What if someone told you Randy Johnson won seven Cy Young Awards not five, or that Albert Pujols won five MVP awards rather than three? Would you want to know how?
The case can be made that they did, and the answer lies in bestowing titles on them that were won by players using PEDs during the years in question. This important point seems to be completely absent when Joe Morgan and so many others plea to restrict steroid users from the baseball Hall of Fame. While preserving a stalemate and punishing those who succumbed to PED use, it does not right the wrongs to presumed non-steroid using contemporaries who lost batting titles, home run titles, MVP awards and Cy Young to these players via enhanced production.
In addition to luminaries Johnson and Pujols above, Luis Gonzalez, Adrian Beltre, Mark Mulder and Dontrelle Willis among others were also cheated out of deserved recognition. Restoring those titles should be a priority in resolving this issue. Restricting Hall admission to PED users also ignores the fact that many steroid users had Hall of Fame careers before using steroids. Finally, it fails to recognize that Major League Baseball could have done more to curb this “competitive edge” during this time period.
A better, albeit partial solution, is to offer legal immunity to steroid users that acknowledge the years of their use and also relinquish any and all awards, home run titles, batting titles, Cy Young awards etc. during this time period. The Hall would have discretion to evaluate the players’ credibility, and the non-steroid using balance of their career in making Hall entry decisions. The Hall should recognize the role MLB had in this era, and the public should not be led to leave responsibility for this with convenient scapegoats, albeit “cheaters.” Many believe MLB was complicit in allowing this activity to flourish. This scenario would not guarantee entry to the Hall of Fame, but it could serve to allow the worthiest of these individuals entry to the hall and correct the substantial and largely unseen wrongs done to their contemporaries and the integrity of the game.
Looking at Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the two baseball players most closely associated with this issue, shows the value of this approach—which democratizes and corrects the wrongful hoarding of so many awards by PED users and bestows on many worthy awardees including some who clearly could have benefited from using PEDs to assist with later, injury-prone years in their careers.
BONDS AND CLEMENS: WHEN DID STEROID USE APPEAR TO COMMENCE
For both players, it is generally accepted that they put together Hall of Fame careers before they started using PEDs, but there were also somewhat clear lines of demarcation before and after their use.
Year 2000 to his Retirement
For Bonds, he had to watch Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa steal his shine in the 1998 and 1999 seasons, as they both topped 61 home runs each of those two seasons, completely capturing the imagination of the league and the baseball world as a whole. Bonds missed significant time for the first time in his career during the 1999 season, and when he came back, hit a career-high 49 homers in 2000 before his record-breaking 73 in 2001.
Bonds won MVP awards in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004. He led the league in home runs in 2001 and won the batting title in 2002 and 2004.
Year 1997 to his retirement
For Clemens, he was fresh off a three-year stretch (1994-1996) in Boston in which he missed around 25 starts and wasn’t the same old Clemens (29-25 with a 3.53 ERA those three seasons) before heading to Toronto and becoming a completely new man. Clemens would win Cy Young awards in 1997, 1998, 2001 and 2004. Clemens had won the ERA title in 1997, 1998, and 2005.
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
RIGHTFUL AWARD/TITLE RECIPIENTS: 1997 to 2005
Here are the [supposed] non-PED players who would have won the awards and titles that Bonds and Clemens ended up winning during their [presumed] PED seasons.
Sammy Sosa Luis Gonzalez
This is a great one to start off with because Gonzo was one of the most adamant anti-PED voices of his generation. In 2012, when Melky Cabrera was caught using PEDs, Gonzalez expressed his dismay that fans would once again resort to assuming the worst when players had breakout seasons — an affliction Gonzalez and his 57 homers in 2001 (previous high was 31) know all too well. Gonzo had an all-timer of a season in 2001 (capped with his walk off to win the World Series), and he is a deserving 2001 MVP replacement.
2002: Albert Pujols; 2003: Albert Pujols
Pujols is an all-time legend (even if that same legend is now crumbling like a statue before our very eyes in 2018), but fittingly, if he grabs these two early-career MVPs, his now-five MVPs would rank first all-time in MLB history (the MVP didn’t come into existence in its current state until 1931, meaning Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, etc. aren’t really comparable to Pujols in this regard). Prime Pujols was as good a hitter as any in modern major league history, and he’s deserving of these added plaudits.
2004: Adrian Beltre
A true cult hero in the modern baseball scene gets what could retroactively be considered a lifetime achievement award. When Beltre had his breakout season in 2004 (league-leading 48 homers; .334 batting average; amazing defense), it was thought to be a bit of a flash in the pan, as he dropped to just 19 home runs and a .255 batting average in 2005 after signing a massive contract with Seattle. Of course, with advanced in statistics since, Beltre has now gotten his fair shake as one of the best third baseman to ever play the game, not to mention one of the best personalities the sport has ever seen.
Clemens’ Cy Youngs
1997: Randy Johnson; 2004: Randy Johnson
Similar to Pujols on the offensive side of things, with these two replacement Cy Youngs, Johnson vaults from definitive Hall of Famer into the discussion for best-ever at his position. Even before this Cy Young reassignment project, The Big Unit’s five Cy Youngs trailed only Clemens’ seven such awards. After this realignment, Johnson goes up to seven, three more than Greg Maddux and Steve Carlton, and four more than the three Clemens won before he (likely) moved into the world of PED use. (Again, the Cy Young award didn’t come into existence in its current state until 1956, meaning pitchers like Lefty Grove, Christy Mathewson, and, oh, Cy Young himself can’t really be compared in this regard.)
1998: Pedro Martinez
Pedro won three out of four real-world Cy Youngs from 1997-2000, with 1998 being his only miss. Well, now it isn’t a miss. With this new Cy Young, he has four Cy Youngs in a row, a feat accomplished by only Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson. Those three (Johnson, Maddux, and Pedro) were truly a once-in-a-lifetime trio of pitchers all pulling their best as the 300 Spartans against a steroid-raged MLB scene hellbent on record-breaking home run totals.
2001: Mark Mulder
Mulder isn’t as flashy as any of the other names so far, but he offers a very different type of catharsis. The tall A’s lefty was one of the most promising pitchers in baseball — when healthy. Of course, so many of baseball’s PED users made the decision to use PEDs when injuries put their career in jeopardy. For Mulder, one of the injury-prone players who chose not to go the dark route, to now receive a Cy Young would redemptive.
Sammy Sosa Luis Gonzalez
We already commented on Gonzalez’s 2001 season above, but let’s take a moment to think about how absurd it is that Gonzo hit 57 home runs in 2001 and finished third in the National League.
2002 BA: Larry Walker; 2004 BA: Todd Helton
Both of these new batting titles come with an asterisk of their own: Coors Field. Even before these two additional batting titles, the Rockies have more than three times as many batting titles in their 25-year history as the Chicago White Sox have had in their 116-year history. There’s a lesson to be culled here about asterisks being needed all over baseball history...
1997 ERA: Randy Johnson; 1998 ERA: Pedro Martinez
Andy Pettitte Dontrelle Willis
Willis falls into the same category as Mark Mulder as an upstanding and promising pitcher who had his career fall apart because of his refusal to inject himself with PEDs that probably would’ve helped to extend his career. There was a time when Dontrelle Willis was being discussed as one of the last chances for a pitcher to get to 300 wins because of his early-career success, the seeming promise of the Marlins, and his young age at the time of his MLB debut. That sentiment didn’t date as well as it could have (72 career wins), but it wasn’t crazy when Willis was in his (all-too-brief) prime.
1997 SO: Randy Johnson; 1998 SO: Pedro Martinez
1998 Wins: David Cone, Rick Helling
Cone and Helling actually tied with Clemens for the league lead in wins in 1998 (20), so they aren’t missing out on too much. Plus, it’s not like we need to remember Rick Helling any more than we already do.
1997 Wins: Randy Johnson, Brad Radke
Radke falls somewhat into the David Cone category of being a really solid pitcher from his era who is certainly never going to be mistaken for a Hall of Famer, but probably is also better than you remember. His career ERA+ of 113 is better than Nolan Ryan (112). Brad Radke wasn’t a better pitcher than Nolan Ryan, but he was a solid pitcher who could use a little more black ink on his player card.
THE RIGHT MESSAGE: RIGHTING THE RECORD BOOKS TO PROVIDE APPROPRIATE RECOGNITION TO OTHER GREAT PLAYERS
Albert Pujols, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez all deserve to have their already impressive Hall of Fame worthy careers burnished with awards from those years where they were cheated. But, so too, do more mortal professionals like Luis Gonzalez, Mark Mulder and Adrian Beltre.
While Bonds, Clemens, and others similarly situated may not possess the desire to right this wrong, a path to some form of redemption and closure might change their minds. If they don’t chose this path we nonetheless should be more mindful of the above when considering others for the Hall. For instance Randy Johnson’s Hall application could say “He won the Cy Young Award five times and finished second twice to Roger Clemens.” While arguably confrontational, it is truthful and much fairer than the status quo.
While many will argue a path to redemption is too generous to “cheaters,” the present stalemate serves no one. This proposal would move forward and confer important historic titles on the rightful recipients and correct the record books for those years. In allowing a path to redemption it would recognize that more could and should have been done by Major League Baseball during this time period to eliminate the “competitive edge.” Nothing will totally cleanse PED abusers from ignominy, but this path balances accountability in a way that provides a path towards reconciliation and true renewal from a truly unfortunate era of baseball history.
Jim Turvey is the author of Starting IX: A Franchise-by-Franchise Breakdown of Baseball’s Best Players, a baseball history-stats fusion that is available now on Amazon. He is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and DRays Bay.
Sam Turvey is his cool uncle.