A Relfection on MLB’s “Steroid Era”

Well, I wanted to make a Rangers post, but Manny decided to be Manny, and it seems that means Manny’s been juicing. Now this put me in a state of baseball depression, despite the Rangers currently being in first place in May for what seems like forever. Was it because I was a huge Manny fan? No not really, he amused me and I always thought of him as one of the all-time greatest batters in the game, but that’s it. Despite the fact Manny was nowhere on my radar as far as PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) go, this just reinforced something that continues to be hammered into my head:

All my memories of great and historic baseball moments I have witnessed as a fan are completely tainted.

Every time another big name hits the ever growing list, Jose Canseco probably laughs his ass off, Pete Rose likely wants to call Bud Selig and say “I sure as hell don’t look like a bad Hall of Fame option now do I?”, and another happy baseball memory of mine dies.

Bill Simmons probably says it best
and I highly suggest reading it all. He writes a fictional story, set 5 years into the future when he takes his son to his first Red Sox game; however, he then finds his worst nightmare comes true when he shows his son the championship banners:

We settle into our seats. I point toward the championship banners over the first-base side. They go in order: 1903, 1904, 1912, 1915, 1916, 1918, 2004, 2007. Ever since Boston won the World Series 10 years ago, I always imagined pointing to that 2004 banner and telling my little boy, “That’s the team that changed everything.”

So that’s what I do. I point at the banner and tell him, “That’s the team that changed everything.”

“Isn’t that the team that cheated?” he asks.

Just like that, the symbol of THE championship for Red Sox Nation, the one that broke the Curse of the Bambino, now becomes nothing more than a tarnished symbol that now spawns hundreds of questions, leaving fans to do their damnedest to try to explain them away. Simmons and his father attempt to do this to the young Simmons in the story, and the sharp ‘Lil Sports Guy comes up with counterpoint after counterpoint. The back-and-forth continues, and it slowly eats away at Simmons until the following happens:

“You don’t understand what it was like to follow baseball before you were born. There was a strike in 1994, and the World Series was canceled. Everyone hated baseball. Then Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa started hitting homers, and the balls started flying out of the park, and it was so much fun that everyone looked the other way. We didn’t care that these guys were practically busting out of their skin or growing second foreheads. We really didn’t. All the cheating made baseball more fun to watch. We were in denial. It was weird.

“Then, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in a season, and that was like the turning point. We realized that things had gone too far. We blamed him for cheating and looked the other way with dozens of other guys who might have been doing the same thing. Brady Anderson hit 50 homers in 1996; we didn’t care. Bret Boone had 141 RBIs in a season; we didn’t care. Big Papi went from 10 homers to 41 in four seasons; we didn’t care. Roger Clemens was washed up, but suddenly he could throw 98 miles per hour and win Cy Youngs again; we didn’t care. Eric Gagne saved 84 straight games and threw 120 miles an hour; we didn’t care. Good players started blowing out tendons nobody had ever heard of; we didn’t care. Pitchers blew out elbow tendons and shoulder ligaments routinely; we didn’t care. This was the deal. They cheated; we pretended they didn’t. It’s really hard to explain unless you were there.”

My son tries to soak everything in. That’s lot to process for a 6-year-old.

Finally …

“So when the Red Sox won in 2004, did you know some of the guys might have been cheating?” he asks.

“At the time?” I answer. “No. Either we were in total denial, or we just didn’t care.”

“I’d do it again!” my dad yells happily, getting another withering glare from me.

“You have to understand,” I say. “EVERYONE cheated back then. You know how I drive 80 on the highway even though all the signs say to go 55? That’s how everyone thought back then — the signs said one thing, but everyone did the other. There were so many people cheating that, competitively, you almost had to cheat to keep up with everyone else.”

“So why didn’t the people in charge get everyone to stop cheating?” my son asks.

“I wish I knew. The players’ union didn’t care, the commissioner’s office didn’t care, nobody cared. Until it was too late.”

This excerpt is more or less of what I feel I am left with regarding several baseball memories. I was mesmerized by the McGwire/Sosa HR chase, floored when the Red Sox came back down 0-3 in the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees, thrilled when Palmeiro stroked his 500th HR, and inspired when I was able to listen to a resurgent Clemens go on a huge tirade on steroid use during a ND baseball banquet in 2005. All of these memories, once great shining moments I held as a huge baseball fan, are now completely tarnished. You start to wonder just how baseball got to that point.

I’ll never forget having a talk with some baseball teammates and one of our coaches our senior year of high school (2003). Canseco hadn’t burst baseball’s bubble yet, but the steroid allegations were starting to fly at a rapid pace. We wondered if our coach, a former minor-leaguer, had ever used or saw people use. His response: “Well, I won’t say anything specific, but when you are trying to claw your way into the big leagues, and you see another guy getting the edge on you, even in ways he isn’t supposed to — you know you have to do something to keep up or you are gone.” Back then, I thought he was talking about one or two guys here and there (and most likely himself); however, never could I have imagined then what I know now. He more or less told us “everyone is doing it, you have no idea how bad it is”. Like Simmons says, you had to cheat to create a level playing field.

A local radio personality said yesterday afternoon that he felt like he wasted 20 years of his life as a baseball fan by spending so much time being in awe of McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, A-Rod, Clemens, Manny, and other now confirmed steroid users and completely forgetting about people like Griffey and Maddux who seemed to have done it clean. He then said immediately after that he wouldn’t be surprised to pick up a paper and see that they too were confirmed steroid users.

Instead of making steroid allegations at a couple players here and there, we are all now just wondering who is next, which future Hall of Famer is about to watch the doors slam in his face, and which cherished baseball memory could soon find it’s way into an uncomfortable place like the 2004 Red Sox championship banner now does for Simmons.

Right now though, all I can hope for is that MLB is finally trying to clean up its act. The power numbers seem to suggest it is happening, but I’m sure we will still see more failed tests in the future. Hey, at least I can say Josh Hamilton is clean — ironic that his previous drug abuse ensures that he is tested constantly for everything…well, at least I can say that for now…

As I wonder how I, MLB, fans, and sports writers will end up viewing this “Steroid Era”, I can’t help but think it will go like the end of Simmon’s article:

We look at the 2004 banner again. I always thought that, for the rest of my life, I would look at that banner and think only good thoughts. Now, there’s a mental asterisk that won’t go away. I wish I could take a pill to shake it from my brain. I see 2004 and 2007, and think of Manny and Papi first and foremost. The modern-day Ruth and Gehrig. One of the great one-two punches in sports history. Were they cheating the whole time? Was Pedro cheating, too? That 2004 banner makes me think of these things now. I wish it didn’t, but it does. This makes me sad. This makes me profoundly sad.

My son can read it in my face. I am sad. He can see it.

“That’s OK, Dad,” he says, rubbing my shoulder. “Everyone cheated back then.”