Michael Sokolove is becoming my favorite sportswriter by combining the standard up close and personal reporting with the kind of big picture data synthesis that I prefer. He has a new article about New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter on his 37th birthday and the larger topic of aging in sports.
Jeter, who signed a contentiously-negotiated 3-year $51 million contract in the offseason so he would get his 3000th hit with the Yankees, the only team he's ever played for, is a pretty terrible ballplayer this season, slightly worse than a generic "replacement-level" journeyman. Yet, that's kind of heartening in that it shows that Jeter, who has seemed like a class act during his long and remarkably consistent career, isn't juiced to the gills. (I'd add that Ichiro Suzuki, who is also 37, also appears to finally be in decline, too.)
That doesn't mean that Jeter never touched any steroids or HGH during his career, but, at minimum, if he did, he didn't let it go to his head like so many stars who flagrantly abused the stuff.
The mythology is that old-time players, who did not lift weights and knew nothing about nutrition, had mercilessly short careers. And that today’s players, who condition themselves year-round — often with the help of private trainers, the most up-to-date scientific methods, nutritionists and massage therapists — play longer and have more years of peak performance. It makes sense. It’s also not true.
With more rigorous drug testing, a typical baseball career is beginning to look again as it did throughout the game’s history. Journeymen players stay in the game until their early- or mid-30s, and all-star-level players maybe a couple of years beyond that. A handful of superstars retain enough skills to make significant contributions into their late 30s. Those with the most talent almost certainly lose their skills at the same rate as lesser players, but they stay in the game for a long time because 85 percent of a superstar is still a very good player.
The rotund, hard-living Babe Ruth was a productive player until age 39. Older baseball fans remember Willie Mays’s sad last years with Mets, when he was past 40 and couldn’t play anymore, and may assume that he hung on far too long. But at age 40, while still playing for the San Francisco Giants, Mays led the league in on-base percentage and stole 23 bases.
Even the game’s greatest players, though, cannot defy biology. However long they play, their best seasons occur when they are still strapping young men in all their fast-twitch glory.
Sokolove is being a little dogmatic. We've seen evidence of ballplayers in the past who extended their primes into their thirties by working out. Slugging shortstop Honus Wagner peaked in 1908 at age 34, probably because he lifted weights. Ruth got himself a personal trainer after his bad 1925 season and worked out during the winters, so he had his famous 60 homer season in 1927 at age 32.
What about more recent examples of late resurgences?
I could list some, but one of my readers has a theory that the impact of steroids on famous American sports statistics can be traced way, way back before Jose Canseco's 40-40 season in 1988. All those great seasons from the 1970s, 1960s, or even late 1950s that you think of as shining examples of a more innocent age? All on the juice, he asserts. After all, we know Olympic shotputters and the like were using steroids in the later 1950s, so why not professional athletes?
QB John Hadl has said that the San Diego Chargers strength coach was handing out steroids in the locker room in 1965. Or how about The Juice? O.J. Simpson went from a pretty good high school player in 1964 to the most exciting college football player since Red Grange in 1967. How'd that happen? (When Ken Kesey read about O.J.'s little run-in with the law in 1994, he said: That sounds like a combination of cocaine and steroids.)
Growing up on the West Coast in the 1960s and 1970s, I assumed, like most people, that the outstanding performance of West Coast athletes was simply part of the general shift of money and talent to California. Maybe, but maybe there was also a Venice Muscle Beach / Hollywood / Castro Street gay / Olympic track & field steroids connection to West Coast pro athletes going on.
We do know that baseball players were using uppers by the early 1960s to be alert for ballgames. Having just brewed a pot of coffee to churn out this posting, however, I'm not feeling all that censorious about that.