In 1998, all the sporting world was riding a tidal wave of enthusiasm, a tsunami of sheer enjoyment brought on by the two earthquakes of Major league Baseball, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
The home run record chase was in full swing and, ultimately, both men would surpass Roger Maris' record of 61 although McGwire would win the crown, dinging a total 70 homers over Sosa's 66.
It was baseball's high water mark and it would be some time before the waters would recede especially when, only three years later, Barry Bonds would break the record again with a staggering 73 home runs.
But soon, those waters would recede and the truth of the home run record was revealed in the flotsam and jetsam left behind: pills, syringes and the stink of deceit and hidden truths.
McGwire has never been admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs nor has he been convicted of using a banned substance although Jose Canseco has said he personally injected McGwire with steroids.
Sosa stood in front of Congress and claimed he did not take steroids. Still, he never strayed far from his prepared statements and managed to avoid questions from the eager Congressmen looking to point blame at the downfall of America's pastime.
Bonds, the face of the scandal, is facing several counts of making false statements that he denied knowingly taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
Despite all of the allegations and charges, baseball stood a chance of recovering from this latest blow to its image. Ironically, it was the home run race that saved it from the lock-out season of 1994.
This time, it was the Mitchell Report that promised a rebirth for the sport. The report exposed the full extent of steroid transgressions. Commissioner Bud Selig called it, "...a call to action. And I will act." All he needed was something to renew fans interest in the game, something that would stop them from questioning the game and start enjoying it once again.
What Selig didn't know at the time was that it was too late for baseball. The final nail had already been hammered in to its coffin on the day Alex Rodriguez first injected himself with a performance-enhancing substance, back in 2001.
A-Rod was baseball's saving grace, given the mantle years ago by his agent, Scott Boras, in his free-agent evaluation. He threw around names like "Michelangelo" and phrases like, "Yes, Alex Rodriguez can save baseball." It earned him a 10-year, 252-million dollar contract with the Texas Rangers.
The pressure of the monumental contract is, apparently, what prompted A-Rod to turn to drugs. In his interview with ESPN just days after news broke of his steroid transgressions from 2001 to 2003, A-Rod says he, " ... wanted to prove to everyone that I was worth being one of the greatest players of all times."
He was certainly on his way to being that, already a five-time All-Star when Texas came calling. Over the years, both with the Rangers and the New York Yankees, he proved himself time and again on the field, winning the American League Player of the Year award three times, in '03, '05 and '07.
The stigma of steroid use, however, calls in to question all that he has accomplished. A-Rod claims he has been clean since arriving in New York but it's important to note that he has lied before. In a 2007 interview with Katie Couric, he denied taking any performance-enhancers. Having been caught in one lie calls in to question all of his other truths.
Also, if the pressure of a 10-year, $252-million contract prompted him to turn to steroids, how is he dealing with the pressure of a 10-year, $275-million contract agreed to in December of 2007 with the Yankees?
There were 104 other players who were found to have been taken steroids during the 2003 drug testing that ultimately nailed A-Rod but none of the others on that list are of A-Rod's calibre. As Sports Illustrated pointed out in its Feb. 16 issue, he is the latest and greatest to fall.
Unfortunately for Major League Baseball, it was hedging its bets with A-Rod and the New York Yankees of 2009. It was hoping Rodriguez, coupled with CC Sabathia and other big league signings in the offseason, as well as a sparkling new Yankee Stadium, would result in a resurgence for the team and for the league.
If the Yankees are doing well, baseball is doing well and this was supposed to be the year of the turnaround for MLB, when the steroid scanda—like the '94 lock-out—would be forgotten, like a passing summer storm that blows down a few trees but
Instead, any time A-Rod takes to the plate, fans will question if he's on the juice. From ballpark to ballpark across North America, the fans that still remain will boo A-Rod like they booed Barry Bonds. That A-Rod left a preseason game with his cousin, the man who got him the performance-enhancing drugs in the first place, certainly doesn't help his cause or baseball's.
And so, in the end, it will be baseball that will suffer and wilt. It's glory will never be recaptured if athletes like A-Rod continue to swing a bat. At best, baseball is a Frankenstein monster, eager for acceptance but met only by angry villagers brandishing torches.
If baseball wants to rise again, to be reborn, it must accept and embrace the fact that baseball supermen do not exist; that it is not the size of the body or the power behind the bat that matters, but the content of the character of the man swinging in. It must give back the home run title to Roger Maris and it must condemn and severely punish the cheaters that have turned the sport into a hollow shell of its former glory.
It is the only way to win back the confidence of the fans. Otherwise, baseball will drown under a wave of scorn and ridicule, leaving it well and truly dead. And good riddance.
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