Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How to Handle the 'Steroid Era' in Baseball

I wanted to wait a bit before fully forming and stating my opinion after last week's announcement by Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees that he had previously used steroids to enhance his on-field performance. I've been asked about it by a number of people already who know of my life-long love affair with the game. Most of them come with their opinions already made up on the issue. Many of them appear to be knee-jerk reactions and spoon-fed opinions that sound as if they've been developed by too much listening to radio and television commentators. I've largely stayed away from that kind of editorial on the issue, and so the opinion that I am going to give comes purely from my mind and my heart. I think that what baseball should do in regards to records set and player performance during the so-called 'Steroid Era' is largely this: nothing. No one ever put an asterisk next to Hank Aaron's homerun record and said "If only World War II wouldn't have happened, Ted Williams would have this record." When Aaron and Mays were taking their runs at the all-time homerun record as it was held by Babe Ruth, no one suggested putting an asterisk next to Ruth's record and said "If Ruth had to face the great black and Latino pitchers and keep the same travel schedule as today's stars, he would never have come close to 714." The fact is that baseball has come through a number of different eras during its long development into our national pastime. Many of these eras saw dynamic shifts in the way that the game was played which had dramatic effects on the games collective and players individual records. No one in their right mind can possibly argue that players such as Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Matthewson, Jimmy Foxx and all of the other white players who played through and set their records during the era of 'whites only' baseball could possibly have amassed those same statistics had the Major Leagues been integrated. These players would, of course, have still been superstars. They would have still put up strong numbers. But having to face a largely expanded skillful talent pool day-in and day-out? There is no way that with the increased black and Latino competition that their numbers would be quite as high as they are today. In the days when I was growing up with the game during the entirety of the 1970's all seemed innocent to me. Men caught, threw and hit balls, ran the bases, and played the game with love and passion. Here in Philadelphia, my beloved Phillies began to win while I was still a young teen, and continued that winning for years. The players on that team were my idols: Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Tug McGraw, Pete Rose, Larry Bowa, Bob Boone, Gary Maddox and so many others. Their sweat, sacrifice, and sometimes their blood were left on the field. They played the game hard everyday, from city to city, all throughout the spring and summer and into early fall. Little did I know that these men had a glass bowl in the middle of their locker room containing tiny colored pills. These 'uppers' of 'greenies' as many called them were simply illegal narcotics that were available and used almost as if they were a bowl of M&M's candies. Many of the players of that era could not have performed at those high levels over that time period under those conditions without the help that these performance-adhancing drugs provided them. Unlike many people who look at the game from the outside, I find two of the most unlikeable superstars of this recent steroid period to be somewhat sympathetic characters. Mark McGwire came out of college in the late 1980's as simply a longballing beast. He was raw power, bashing 49 homeruns during his first full season of 1988 to win the A.L. Rookie of the Year Award. Over his first seven seasons, Big Mac slammed a total of 220 homeruns. He was just 28 years old at that point, just entering the prime of his career when he would make large amounts of money and put up the numbers that would establish his legend for all-time. And then the wheels fell off as his health deteriorated under the strain of a bad back. In 1993 & 1994, McGwire missed the vast majority of each season due to back troubles. He finally began to get some control over the problems in 1995, and it is my opinion that he used steroids to overcome the back troubles. I believe that Mark McGwire saw what was supposed to be a glorious career going up in smoke and made a deal with the devil to get back to health and his former superstar status. It worked, and as the results got better and better, McGwire got into the usage more and more, bulking himself up into the obvious physical monster that he eventually became when he broke the single-season homerun record in 1998 by hitting 70 bombs that year. I believe it was during that same summer of 1998 that the problems began for Barry Bonds. I believe that Bonds, all massive talent and massive ego, looked around at the pure adulation given that summer to McGwire and Sammy Sosa as they chased the homerun record and wondered why he, the greatest player in the game, was not afforded that same adulation. I believe that Bonds saw performance-adhancing drugs as necessary to catch-up to the new production levels that the game was now embracing, and so he jumped in head-first. The resulting combination of Bonds natural gifts and the drugs was something that the game had never before witnessed. Bonds broke McGwire's record by hitting 73 homers in 2001, and then broke Aaron's career mark in 2007, leaving his new career homerun record sitting at 762. McGwire began using steroids because he simply could not have physically continued playing the game without them. Bonds used because he believed that his true greatness would not be acknowledged without them. In both cases the players used during a period when these substances were not against the rules of baseball as relates to substance abuse. Like Bonds, I believe that Alex Rodriguez saw what was going on around him in the game and decided to see what levels he could achieve if he too tried these substances. His results were remarkable as well, and so the usage continued. Someone decided to take a fun nickname given to him once by Bowa of 'A-Fraud' and run with it. Really now, is there anyone out there who does not believe that Bonds, ARod and Roger Clemens would not be among the game's greatest all-time players in any event? You can probably plug in many other names across the game over the past decade and a half, from Rafael Palmeiro to Juan Gonzalez, from Sammy Sosa to Mike Piazza, and any number of others as users of one substance or another. If Jose Canseco is to be believed, and it is looking more and more like he can be, then steroid use and the use of other substances has been rampant in the game. Just as in the 1970's when not every player reached into the bowl of greenies, not every player used steroids during this most recent era, and not all those who tried them continued their usage. But with really no way of knowing truthfully who did what and when, there is little recourse for the record books. As for the standing of the individuals, the question remains as to how to evaluate players such as Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, ARod and others for Hall of Fame purposes, and simply for the purposes of their places among the pantheon of the legends of the game. I for one do not believe that these players should be dismissed. Barry Bonds was the first-ever 400-400 player by 1998, the first player in the history of the game to have hit 400 homeruns and stolen 400 bases. He was a multiple Gold Glove winner in left field. He was quite simply one of the half dozen greatest players in the history of the game long before he every likely used any type of performance enhancing substance. I believe that these players need to be judged against one another over this era, that the substance use should be taken into consideration at some level, but that it should not be the single determinant when evaluating their Hall of Fame credentials. The best way to handle the 'Steroid Era' in baseball is simply to acknowledge it, ensure that baseball is doing everything in its power to end it, and then move along with no asterisks and with common sense considerations for individual players, just as was done for the players of the 'Whites Only' era.

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