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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Eric Gagne and the Lessons of Cheating

Eric Gagne was a struggling marginal pitcher when he burst on the scene in 2002 in his new role as closer for the Dodgers. For the next three years, he dominated in ways never seen before. He still holds the all time record for consecutive saves with the herculean total of 84. In 2003, he won the Cy Young award with 55 saves and a 1.20 ERA. I happened to catch Gagne pitch once in 2003. He finished the ninth against then Cub, Eric Karros. He started Karros off with a fastball that the stadium gun clocked at 99 MPH. His next two pitches were both change ups. One change up was clocked at 74 and the next at 72 MPH respectively. I still remember the ridiculous amount of drop that his last change up had. He made Karros look silly and it redefined the term "pull the string" normally associated with change ups. Gagne's career sputtered through a series of injuries and lack of production following the 2004 season and he continues to be a struggling, if not well paid, closer/middle reliever today.

As it turns out, it is very likely that any success that Gagne has had was most likely manufactured. Eric Gagne was one of the hundreds of names mentioned in the Mitchell Report. While there is certainly no proof, I have the strong suspicion that his success coincided with his meteoric rise. His fall also coincided with the time period that baseball finally began to test for steroids seriously.

The implications of the story of Eric Gagne and hundreds of others like him are huge and they aren't talked about nearly enough. Gagne most likely cheated his way into millions of dollars. It is of course unclear when (or even for sure if) he cheated, however it certainly appears to me that his best years were also years he cheated in. He no longer throws the fastball in the high nineties. Thus, the difference in velocity between that and his change up is no longer the obscene 25 miles that I used to see. It appears that the un hittable closer that we witnessed in 2002-2004 was created chemically.

Again, the implications of this are massive. Gagne was a marginal player that struggled to make a major league roster prior to 2002. Then, out of the blue, he became one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. This year he is being paid 10 million dollars. Without performance enhancing drugs, he likely would have long been out of the league. Instead, he is being paid 8 figures to struggle and rehabilitate.

If my suspicions are accurate, he not only cheated his way into fame, fortune, and baseball immortality, but worse than that, he took the spot of someone who didn't fall to the same urges. Because Gagne did not resist those urges, he is now rewarded with a Cy Young, a place in baseball's record books, and ten's of millions of dollars. He didn't just cheat to gain an edge, but he cheated to manufacture a life. Meanwhile, this life that he created took the place of someone else who didn't fall to those same urges. Not only is that unfair, but frankly it is tragic. How do we teach the lessons of cheating to our youth when clearly they paid off so well for Eric Gagne?

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