on the B-S and self-righteousness the US Congress displayed while wasting our time and money with hearings AFTER the game instituted sweeping changes to the drug policy regarding PEDs.
I am all for ripping players, banning players, and keeping players out of the Hall of Fame for transgressions after the testing changed. What of Ryan Braun? Seems to have cleaned up his act and made amends. But he lives with his lies. He lives with a Major League career in tact, too, so I’m not apologizing for him. He should be looked at differently because of the timing when Hall voting comes around. Manny Ramirez, who everyone seemed to love as player, was busted for stuff after the testing began. Will he get a pass next year because he was well-liked?
There was a time in the 50s and 60s, when weight lifting for athletes was becoming more and more prominent, that some (unbelievable today) questioned the fairness of guys who lifted weights, saying they weren’t natural so it wasn’t a level playing field. What if Big Klu, Ted Kluszewski, showed up today? He lifted bags of corn meal, not weights, to get that body. Today, some would question those biceps as unnatural. This is not a comparative analysis, just a point of reality when it comes to how we look at a dude’s biceps in baseball today.
I say let’s all jump off the high horse and move forward. It was The Steroid Era. I just capitalized it. I italicized it. There should be no revisionist history. The games were played, the stats compiled and damage was done. We watched, cheered, reported. Some fans stepped away from the game when the stories began to be told, but baseball righted the ship, beat its chest, down-sized (in body type and home runs) and moved on.
The game is great. It connects us as families and generations. It ignites passions, fuels arguments (they can be friendly and fun), and it gives us what we seek from it. Hope springs eternal for fans of the game. Players will continue to seek out tools for an edge. A better type of wood? Higher infield grass? Soggy base paths? Sabremetrics? Data? Specialists? Chicken? Cheeseburgers? Coffee? Cokes? Red Bull? Apple juice? Cocaine? PEDs? We have set the bar back to where it belongs in the case of PEDs/drugs. Baseball doesn’t need it. Its bad for the game. Enforce rules, get guys help if appropriate, and assure fans (old and new) that we’ve moved on.
As Ernest L. Thayer wrote, long ago, in Casey At The Bat…
“A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.
A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast…”
Spring Training, after all, is just a few weeks away. Let’s start talking about the game as if we enjoy it, we love the way its being played today, and we recognize wins and losses are only part of it. A new era of the game, whatever it will be called, has already begun.
NOTE: I am not a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, thus do not have a vote for the Hall of Fame.