Tuesday night, after he hit his Major League-leading 11th home run of the season to lead his team to a 9-1 victory and secure his spot as the story of the first three weeks of the 2017 season, Eric Thames talked not about his flabbergasting start or his magnificent beard. He instead talked about bodily fluids.
Because Thames is hitting the ball so well, and because we haven't been watching him for the past four years to see, as he put it, "what I learned in Korea to see how it would fare here," and because we collectively both lack imagination and also the ability to let go of decades-old misconceptions, we're not appreciating his story for what it is. We can't help but think something funny's going on; that there's a mystery to be solved. We all consider ourselves little Encyclopedia Browns now. We always think we're onto the scam.
Thus, when Thames hits his 11th homer of the season, he can't just say, "I'm seeing the ball real well right now" or "I'm just trying to take it one game at a time" or all the usual athlete clichés. He has to answer The Question. It is to Thames' eternal credit that he is handling The Question as well as he is.
"I went the long way around to come back here," he said. "This whole thing is surprising me, as well. I really have no goals for this year. I wasn't trying to break any records or set anything. … I'm shocked at all the results. I'm just here to play ball, and do my best to stay healthy, and stretch as much as I can." And then the money quote: "So, yeah, if people keep thinking I'm on stuff, I'll be here every day. I have lots of blood and urine."
What a quote. "I am the greatest." "I've failed over and over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed." "Never give up." Add this one to the eternal ledger: "I have lots of blood and urine." Every generation gets the epitaph it deserves.
Here are the past five people to be test positive for PEDs by Major League Baseball's testing program:
- A Gold Glove-winning outfielder known for his basestealing prowess.
- A 25-year-old middle reliever with average stuff but expert control.
- An aging journeyman who played for 10 teams in a 15-year career.
- A rookie outfielder with a batting average of .167 in 195 career at-bats.
- A 29-year-old fading middle reliever who began this year on the disabled list and has thrown a total of 19 innings in the Majors.
The guy before those five was Dee Gordon, who weighs 170 pounds soaking wet.
Who is the last traditional slugger to be busted for PEDs? Maybe Miguel Tejada back in 2013? (He was suspended for amphetamines, which is not exactly known for its muscle-building.) Nelson Cruz and Alex Rodriguez, also from that year? Technically, but neither tested positive for PEDs -- they were involved in the Biogenesis mess. I guess you have to go back to Ryan Braun, not a "traditional" slugger, though he's essentially back to the player he was before the PED bust and is in fact off to the best start of his career in 2017.
Look at the rest of these guys since then. Chris Colabello. Cody Stanley. David Rollins. Abraham Almonte. Jenrry Mejia. (And Jenrry Mejia. And Jenrry Mejia.) Daniel Stumpf. These are not big names; they are barely names at all. They are journeymen, has-beens and never-weres, the regular churn in and out of baseball. You'll likely not remember any of them in two years, except for maybe Mejia, and only because he failed three drug tests and got himself banned for life. There is nothing special about them as professional baseball players at all.
But our modern knee-jerk PED suspicions ignore them all together, just like they ignore Andy Pettitte, or Bartolo Colon, or Edinson Volquez, or Neifi Perez, or Francisco Cervilli. We just go right after the sluggers. The reason we do this, of course, is because -- in the general consensus -- the PED "problem" was one forged by Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, and the records they broke and how wrong and unprecedented all that felt. When people talk about baseball's PED "problem," that's what they're talking about. They're talking about a bunch of home runs that were hit 20 years ago.
There are strong arguments to be made that baseball didn't even have a PED problem back then, that there was a normal, if unusual, spike in the home run rate for reasons that likely had little to do with PEDs. Joe Sheehan has written smartly about this for years, most recently in a piece for Fangraphs. But even if one allots that that era was a dark period in baseball history -- a point I'm not willing to allot generally but will briefly do so for the sake of this discussion -- it was two decades ago, and bears almost no similarity to baseball and any PED issues now. If you believe that the baseball testing program is working, or is at least working enough that certain high-profile players are busted even if you're not getting everyone, then there is simply no evidence to claim that PEDs are being used disproportionately more by sluggers than middle relievers or backup catchers. The only way you can claim that sluggers are more likely to used PEDs now than any other player is if you argue that sluggers are somehow mentally more capable of cheating tests than any other player. I assume no one wants to actually make this argument.
So if sluggers aren't using PEDs any more than any other player is, and the testing system just suspended an All-Star on a contending team for 80 games, why are we giving Thames such a hard time? Is it because we think he took a bunch of stuff in Korea and is now bringing it here? That can't be it: The Korean Baseball Organization has a rigorous testing program. Is it because the last time we saw Thames, in 2012, he wasn't very good, and now he is? Well, Josh Donaldson was terrible in 2012, and he's actually older than Thames is. Justin Turner, Jose Bautista and Daniel Murphy also blossomed late after being mediocre for years. Sometimes players, you know, get better over time. They figure it out.
But we won't get off Thames' back. This is hardly just a fan and media issue either. Cubs starter John Lackey and pitching coach Chris Bosio just hinted that Thames was on PEDs last week.
Leave Thames alone. There are much simpler explanations than PEDs for his rise. Here's a really good one!
I don't know, maybe stop throwing Eric Thames meatballs pic.twitter.com/fp0eEpXBYe- Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) April 26, 2017
Thames is a truly wonderful story that has been dropped in our laps this year. He is fun to watch, he is fun to listen to, he is fun to cheer for. This is a nice thing. We can have nice things. Let's try to appreciate our nice thing. Let's try to think more about Thames' home runs, and less about his blood and urine, no matter how much of it there might be. It's OK to enjoy something. It really is.