Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The 'Roid Not Taken

Do you remember Derrick May? I absolutely do not, which actually supports the point I am trying to make, but also dictates that my referencing him here be taken simply as allegory.

The statistics I will cite are factual, taken from www.Baseball-Reference.com, but I have no recollection of his ability, potential, circumstances, anything he did or didn’t do, let alone the choices he may have made nor the reasons behind them. So yes, this is journalistically quite suspect. But again, I’m trying to make a point.

Derrick May is the son of Dave May, a major league ballplayer of minor note in the 1970s. Derrick was the 9th pick of the first round of the 1986 amateur draft, a draft in which Gary Sheffield, Matt Williams and Kevin Brown were also Top 10 picks.

Derrick May played briefly with the Cubs in 1990 and 1991, as a September call-up, but 1992 was his first full year in Chicago. He played left field, started 85 games and had 96 hits in 351 at-bats for a .274 batting average. He had 8 home runs, 45 RBI, 40 strikeouts and a .373 slugging percentage. He was 23 years old.

In 1992, the 78-84 4th place Cubs had another 23-year-old outfielder, a guy who started 67 games in center field, batted 262 times and had a .260 average, 25 RBI, 63 strikeouts and a .393 slugging percentage. Just like Derrick May, he hit 8 home runs in 1992.

Now here’s where I start making things up to make my point. Let’s say May, a former high draft pick who saw his draft-mate Sheffield hit 33 home runs in ’92 and who was trying to solidify his future with the Cubs, had the opportunity to increase his strength and stamina through steroids, HGH, creatine or whatever was available at the time. Again, I have no idea what really may have happened, but let’s just say that while May was tempted, he decided that “cheating” was wrong, no matter if the MLB had a steroid policy or not.

“Admirable choice,” we might say, “he did the right thing; so what?” And upon learning that the following season, 1993, Derrick May hit 10 home runs in 465 at bats—both career highs—and wound up having a mediocre 10-year major league career, we might say, “Well, not everyone can be Mickey Mantle.”

And upon hearing that Derrick May earned between $2-3 million for his entire major league career, not counting any signing bonuses or his 3 subsequent years in Japan, we might think it a shame that he didn’t live up to his potential, but then neither do a lot of guys. And heck, we’d all take $2 million.

But what about the other 23-year-old Cubs outfielder in 1992, a guy who batted leadoff or second most of the games he started, unlike May, who hit 5th or 6th, more conducive to an expected power hitter. What if he met the proverbial Faust at the crossroads of Addison & Clark, and as has been proven the case with Sheffield (who has gone on to hit 499 home runs and earn $154 million), decided that with obscurity staring him down like a pitcher 60 feet away, chemical enhancements weren’t a bad option. Whether steroids or HGH, something was needed to make himself bigger and stronger.

Something that might explain how he could go from 8 home runs in 1992 to 33 in 1993. Something that could enable him to play 18 major leagues seasons, and hit 609 home runs, including an unmatched 292 in a 5-season span from 1998 to 2002. Something that could bring career earnings of $124 million, and plenty of endorsement deals at the height of his popularity. Not to mention a Presidential State-of-the-Union salute.

And while longtime suspicions of steroid abuse—including a government investigation— along with a corked bat incident and premature evacuation from the Cubs clubhouse in 2004 may have eventually tarnished his public image and perhaps cost him eventual enshrinement in Cooperstown, nobody has asked him to return any of the $124 million in career earnings or evacuate his massive mansion in the Dominican.

So, as we stand in February 2009 with Alex Rodriguez the latest of the shamed gazillionaires, if you were to go back to the winter of 1992, might you make the choice Derrick May—now the hitting coach of the Double-A Springfield Cardinals—possibly made.

Or would you still rather be Sammy Sosa?