Performance-enhancing drugs have, in a sense, destroyed the game of baseball forever.
Gone are the days when a player could play 2,632 consecutive games and go unquestioned. No longer can an outfielder win seven Silver Slugger awards and not have to pee in a cup four times a month.
We are now, as a fanbase, faced with our toughest challenge yet. The unavoidable murk in which performance-enhancing drugs have created in our beloved game is threatening to destroy it.
We watch, silently, angrily, smugly, as two players from contending teams were nailed for testing positive for PEDs and will be suspended for the remainder of the regular season. These two men are obliviously carrying the torch of the infamous steroid era.
Melky Cabrera gave a belated birth to his career, boasting one the best batting averages in baseball. Bartolo Colon resurrected a dead career, bouncing back from elbow surgery and an absent 2010 campaign to return to close to 2005 Cy Young Award form.
The troubles lay in men like these. They follow a precedent. Juan Gonzalez. Jose Canseco. While Cabrera and Colon did not turn baseball into a bona-fide muscle man freak show, they have done exactly what Gonzalez and Canseco did before them.
They bring our sport into question.
Without Cabrera and Colon, Gonzalez and Canseco, we would take the players and their statistics as they came. Sammy Sosa would be the center of a bat cork scandal, and nothing more. Barry Bonds would have spoiled us rotten, giving us a glimpse at the best home run hitter of all-time. And Roger Clemens, the greatest 40-year-old pitcher since Nolan Ryan, would be the figure for aspiring pitchers to follow. The boy who takes the makeshift mound in his back yard would be No. 21, just for a minute.
Instead, they all go down in our history and record books with a footnote and an asterisk. They are guilty in our court regardless of how our justice system finds them. We can never imagine them in our Hall of Fame; in fact, we want them as far from Cooperstown as the Pacific Ocean.
Perhaps we should thank Cabrera and Canseco. They have brought baseball’s greatest fault to light. Canseco directly gave us more information on the use of steroids in baseball than we had ever known.
And Cabrera, more humbly, gave us a reason to look. A career .270 hitter bats .346 into August. Six big league seasons bore no fruit, yet a relocation to the thick air of the West Coast suddenly gave an opportunity to bloom. These two should have been filler in a pack of baseball cards; the players you thumb past in search of real stars.
What is happening now is truly tragic. The effect Canseco and his steroid era had on baseball is proving to be a lasting scar. When the doubt of players and their numbers were beginning to subside, albeit slightly, the cycle begins again. Canseco brought his peers under a microscope, and now, Cabrera has done the same.
We now have to endure media analysts doubt the current greats of our game. We have to listen to the skeptics, who ask why Derek Jeter is having a career year at the age of 38. We are forced to accept that some allow the answer to be PEDs, while we are left to shout. “He can do it because he’s great!” at nothing but our televisions and radios.
We are in the era of doubt, not only in baseball, but in the spectrum of sports. How much did Joe Paterno really know? Just how did Lance Armstrong cleanly win seven Tours de France in a sport known for doping? Did Gregg Williams actually create a de facto hit man association within a defense?
And baseball, America’s pastime, the grand ole game, is suffering. Perhaps the American virtues of hard work and honesty that have been ingrained in the game are really just like plants above the surface, with the game’s roots in short cuts and deception.
And maybe that’s the tragedy of it all, that we have begun to think in this way. We used to watch a player like Albert Pujols wonder just how he does it, except then, the answer was talent, skill, God’s blessings. He’s great, that’s how. We used to be able to accept players like Pujols as a true modern marvel and relish the 425-foot blasts and the incredible amounts of torque produced by his impeccable swing to launch them that far.
Now, we have to accept the fact that, no, we are not 100 percent sure that it is not a result of performance-enhancing drugs. We must allow the media to do their due diligence of second-guessing and taking good copy and making it somehow better copy by adding suspicion.
There is no solution, no quick fix. We have to love our game, baggage and all. For every diehard fan that wore a ball cap everywhere, stuck baseball cards in the spokes of his bike and slept with his glove under the mattress, there are three others who look at this game as an aging relic.
Sadder still, for every one great player in this game, the ones who are the perfect blend of talent and work ethic, competitive drive and enthusiasm, there are hundreds of players without that blend.
And it is those men who make the irreversible step into performance-enhancing drugs. They will take steroids to make up for the lack of talent, or to aid the lackluster work ethic. They may or may not make it to the big leagues.
But every time one of those men succeeds, they have cheapened and damaged the game beyond their own comprehension. They have taken greatness from the great, not by surpassing them statistically, but by bringing the great accomplishments into doubt. It is now uncertain what were true heroics, who were true heroes.
Baseball fans, keep your eyes on the horizon. Honor Ted Williams, enjoy Derek Jeter, embrace Mike Trout. Accept the Cabreras and Cansecos for what they are.
In these trying times, there is nothing else to do but take the game as it comes. We cannot change what has happened over the last 20 years. We can hope that the weeds from the steroid era are all but pulled out, with the game cleansing itself once again.
But until the next positive test is the last, we will be forced to defend our game from the disenchanted.