Eric Freaking Gagne.
The posterboy for bad trades’ disastrous three-month stint in Boston became even worse when his was one of the infamous names released in George Mitchell’s report, a comprehensive look at baseball’s slow decline into a sport that overlooked, if not pasively supported, a culture of illegal performance-enhancing drug use.
Although the report broke little new ground in many respects — few of the names were earth-shattering, the recommendations were common-sensical, and it quoted liberally from newspaper articles and books anyone can read — it performed a vital service in collecting and disseminating in one place a study of the culture of the game in the mid 1990s to early 2000s.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect is that of the general managers, who often are overlooked in the finger-pointing aimed at the players, their union, the owners, the commissioner and even the media. It’s the GMs who decide whether to trade for or sign these players, and knowing about past performance while estimating future results is obviously the paramount component in such decisions.
If the examples cited by Mitchell are at all representative — and that does not seem to be an unreasonable assumption — then GMs long ago were aware of the large role steroids and human growth hormone have played in the performance of their players, and they decided to do nothing about it.
According to Mitchell, Gagne was caught in the ring spearheaded by former Mets trainer Kirk Radomski. The report states that Gagne used then-Dodgers teammate Paul LoDuca — also implicated in the document — to place orders with Radomski for HGH. The report also intimates that Gagne was injecting before his first contact with Radomski, in which he asked the trainer "how to get air out of a syringe."
The report includes a copy of a U.S. Post Office Express Mail receipt for a shipment sent from Radomski to Gagne, who allegedly paid nearly $10,000 for three shipments of HGH in 1999, Gagne’s rookie season. Needless to say, this allegation taints his amazing 2002-04 seasons, during which he set a Major League record with 84 consecutive save conversions.
More remarkable, however, is how easily this information apparently came to Epstein when he was considering the trade last July. Although the report only records Gagne’s alleged HGH use in 1999, Epstein’s scouts clearly believed he’d been using performance-enhancing drugs for much longer.
Some digging on Gagne and steroids IS the issue. Has had a checkered medical past throughout career including minor leagues. Lacks the poise and commitment to stay healthy, maintain body and re invent self. What made him a tenacious closer was the max effort plus stuff . . . Mentality without the plus weapons and without steroid help probably creates a large risk in bounce back durability and ability to throw average while allowing the changeup to play as it once did . . . Personally, durability (or lack of) will follow Gagne.
Needless to say, this makes what I’ve long maintained to be a "good trade with bad results" simply a bad trade. Epstein ignored the advice of his scouts and gambled three players (and somewhere around $6 million) that Gagne would pitch well despite not having "steroid help" outside of his comfort zone as a setup man with diminished skills — in an AL East pennant race, to boot. An awful gamble that ended predictably, considering the information Epstein had.
Yet this was not the only case cited by Mitchell of Epstein’s knowledge of his prospective acquisitions’ questionable history. Also of interest is Brendan Donnelly, accused by Mitchell of obtaining steroids through Radomski in 2004.
"In considering whether to trade for Donnelly in 2007," Mitchell writes, "Red Sox baseball operations personnel internally discussed concerns that Donnelly was using performance enhancing substances."
In an email to vice president of player personnel Ben Charington dated December 13, 2006, Zack Scott of the Red Sox baseball operations staff wrote of Donnelly: “He was a juice guy but his velocity hasn’t changed a lot over the years . . . If he was a juice guy, he could be a breakdown candidate.” Kyle Evans of the baseball operations staff agreed with these concerns, responding in an email that “I haven’t heard many good things about him, w[ith] significant steroid rumors.”
Donnelly was a lower-risk move, costing one marginal prospect in a trade with the Angels. Ultimately, of course, he did break down.
It’s unlikely these instances are unique to Theo Epstein or the Red Sox — although their inclusion does not reflect positively on the ballclub and might be a useful retort for those seeking to tar Mitchell with the bias brush. Indeed, the e-mails quoted seem to be just like any other evaluatory documents a GM receives from his scouts and assistants, except instead of conditioning concerns or fastball location, they’re discussing steroids. As such, these discussions likely have taken place in the front offices of every big-league club.
The question is why, with such rumors swirling around these players, did the teams acquire them anyway? Clearly, the answer lies in the much-ballyhooed list of names, which we’ve compiled here, complete with links to the players’ Baseball-Reference pages and relevant notes on who played for the Red Sox and Yankees.
Eighty-nine players were named at various times in Mitchell’s report, yet they mostly fall into just four categories:
Players affiliated with Radomski
Players affiliated with Yankees trainer Brian McNamee, who was a subdistributor of Radomski’s.
Players accused of buying HGH online, generally affiliated with the Jason Grimsley affidavit.
Players affiliated with BALCO.
Radomski and BALCO account for the vast majority of the players named in the report. Clearly, there must be many other rings involving many other players. Estimates that more than half of the big-leaguers in any given season during the Steroid Era were using performance enhancers seem less outlandish now.
It appears Epstein (and likely other GMs) made his decisions with steroids as simply one of many concerns about a given player. And it seems — especially considering other statements in which he’s stressed the importance of adding players that fit well in the clubhouse and do not carry personal baggage with them — he knew that fielding an "all-clean" team, so to speak, would have been impossible.
That’s not to excuse him or other general managers, all of whom are just as complicit as baseball’s owners and commissioners for allowing a sore to fester too long. But it speaks to just how widespread the problem is — perhaps much further than we truly expected.
So was it worth it? For the Red Sox in acquiring Eric Gagne, absolutely not. For Major League Baseball in finally grasping and publicly accepting the extent to which it had accepted a cancer into its sport, absolutely.