If baseball players like South Florida homeboy ARod can use banned substances to gain supernatural powers, it seems only fair that I should be able to call upon supernatural powers to reincarnate a group of the 20th Century's best: players who managed to post their sensational statistics in an era when a "chemical advantage" meant showing up for the game with a beer buzz.
Let's put them up against a mighty lineup consisting entirely of modern baseball players whose greatness has been tainted by admissions -- or at least allegations -- of cheating. Call this game the Legends vs. the Asterisks.
We will pit these teams against each other in the year in which each individual player achieved his prime. In the Legends case, that prime was natural. For the Asterisks, that prime was probably enhanced by chemicals.
I did a coin flip to decide home field advantage and since the Asterisks called "heads" we'll play this game on their diamond -- let's call it GNC Park. Now, our starting lineups:
2B 1. Jackie Robinson
LF 2. Ted Williams
CF 3. Joe Dimaggio
DH 4. Babe Ruth
RF 5. Hank Aaron
1B 6. Lou Gehrig
3B 7. Brooks Robinson
C 8. Yogi Berra
SS 9. Ernie Banks
P Satchel Paige
On the bench: Johnny Bench, Stan Musial, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays
CF 1. Lenny Dykstra
2B 2. Miguel Tejada
LF 3. Barry Bonds
SS 4. Alex Rodriguez
DH 5. Jason Giambi
1B 6. Mark McGwire
RF 7. Sammy Sosa
3B 8. Ken Caminiti
C 9. Ivan Rodriguez
P Roger Clemens
On the bench: Benito Santiago, Rafael Palmeiro, Jose Canseco, Juan Gonzalez
After the jump, we'll break down this clash of Titans and declare a winner.
Pitcher: Satchel Paige (early 1940s) vs. Roger Clemens (1997)
Paige spent his prime in the Negro Leagues, where stat-keeping was spotty, but the oral history suggests he was the best pitcher of his age, of any color. Here's a video of him, including a friend's description of Paige's upper body, which couldn't have been juiced because it had no muscle.
Compare that to Clemens, whose late-career physique was enormous -- and full of synthetics, according to his former strength coach. And what makes Clemens a poor sport is that he was already one of the game's all-time best pitchers when he allegedly started taking steroids. In the pre-steroid year of 1986 he went 24-4 with 238 strikeouts. But since Asterisks are only eligible when they're juicing, he's playing for this team in his best recent year, 1997, when he went 21-7 and struck out a career high 292.
Catcher: Yogi Berra (1950) vs. Ivan Rodriguez (1999)
Berra stood 5-foot-8 and never reached 200 pounds. Still, in 1950 the league MVP hit .322 with 28 home runs, along with 124 RBIs. Rodriguez is indisputably the best catcher of the modern era, though his accomplishments were tainted when Jose Canseco claimed to have given Rodriguez instruction on how to use steroids. In the conspicuous year of 1999, Rodriguez hit 35 home runs and drove in 113, winning the league's MVP. This is a close contest on natural ability, but IRod's muscular frame makes the difference.
1st Base: Lou Gehrig (1931) vs. Mark McGwire (1998)
At age 28, the Iron Horse hit .341 with 46 home runs and 184 RBI, nearly beating Hack Wilson's record of 191 the year before. But baseball had never seen a hitter more intimidating than a juiced-up Mark McGwire, who would later be named as an illegal substances user in Canseco's book and the Mitchell Report. In 1998 the big redhead with the freakish forearms annihilated Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs, hitting 70 to go with 147 RBI. We're lucky he didn't kill a pitcher.
2nd Base: Jackie Robinson (1949) vs. Miguel Tejada (2004)
I've given the Legends a spectacular lead-off man. In 1949 Robinson hit .342 with 16 home runs and 124 RBI, along with 37 stolen bases. The Brooklyn Dodger was also a dynamo in the field. Shortstop Tejada's playing out of position, but the Asterisks manager can live with subpar defense considering that in 2004 he hit for a .311 average with 34 home runs and 150 RBI. Tejada has never tested positive for a banned substance, but Canseco said he's a juicer and Tejada was mentioned as a user in the Mitchell Report.
3rd Base: Brooks Robinson (1964) vs. Ken Caminiti (1996)
In the best season of his Hall of Fame career, Robinson batted .317 with 28 home runs and 118 RBI, all while playing the best defensive third base baseball had ever seen. When Caminiti admitted steroid use in 2002, the world responded with a collective, "Duh!" It's not just that his chest and arms seemed to double in size, it's that a guy who hit just 13 home runs at age 30 slugged 40 of them three years later.
Shortstop: Ernie Banks (1958) vs. Alex Rodriguez (2002)
In his first of two consecutive MVP awards, Mr. Cub hit .313 with 47 home runs and 129 RBI. A skinny 6-foot-1, Banks did all that with a strong pair of wrists. His counterpart ARod, had some chemical aids. In 2002 a hulking Rodriguez hit 57 home runs with 142 RBI.
Left Field: Ted Williams (1941) vs. Barry Bonds (2001)
In a 1941 season that ended shortly before the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor, a 22-year-old Teddy Ballgame slammed 37 homeruns, 120 RBI and hit an astonishing .406. Exactly 60 years later, in a season marred by another world-altering attack on American soil, Bonds set the new record for home runs -- hitting 73, to go along with a .328 batting average and 137 RBIs. A few years later, he told the story of that season to a grand jury. The game's best pure hitter against a baseball Frankenstein monster?
Center Field: Lenny Dykstra (1993) vs. Joe Dimaggio (1922)
Well, I need to give the Asterisks a lead-off man, don't I? Besides, Nails was one of the first baseball players to undergo a sudden and suspicious physical transformation. A skinny, scrappy line-drive hitter for the Mets became a broad-chested slugger for the Phillies. In 1993 Dykstra hit 19 home runs as a 30-year-old. His previous career high had been 10 -- six years before. But even with steroid-fueled muscles, he couldn't hold Dimaggio's cleats. At 22 Joltin' Joe hit .346 with 46 HRs and 167 RBI.
Right Field: Hank Aaron (1957) vs. Sammy Sosa (1998)
It's hard to pick a single season for Aaron, who was so great for so long, but 1957 will do. That's when he .322 with 44 home runs and a career high 132 RBI. He remains the all-time leader in untainted home runs. For the Asterisks, Sosa hit over 60 home runs three times at ages 29, 30 and 32, but we'll go with his career-high 66 in 1998, when he and McGwire were having a juice-off in pursuit of the Maris record.
Designated Hitter: Babe Ruth (1921) vs. Jason Giambi (2000)
The Sultan of Swat showed up for this game with his usual hangover, so the Legends will let him concentrate on offense, his specialty. In 1921, his second season with the Yankees, Ruth hit .378 with 59 HRs and 171 RBI, all on a diet of sausage, whiskey and cigarettes. Giambi had a Babe-like frame, but that didn't stop him from taking pharmaceuticals. He hit 43 home runs and had 137 RBI in 2000. Not bad. Not Babe.
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SHOW ME HOW
Just for fun, let's fill out the benches for each side. Here are the reserves for the Legends:
C Johnny Bench (1970), OF Stan Musial (1948), OF Ty Cobb (1911), OF Willie Mays (1962), OF Hack Wilson (1930)
As for the game itself, the Asterisks have trouble timing the herky jerky, old timey motion of Satchell Paige. What's more, it seems the home plate umpire is calling everything within a foot of the plate a strike, while Asterisks starter Clemens can't get a call while he's on the mound. I forgot to mention that the Legends are managed by Hall of Famer John McGraw -- the same Giants manager who may have tried to bribe the ump in the 1908 World Series. Not saying he bribed this game's ump, but if he did, who could blame him for evening the playing field against a team of cheaters?
With one out, one on, in the bottom of the ninth and the Asterisks down one, Alex Rodriguez comes to the plate. Paige tosses one of those mesmerizing change-ups, catching ARod out on his front foot. He taps it to third, where Robinson scoops it up, fires to Robinson at second, who relays to Gehrig at first. Rodriguez slams his helmet down in disgust and makes the long walk back to a silent dugout we've all seen him make so many times. Banned substances make you stronger, but they can't cure choking, an affliction that's plagued ARod his whole career. Legends win.