PEDs At A Mile High?
On this the day following the 2013 Home Run Derby, Major League Baseball is preparing to attempt to suspend 20 or more players in connection with the defunct “health” clinic Biogenesis. The players headlining the scandal include Ryan Braun of the Brewers, Nelson Cruz of the Rangers, and Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees (who is rumored to be facing a 150 game suspension). If you have followed baseball since 1998 when performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) were made popular by Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa while they captured America’s short attention span by hitting 70 and 66 home runs respectively, then you surely must have heard about the 2007 Mitchell report. That was the investigation that famously implicated All-Stars like Roger Clemens, Any Pettitte, Eric Gagne, and Jason Giambi as steroid users. That is just the short list.
Braun is currently fighting allegations of PED use. Image: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Although no active Rockies stars were ever named in a huge headlining story about performance enhancing drugs the team did make some history when it came to the 2007 changes in suspensions. A 50 game suspension became the punishment for a first time offender, 100 games for a repeat offender, and a third positive steroid test is a lifetime ban from baseball. So how did the Rockies make history? In 2011 Rockies catcher Eliezer Alfonzo became the first player to receive the 100 game suspension. Really, it was only on a technicality, because Manny Ramirez retired instead of serving his 100 game suspension.
How many Rockies fans even remember the name Eliezer Alfonzo? I know I only remembered the story but had no idea of who the violator was. One thing Rockies fans definitely remember is the nickname “The Blake Street Bombers.” The Bombers became popular at the height of the steroid era, and for the first five or so years in Rockies history the long ball was the goal at Coors Field. The high water mark for home runs in a season by a Rockie belongs to both Larry Walker (1997) and Todd Helton (2001) at 49 total. No Colorado Rockies player has ever hit 50 or more home runs in a season, which may lead one to hope steroid use never happened in Denver.
I am too much of a realist to believe that statement.
As much as Rockies fans should despise the media’s evaluation of the Rockies and the stigma of altitude that follows the team, it makes it hard to speak on PEDs. First off, on the altitude, whatever the reason that Matt Holiday did not win the NL MVP in 2007, is the same reason Ubaldo Jimenez should have won NL Cy Young in 2009. Now that that’s off my chest, let’s talk Blake Street Bombers during the steroid era.
Current Colorado Rockies hitting coach and former outfielder Dante Bichette hit 274 career home runs in 14 seasons in the majors. 200 of those were in the six seasons he played in Colorado. Steroids or altitude? He never hit more than 20 home runs in a season that he did not call Coors Field home; in Colorado he hit 40 once and over 20 every other year. His only four all-star appearances were all with Colorado as well.
Ellis Burks is responsible for one of the best seasons by an outfielder in Rockies history. In 1996 he hit a career high 40 bombs while winning a silver slugger, playing in the mid-summer classic and finishing 3rd in the NL MVP voting. Burks continued to show power after leaving the Rockies, hitting over 30 home runs with both San Francisco and Cleveland. A fairly consistent power hitter throughout his career, Burks hit a total of 352 total bombs.
The best player the Rockies ever put at the hot corner was Vinny Castilla. Castilla averaged 26 home runs per season in 9 seasons in Colorado; even more impressive are the five seasons from 1995-1999 when Vin put out 32, 40, 40, 46, and 33 home runs respectively. Although Castilla never was a base stealer, there is no doubt that he bulked up while in Colorado. I cannot say if the size came with age, but he did show up in Colorado as a shortstop playing over 2/3 of his first Rockies season up the middle.
Larry Walker, the second best player in Rockies history thanks to Todd Helton, is the only Rockie to ever win an MVP award (1997). He also won three batting titles in his career, all with Colorado. Four times in his career “Booger” hit over 30 home runs, averaging 31 every 162 games. In his 1997 MVP season Walker hit a career high 49 home runs but also stole a career high 33 bases. Consider the high averages, not numbers that we find with steroid users. Remember though that Walker struggled with injury through his time in baseball and would have threatened the Hall of Fame had he stayed healthy.
Essentialy the Rockies have had two first basemen in their entire history, the first of which was Andres Galarraga. “The Big Cat” is the all time leading Venezuelan born hitter, at least until Carlos Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera pass him up. Galarraga is another former Blake Street Bomber who had a spike in power while in Colorado. He hit over 30 home runs four consecutive seasons as a Rockie, however the power stroke followed him to Atlanta where he hit 44 in his first season with the Braves. Health, including beating cancer, did affect production for Galarraga. When it comes to beating cancer, production does not matter. Remember I’m not a doctor, but one would think that Galarraga would not bring on more health issues by taking PEDs.
Jul 4, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; General view of Coors Field before the game between the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Colorado Rockies. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
The “Toddfather” Todd Helton is perhaps the only other player of note who played with the Rockies before baseball instituted steroid testing. Helton, a career .318 hitter, has hit over 30 home runs six times in his career, and over 40 in two of those seasons. Helton has a great advantage over other Rockies greats in that I have watched him his entire career; his hat size has never changed (reference Barry Bonds), his body never went through immense changes (reference Mark McGuire, Juan Gonzalez, or Luis Gonzalez to name a few). He was accused once of Steroid use by former Rockies broadcaster Wayne Hagin. It did not end well for Hagin. Helton contacted a lawyer over the incident, and stuck to his guns through the 2005 ordeal. Not only did Hagin’s supposed “source” in Don Baylor deny ever saying Helton used PEDs, but Hagin later reneged the comments himself. Former Rockies General Manager Dan O’Dowd even called his St. Louis counterpart to lobby for Hagin’s termination (at the time he was calling Cardinal games.
Steroids continue to bite baseball in the rear end, and Biogenesis will put a black eye on the All-Star break. Just listen to all the accusations of Baltimore’s Chris Davis and his 62 home run pace. The Rockies integrity, however, came out of the “Steroid Era” relatively unscathed other than a backup quality catcher. Note I said it was just the team’s integrity that was unscathed. Colorado sure enough got beat up by plenty of PED users: 2003 Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne (Dodgers 1999-2006), all-time home run king (*) Barry Bonds (Giants 1993-2007), Gary Sheffield (Dodgers 1998-2001), Paul Lo Duca (Dodgers 1998-2004), Kevin Brown (Padres 1998, Dodgers 1999-2003), Todd Hundley (Dodgers 1999-2000, 2003). Those were just a few players named in the Mitchell Report, in fact 15 total Dodgers were named in the document.
Of course the Rockies could not be completely innocent, many players throughout baseball took PEDs if only just to help with recovery from injury. Even though it is not Mickey Mantle‘s rehabbing choice of whiskey and women, it still does not lead to an even playing field. Rockies fans cannot be naive enough to believe the team was 100% clean in its history; perhaps we are just lucky the team was never embarrassed publicly like all the big names and the clubs they belong/belonged to.