It’s absolutely fair for fans to be suspicious—even excessively so—in today’s professional sports landscape. I laugh at the idea of a Steroid Era, because that implies that it will end. A more accurate expression, I think, would be to say that we live with the Steroid Reality—sports and science are irrevocably intertwined from now on, forever. And that means that fans have every right to regard player performances differently. Indeed, I think anyone who isn’t at leastmildly suspicious of Chris Davis is simply naive.
I agree with you that surprisingly impressive stats aren’t the only “red flag” for steroid usage, but they certainly are a good one. More specifically, when an average or good player becomes Herculean, we should be suspicious (Melky Cabrera, Chris Davis, Jose Bautista). When a great or even really great athlete reaches a level of god-like dominance in his sport, we should be suspicious (Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, Usain Bolt). And finally, when an aging athlete a decade removed from his “prime” has the best season of his career, we should sure as hell be suspicious. I’m not advocating that we condemn anyone who fits this profile, I’m simply saying that it is okay (and I would even go as far to say that it is necessary) to take their performance with a grain of salt.
Note that I am not advocating any action be taken, nor am I judging the character of these individuals. I am simply speaking of a fan’s psychology and the perspective they should have on the athletes that they revere. To address the latter point (on character), I think we need to remember that steroid usage is a systemic problem. This means that it arises not from individual character/personalty flaws, but rather, it arises because Major League Baseball as a system
allows encourages it to. Players take steroids because A) it advances their career; B) there aren’t strict penalties for getting caught; C) it is easy to not get caught (I’ve seen experts say that failing a drug test is like failing an IQ test—it only happens if you’re acting very stupidly. As proof of this I would point to Bonds, Armstrong, Bolt, Braun, and most of the Biogenesis players, each of whom have never failed a single drug test); and most importantly, D) it gets gets them serious $$$. My favorite example of this is Melky Cabrera. When Melky got caught—and it became clear that he would no longer receive a massive, career-making contract—everybody loved mentioning how much money he had “lost.” But what nobody realized is that Melky had a huge net gain in income. Had he continued on his pedestrian .260ish-average-with-no-pop trajectory, he never would have been offered anything near that 2-year, $16 million contract from the Jays. And more, he came less than half a season away from possibly winning an MVP and likely signing a contract worth close to $100 million. In short, there are many strong incentives to take PEDs and very few deterrents.
In my opinion, MLB has a few options for effectively confronting the Steroid Reality. First, it can issue much harsher penalties for being found guilty of steroid use. This could potentially be in the form of a season-long suspension for first-timers and a lifetime ban for repeat offenders. More importantly, MLB should void any contract of a player who is found guilty. This would take the biggest incentive for taking steroids out of the equation. If it won’t get them money, they won’t do it. The opposite route to take (and one that I wish was talked about more seriously) would be for MLB to accept that performance enhancing drugs are always going to be a part of the game and to put forth its resources to regulate and monitor steroid usage rather than to criminalize and stigmatize it. I don’t see this latter option ever gaining any real traction because people like to think of steroid usage as a moral flaw rather than a systemic one.
All of this brings us back to the topic at hand: Chris Davis. He’s on pace to have over 60 home runs this season. No player has done that since Bonds in ‘01. So is it fair to call him an outright cheater? No. But is it fair to be cautious of his success, and to even mildly suspect that his monstrous success is due in part to covert use of illegal PEDs? Yes. In fact, that’s the most fair, rational, and reasonable stance for a baseball fan to take.