Self righteous so-called purists who masquerade as baseball writers when they’re not guarding society’s virgin eyes and ears have invested an inordinate amount of time and wasted entirely too much space both on paper and in the digital space to handwringing over whether guys who utilized performance enhancing drugs belong in the Hall of Fame.
If sports writers are to be viewed as moral arbiters of our society, then we’re in a hell of a lot more trouble than we think. But, true as that is, let’s put that axiom aside for just a second. Throughout the course of their digital witch hunt to suss out who’s head grew a little TOO much in the offseason — and if there is a God, players have their own secret discussions in the clubhouse when the media leaves to discuss which sportswriter’s gut grew a little too much in much the same fashion — the men who consider themselves guardians of baseball’s sanctity have overlooked one performance enhancing drug that’s been hiding in plain sight for nearly 20 years now.
But it’s not something that fits into a locker, no the men and women (myself included) who make a living out of making stuff that’s none of their business the general public’s would have figured that out by now. Rather, it’s a place that is big enough to hold a bunch of lockers while affording spectacular views of some of the greatest sights our planet has to offer. And unlike HGH, androstenedione, greenies, or any other myriad chemicals that would merit a disapproving frown from the media and untold vitriol from the public on internet message boards and on sports talk radio, this one’s perfectly legal. Celebrated even for being a civic treasure.
You see, the greatest performance enhancing drug of our generation isn’t something an athlete puts in their body. It’s not even a drug at all, though it has a similar statistical impact.
It’s Coors Field.
To be fair, Coors Field is a lovely place. The sightlines are breathtaking from just about anywhere in the ballpark. The exterior of the stadium is as aesthetically pleasing as any in the game. LoDo, the neighborhood in which Coors Field is situated, is safe for families while still being fun for adults who want to knock back a couple of brews before a game. Think Wrigleyville minus the brahs who are content to pay $9 for an Old Style while imploring comely passersby to take off their tops. Whether you’re a casual fan or a die-hard, it’s right up there with Kauffmann, Fenway and Wrigley on the list of places where you must go and see a game at some point in your life.
But there’s no denying its overall statistical impact on the game.
Balls of any kind (get your mind out of the gutter) tend to carry better in Denver’s thin air. Situated a mile above sea level, the comparative lack of oxygen in the city makes breathing a nightmare for some athletes but serves as a performance enhancer for others. Notably football kickers and baseball hitters.
The evidence has been fairly well documented. Since 2001, Coors Field is the only park to consistently rank in the top 5 in ESPN’s Park Factor rankings, which measure the differential in statistics between home and road. Players like playing at Coors Field because it improves their ability to hit the long ball, and as this old Nike ad told us…chicks do in fact dig the long ball.
So do Hall of Fame voters. There’s no question that without Coors Field’s — and it’s predecessor, Mile High Stadium — influence, some hitters’ numbers wouldn’t be near as gaudy as they wound up being. But it’s not necessarily fair to penalize guys like Larry Walker, Todd Helton, and to a far lesser extent, Matt Holliday, all of whom were very good players who just happened to spend a good chunk of their careers playing in a place that turns spheres of horsehide and rubber into those tiny super balls that you used to be able to buy for a quarter at the supermarket.
Helton himself — nickname: the Toddfather, and no I’m not making this up — is Exhibit A of the Coors Field being the game’s most potent performance enhancing drug. Let’s examine Helton’s home and road splits, courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, shall we? Helton has played his entire career at Coors Field and is universally recognized as one of the top power hitting first basemen of his generation. But there’s ample evidence that his numbers were enhanced by spending 15 seasons playing 81 games a year a mile above sea level.
To the numbers:
Home: 1,039 Games Played, .354 BA, 26 3B, 212 HR, 788 RBI, .451 OBP, .620 SLG, 1.071 OPS, 2288 Total Bases
Road: 1,015 Games Played, .291 BA, 9 3B, 135 HR, 520 RBI, .391 OBP, .478 SLG, .869 OPS, 1740 Total Bases
Keep in mind that while playing at Coors Field, Helton didn’t have the benefit of facing off against any of the scrubs the Rockies have paraded out to the mound over the course of that time either. With all that in mind, the splits are mind-blowing. Helton was a much, MUCH better player at Coors Field than he was at not-Coors Field, and he was still pretty damn good on the road. That being said, his home numbers can’t be solely attributed to the fact that he was sleeping in his own bed every night and eating his favorite pre-game meal from his favorite restaurant.
Therein lies the dilemma. There seems to be this universal agreement that if you were caught — or so much suspected of — taking PEDs, you’re not Hall-worthy. Because really, why would an institution that has enshrined murderers, prostitute aficionados, and any number of racists want to include guys who took substances that were not at the time illegal but simply frowned upon by the media and, by extension, their audience?
If Todd Helton’s — and any number of other players’ — numbers are any indication, we can reasonably conclude that Coors Field is itself a performance enhancer, at least if you’re a hitter. The ball travels further, finds the gaps easier, enabling you to put up better numbers than you would in say a ballpark that isn’t a mile above sea level. If Helton plays all his home games at, say, U.S. Cellular Field, does he have three times as many triples at home as he does on the road across a relatively similar sample size? Of course he doesn’t.
1,000 words later, this brings me back to my original point — how do Hall of Fame voters account for the Coors Field effect? There’s no denying its positive impact on hitters’ numbers and, conversely, its negative effect on pitchers’ numbers. If we’re not enshrining guys like Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro because of their PED usage, it stands to reason that we shouldn’t enshrine guys who spent any length of their careers playing extensively in Coors Field, right? That would exclude the likes of Walker, Helton, Holliday, and anyone else who had the advantage of playing in the NL West since 1995 because the schedule dictated they make multiple visits to Denver each season.
Every generation has its advantages that are conveniently swept under the rug by a mass media looking for athletes to mythologize and a public desperate for a hero to worship. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Christy Matthewson put up their big numbers playing against only other white players. No minorities allowed because…well, far as I can tell, there was no real good reason other than “they’re different than us and we just don’t like people who don’t look like we do.” There’s no question that not having to face the likes of Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige improved their statistics. The 50’s, 60’s and 70’s saw players popping greenies to get up for games. The 80s brought the introduction of steroids and Tommy John surgery.The former is illegal but there’s no doubt that the later is as much of an unnatural performance enhancer.
The 90s and 2000s introduced us to HGH and Coors Field. One is frowned upon, the other is celebrated as one of the most beautiful ballparks in the game.
And in a lab in a secret location somewhere far, far away from the Chicago high rise where I’m composing this blog post, some chemist is likely developing the next chemical advantage that will enable hitters to hit the ball farther, pitchers to throw a couple miles per hour faster, both to sustain their careers just a little bit longer than they would have without it. The general public will continue to spend their hard-earned money on tickets and filter through the turnstiles. Why? Because it’s entertaining. Because engaging in a little hero worship for three hours at a time enables us to forget about the fact that the world is a generally unpleasant place.
That and because, at the end of the day, chicks really do dig the long ball.