Like most of the 2017 Home Run Derby participants, Charlie Blackmon, the bushy-bearded Rockies outfielder, was in awe of Yankee slugger Aaron Judge’s Ruthian blasts during the showcase event.
“Hits the ball a long way,” Blackmon said Friday of Judge, before Blackmon and the Rockies got pounded by the Mets at Citi Field. “He makes it look easy.”
But while Blackmon acknowledged that Judge has about a 100-pound weight advantage on him and most other players in the majors, the Rockies two-time All-Star said that he believes the towering Judge is socking homers naturally – and without any chemical enhancement.
“Aaron Judge is like 100 pounds heavier than everybody else. It’s not like he needs that. He wakes up every day stronger than everybody. But I think he’s doing it the right way – being clean. That’s his advantage,” said Blackmon.
This season, home runs seem to be flying out of ballparks at will, and players like Judge are channeling the Bambino and socking tape-measure blasts. Blackmon was only 12 in 1998, when the single-season home run chase by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa unfolded, but was later tainted by suspicions of performance-enhancing drug use (McGwire admitted to his doping sins in 2010, five years after a Daily News expose on his steroid use and supplier). Similarly, the 2001 single-season homer mark of 73 by Barry Bonds has been marred by Bonds’ alleged PED use.
Do fans look at 2017 in similar fashion, that drugs are helping spur the homer binge?
“Despite how unfortunate it is, our job is to question everything,” U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart said of USADA’s mission. “But it’s unfair for the public to do that based upon performance.” Tygart added some sobering statistics to put the issue in context: Between 1920 and 1998 (a stretch of over seven decades), baseball had a player hit over 50 homers in a season 23 times. Between ’98 and 2004, that stat was 13 times, during what could be considered the height of the Steroid Era. From 2004, when baseball’s drug-testing program was first implemented, to the present, a player has hit more than 50 dingers in a season seven times.
Blackmon, an advocate of clean play, said it was a no-brainer for him to join forces with the non-profit Taylor Hooton Foundation, which has been crusading against PED use for more than a decade.
“I’m very happy to do it. I think it’s a great cause,” said Blackmon, 31. “I want there to be a level playing field, but more importantly, I want kids to be healthy, to work hard and not put things in their body they shouldn’t be putting in there.”
Blackmon is one of 38 Major League players who agreed to be part of the Hooton Foundation’s “All Me League” campaign, where each player takes a pledge to “play clean of performance-enhancing drugs and live a healthy life on and off the field.”
Blackmon made his big league debut in 2011, two years before the Biogenesis doping scandal erupted and resulted in more than a dozen professional baseball players getting suspended, including Alex Rodriguez, who ended up with a season-long ban in 2014. Blackmon said as he climbed the minor-league ranks, and once he reached the majors, he followed the news about the positive drug tests among his baseball peers, especially when the Biogenesis scandal hit.
“You didn’t want to believe it was true,” said Blackmon. “Some players that are great players that you grew up watching – it’s a letdown to see that they were cheating. But at the same time, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe I was naïve to think that all those guys were naturally that big.”
The lefty-hitting Blackmon said he is not naïve now to think PED use has been eradicated in baseball – “I think there’s probably guys still taking things they shouldn’t be taking,” said Blackmon – even with a drug-testing program in place that enforces an 80-game ban for first-time PED offenders, a 162-game ban for a second positive test and a lifetime ban for a third PED strike. (MLB announced three suspensions Friday, including Rockies minor league pitcher Austin Wright getting suspended for the remainder of the ’17 season for a positive PED test).
When asked if he thinks a lifetime ban after a first positive PED test would be a more appropriate punishment, Blackmon said the players might be trending toward that idea soon.
“You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a no tolerance (policy) at some time. I mean, I don’t want to be competing against guys that are using. That’s not good. Since I have zero intention of using, I’m OK with other guys being gone for using,” said Blackmon. The Players Association and MLB collectively bargain the drug-testing policy and its rules and policies.
“I think it’s a good policy. It’s random,” Blackmon added. “I don’t know a lot about the chemistry, how they test what they test for. I just know it’s gonna be very risky to take something, being that you’re subject to testing almost every day of the year now.”
Tygart said that he thinks MLB is “running an ‘A’ program” when it comes to their drug testing efforts and Tygart said he is most impressed with how baseball implements its program — from blood and urine testing to baseball working with law enforcement in certain cases.
Don Hooton, whose son Taylor committed suicide in 2003 after abusing steroids and who is the namesake behind the Taylor Hooton Foundation, said that while he’s pleased with MLB’s progress on the fight against PED use, Hooton thinks the issue is “trending in the wrong direction” because of what he said is pervasive use among high school students.
“The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids says that seven percent of high school kids admitted to using anabolic steroids,” said Hooton. “Harvard professor Harrison Pope released a study that said in 80 percent of these cases, kids aren’t using for athletic reasons, they’re using for aesthetic reasons. Excessive body image.”
Hooton said that when his son Taylor was still alive, the younger Hooton would flex his muscles in front of the mirror, and would say to his mother, “Hey, look at my guns,” while showing off his biceps. Don Hooton said his son’s use of steroids may have started out to enhance his athletic ability, but later seemed to be more about looking ripped.
With the “All Me League” campaign, Hooton said he hopes the crop of players like Blackmon will help swing the pendulum back in the right direction on the dangers of doping.
“We’ve got some of the best stars in the league teaching kids what kind of image to uphold, so I’m hoping these role models can show our kids how to lead a straight-up, clean life on and off the field,” said Hooton.