Fair warning, this is going to be about steroids and baseball — a topic by now that’s about as exciting as C-SPAN’s midday programming and as excruciating as “reality” program on the E! Network. Outside of the outraged baseball media echo chamber, most of the world has moved on thanks to the pure tedium of the topic.
Still the more I’ve thought about it this week — in the wake of Ryan Braun’s suspension and the on-going Alex Rodriguez tabloid saga — the so-called ‘steroid era’ has done a lot to damage baseball’s place in the American sporting consciousness, however it’s not exactly way you think it would. Think back to last week during MLB’s All-Star Game festivities there were the usual stories about the decreasing interest in the sport or how poor the television rating were for the Game on FOX or specifically the majority viewers tuned in for the game were over 50.
Maybe it’s not the ‘steroid era’ itself that turned a younger generation off to baseball, but rather the retroactive way baseball has tried to frame the years between the 1994 player’s strike and, say, 2006 when it adopted stringent PED testing program. Is this playing Devil’s Advocate? Perhaps.
Remember sports fans loved the 1998 home run chase waged between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Sure there were always whispers the players were juiced up, but it remained mostly an afterthought even after reporters noticed Androstenedione in McGwire’s locker as he set his sights on Roger Maris.
At the time nobody seemed to care outside of a few lone voices in the wilderness. The narrative remained, until recent revisionist history, how the home run chase “saved baseball.” The chase was the lead item on the network news. Fans flocked in droves through the turnstiles. Everyone enjoyed the party. Nobody considered the potential hangover down the road. (Perhaps John Rocker wasn’t too nuts when he said earlier this month the game was better on the juice.)
The general public didn’t enter into full outrage mode until Barry Bonds shattered McGwire’s total with 73 homers in 2001 and later smashed past Hank Aaron for first-place all-time. You could argue this was due to a combination of Bonds’ association with BALCO and his boorish personality in equal doses, or the public by then was less naive.
Throw the ethical questions about athletes taking steroids aside for a moment, or the fact PEDs weren’t banned by MLB until early this century or this silly notion how professional athletes should be placed on this lofty moral pedestal. There was a generation of fans who grew up watching baseball during this ‘steroid era’ and in the subsequent years MLB and the Baseball Writers Association of America have taken it upon themselves to try to pretend like all these years didn’t happen under the auspices of protecting the sanctity of the record book and the Hall of Fame.
It comes to a head this weekend when the Hall of Fame will hold an induction ceremony to honor a former umpire, former Yankees’ owner who isn’t George Steinbrenner and 19th century catcher. Tumbleweeds and crickets are mandatory for those few hardy souls who’ll be in Cooperstown for the festivities.
Suppose, for a second, you were an adolescent baseball fan in Houston in the late 90s watching Jeff Bagwell. He was your favorite player. You saw him hit 449 career home runs and now he’s been denied entry to the Hall of Fame under suspicion that maybe he might have used PEDs, albeit without proof of a failed test. That would probably embitter you toward the sport, even make you stop paying attention to it independent of the Astros’ recent woeful play.
Baseball is a sport built on its memories and its past, by trying to scrub all that happened during a decade-plus span of time might end up doing more harm than help. Should we go back and re-examine the ‘dead ball era’ and try to see if those records deserve to still stand? Or maybe all the pitching stats from 1968 when they raised he height of the mound should be lost in a paper shredder.
We don’t hear stuff like that because it’s history. Like it or not, the ‘steroid era’ is part of baseball history.
Trying to go back and pretend Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, et al didn’t hit all those home runs or that Roger Clemens didn’t win back-to-back Cy Young Awards with the Blue Jays doesn’t make a lot of sense. We saw it happen with our own eyes.
Denying the past in this case, even with noble intentions, only ends up hurting the future.
Related: John Rocker Went on Cleveland Radio and Said Baseball Was Better With Steroids, Duh
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