Steroids skew baseball stats into a leap of faith

Not to get too "Field of Dreams" mushy on you, but the one thing I've always loved about baseball is that the numbers were more dependable than green on Wrigley ivy. It is a game built on the integrity of its statistics, and those statistics connect baseball eras and generations like the Bay Bridge connects San Francisco with Oakland.

Or so I thought.

But now, thanks to Rafael Palmeiro, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Sammy Sosa -- and anyone else whose home run totals are suspiciously bloated -- we're stuck wondering which numbers are real and which numbers are chemically enhanced. Should we put a BALCO asterisk next to box scores of the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s? Is there a place in the Baseball Encyclopedia to properly note "inadvertent" steroid cream use? And will future Upper Deck cards feature an Andro Age collector's boxed set?

Sports is about making leaps of faith. You believe, even though logic tells you you have Purina for brains. Followers of Vanderbilt football, the Chicago Cubs and the Honduras Nordic combined team can explain the details.

But logic is beginning to lap the faith field when it comes to the home run figures amassed in the last 10 seasons. After all, it can't be simple coincidence that no National League player has hit 50 or more homers since 2001 or that no American League player has hit 50-plus dingers since 2002. It can't be some unexplainable confluence of circumstances that Sosa -- as well as his power numbers -- has shrunk noticeably in recent years. And in exactly what decade is Palmeiro, with his agent's blessings, going to pull out his earplugs, end his self-imposed silence and tell us why his positive steroid test was in error?

I feel duped, betrayed and madder than George Steinbrenner on a firing binge. You look on the back of Palmeiro's Topps card and you don't know whether you're reading fact or fiction. The same goes for Sosa, who conveniently forgot how to speak English at the congressional hearings of six months ago, and McGwire, who must have attended the Oliver North School of Testifying before his appearance on Capitol Hill. As for Bonds, give me a moment while I check his Web site for the latest Barry update.

Canseco was a cheat, but at least he was honest about it. He took his book advance and told all. Giambi essentially admitted his love affair with the chemical world, took his public lumps and moved forward, one at-bat at a time. Even the tragic story of Ken Caminiti, who admitted to steroid use during his 1996 MVP season, serves as a valuable cautionary tale.

So now we have a sport compromised or, at the very least, a sport in which some of its most sacred statistics have lost part of their value and meaning. And guess what: Nobody -- not Congress, Major League Baseball, the Baseball Hall of Fame -- can do a thing about it.
You think MLB commissioner Bud Selig is going to tap the delete button on Palmeiro's career and remove Raffy's 3,020 hits, 569 home runs and 1,835 RBI from the record books -- which is exactly what Hall of Famer Frank Robinson wants him to do? You think Hall of Fame voters are going to ignore McGwire's 583 career homers the same way he ignored a congressman's plea to assure us Big Mac played "with honesty and integrity"?

It isn't going to happen because no matter what our level of outrage or disgust, this issue has more gray area than a Del Webb retirement village. Do I think Bonds, Sosa, McGwire and Palmeiro cheated in one form or another? Absolutely (and, yes, I know off-the-shelf supplements, such as andro, weren't on MLB's banned list back then). But their numbers remain as safe as a newborn because there is no alternative. Robinson's idea of sending Palmeiro's stats to baseball's black hole is intriguing, but, sigh, impractical.

"Frank Robinson may be without sin, and entitled to throw the first stone, but I doubt it," says Bill James, Boston Red Sox consultant, author and statistician savant, in a recent e-mail. "I remember [about] 20 years ago doing an arbitration case for a pitcher who had won the Cy Young Award. During the course of preparing the case, his agent admitted to me that the pitcher threw a scuff ball. Intuitively, I already knew this. But did I care? Should we take his Cy Young Award out of the record books, along with Gaylord [Perry's] and several other people's?"

I'd love to do a Bruce Froemming and run Palmeiro's numbers out of those record books, but you can't. As much as I hate to agree with James, those statistics are an account of what happened, "nothing more and nothing less."

And what happened is that players cheated and now must face the consequences. Palmeiro's penalty is public and professional humiliation, and perhaps no Hall of Fame induction. McGwire will face scrutiny when eligible for HOF induction in 2007, as opposed to baseball Boy Scouts Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, who will be first-ballot no-brainers.

I want to believe that baseball's numbers are as sturdy as steel I-beams. But then Hall of Fame library director Jim Gates tells me that baseball's history is filled with unforeseen variables that skew those statistics. Ty Cobb faced four infielders wearing gloves the size of swollen hands. Gwynn faced four infielders wearing mitts the size of roof shingles. Who had a better chance of sneaking a ball through for a hit?

The ball has changed. The players are taller. The height of the pitcher's mound has moved up and down. Night baseball has become the standard. Fields are manicured masterpieces, compared with olden days when goats were responsible for mowing some ballparks.

"To me," says Gates, "the steroid situation is just another variable on top of that. It doesn't keep me awake at night."

It should, because no longer can you evenly compare the validity of, say, Frank Thomas's 448 home runs and Palmeiro's 569 dingers. There are, for a lack of a better word, impurities.

"I won't say it's the most disturbing variable, but it is a disturbing variable," says Gates of steroid use. "It's not a natural variable through the evolution of the game, but through the use of an illegal product."

James and Gates say we can't alter the numbers, however tainted, simply because we think it's the right thing to do. Fair enough. But we can judge the character of the players who produced those tainted numbers.

So until further notice, I'm giving my hammies some time off. Palmeiro & Co. don't deserve any more leaps of faith.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.