Barry Bonds (at least at the time of this posting) is still one home run shy of tying Babe Ruth’s 714 career home run total. Down the road is Hank Aaron’s all-time record of 755 home runs.
Due to Bonds’ prolific home run hitting of late and growing investigations tying the San Francisco Giant slugger with potential use of steroids, more and more people are questioning if his attempt to pass these time-honored baseball marks is legitimate.
While many people on moral grounds want to dismiss Bonds’ achievements because he might have used an illegal drug, would steroid use really help him hit more home runs? Does more muscle equal more distance on a flying baseball?
Those are very tough questions to answer with purely scientific data. Baseball players of different eras were facing different pitchers throwing different balls in different stadiums. And within the game of baseball, there’s more support than you might think that Bonds’ achievements have more to do with pure baseball skills than possible increased muscle mass due to steroids.
Star Tribune sports columnist Pat Reusse put that question to several current and past Minnesota Twins during spring training. And what they had to say could be surprising to anti-steroid purists:
"The truth is, there were so many guys taking steroids for a few years, and they couldn't hit like Barry Bonds. In my opinion, a guy hitting with a corked bat is taking a bigger advantage than someone who was on steroids,” said Twins outfielder Shannon Stewart. "If Bonds was doing all of this ... you still have to hit the ball. He still was going to hit 40 or 50 (each season), with or without steroids."
Maybe you’d expect such a comment from a current player looking to come to the defense of a colleague under siege in the court of public opinion. But what does a former baseball legend think? Here’s what Tony Oliva, former American League batting champ and current hitting consultant had to say:
“I hope baseball can soon stop talking about steroids. What I do know is the ballparks (today) are smaller and the ball is harder. I know those are two reasons for more home runs. Maybe steroids were the third reason. I don't know.”
Hall of Famer Paul Molitor chimed in with this take on the situation about Bonds’ late-career home run surge:
"As much as it might appear to be overwhelming evidence on the surface -- alarming physical transformation and a mysterious upgrade in power later in a career -- it's not a black and white issue. It's very strong speculation, but it's still speculation."
So what does it take to hit a home run? Reflecting back on the vintage film showing Babe Ruth at bat, he was by no means a chiseled athlete. Yet he had the knack to be the premier home run hitter for much of the game’s history. And Hank Aaron, the current career home run king, wasn’t Goliath, either, and was known for his all-around ability to play all phases of the game.
An essay by Robert Nishihara has an interesting take on the home run/steroids question. He turns to the book The Science of Hitting by former Red Sox great Ted Williams, considered by man to be the best all-around hitter to ever play the game, to define what it takes to hit a home run.
“A good hitter must identify a pitch to hit, know enough about the pitcher and the game situation to give himself the best chance to succeed, and put hands and hips into motion to drive the pitch. Nowhere does Williams mention that muscle mass aides in any of those critical elements. Williams, himself, of course, was rail-thin, and yet, he managed to crank out 521 career homers.”
“Sure, added muscle mass may increase the distance a player is able to hit a baseball, but what negative effect does that added mass have in altering the fluidity of the player's swing and, thus, his ability to hit the ball in the first place? A popular baseball refrain cautions fast players who have deficiencies in the batter's box that one cannot steal first base. Similarly, a power hitter cannot hit a home run if he cannot hit the ball. And hitting a baseball is a unique skill in the world of sports. It is a powerful act that does not require extraordinary muscle strength. Instead, it is primarily dependent on technique, reflexes, and hand-eye coordination, not brute strength. It is a correlation that so many people are failing to make these days.”
On top of that, many of the players to be disciplined in the last couple season for steroid use have been pitchers. If you believe steroid use helps a player hit the ball farther, then did steroids also help a pitcher throw harder? Would that make it harder for a player to hit a home run?
In my mind, all of these questions raise even more questions as to the impact steroids have on the records and performance of the game. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating using illegal drugs in sports, but their impact on the game and its records isn’t as clear as things might seem on the surface.
What do YOU think?