In 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa held the Major League Baseball-watching world captive with their race toward Roger Maris' single-season home run record and beyond.
In 2001, Barry Bonds shattered McGwire's new record of 70 on his way to 73 big flies for the year.
Only five men have ever reached the 60-homer plateau in over 100 years of baseball, and that four-year period from '98 to '01 gave us three of them. It also gave us the six highest single-season home run tallies in the history of the game and six of the eight seasons in which an individual reached that 60-homer milestone.
For good reason, the focus was on the guys doing the worst damage to the record books, but theirs were not the only gaudy totals.
Big Mac and Sosa overshadowed thumpers like Greg Vaughn (50 HR), Albert Belle (49 HR), Jose Canseco (46 HR) and Juan Gonzalez (45). For his part, Bonds overshadowed impressive displays of power from Luis Gonzalez (57 HR), Shawn Green (49 HR) and Richie Sexson (45 HR).
The fans loved the show, though, and everyone was making money hand over fist. So it took a few years of flagrant performance-enhancing drug use before "Hey, what's that powder in your locker?" gave way to full-fledged panic, congressional inquiries and more stringent testing.
Eventually, the media began publishing mea culpas, flagellating itself for playing a role in our chemically enhanced nightmare.
And, just like that, it was over.
Apparently, the mere acknowledgement of the PED issue by the media and improved testing were enough to eradicate what had been an industry-wide blight.
Story after story after story came out either explicitly stating the Steroid Era was over or implying as much by referencing it in the past tense. Bud Selig, the oh-so-lovable commissioner of MLB, became the spokesman for the explicit camp when he said in January of 2010 (via the New York Times): "The so-called steroid era...is clearly a thing of the past."
As long as you ignore the nine failed tests at the major league level since Selig entered those words into the public record. Not to mention the countless minor league suspensions and Ryan Braun's failed test that was subsequently waived on a technicality.
As long as you ignore the fact that baseball's testing protocol focuses on urine samples instead of blood samples, which is the most effective way to detect HGH use.
Not to mention that carbon isotope ratio testing is only used if initial tests turn up something suspicious despite CIR being the most effective way to detect the use of synthetic testosterone, according to Balco founder and doping savant Victor Conte (via SFGate.com).
Or what about the proliferation of pitchers hitting triple digits? That once was the holy grail of flame-throwing, but now it seems as if every team has at least one hard thrower capable of the trick.
While we're here, why limit the discussion to baseball? Why should America's pastime be clean when every other sport under the sun seems to enjoy chemically enhanced perks?
Take the NBA: Its anti-drug program took hostile fire from the World Anti-Doping Agency, and the response seems to have been that PEDs are unlikely to help in basketball anyway.
Anyone who's played competitive basketball in high school or beyond or who's run in a hard pickup game after his or her mid-20s can call shenanigans on that one between peals of laughter. If it aids in recovery, it could do wonders on a basketball court.
Meanwhile, LeBron James was roughly the size of an NFL linebacker when he was 18, Dwight Howard looks like he was Weird Science'd from an X-Men action figure, and Dwyane Wade is a perpetual motion machine like Rip Hamilton, except he's carrying around an additional 30 pounds of muscle.
Over in the NFL, men the size of small automobiles move around the gridiron like very angry water bugs, and everyone looks like a comic book superhero.
Even the kickers might be getting in on the action.
Through Week 6 of the 2012-13 season, placekickers had made almost as many field goals in excess of 50 yards as were made in the entirety of the 2001 and 2002 seasons (tip o' the cap to B/R colleagues Scott Kacsmar and Dave Finocchio).
This despite the move to a k-ball in 1999 that, by all accounts, made kicking more difficult.
Pick a sport, any sport and the evidence continues to mount.
In the seven Tours de France won by Lance Armstrong, 33 of the 35 top-five finishers have been implicated in doping scandals. The UFC allows a therapeutic use exemption for testosterone replacement therapy so that 35-year-olds can train like 25-year-olds.
Over in track and field, Usain Bolt is the fastest sprinter in the history of the world yet looks like he could rip a phonebook in half on the way to the finish line, and athletes are still getting popped for PEDs despite the most advanced testing available.
But let's be clear: The point is not to suggest any of the individuals mentioned is actually on a PED.
Absent any reason to the contrary, the individual is entitled to a presumption of innocence, and genetic lottery winners definitely do exist. Toss in the evolution of training, pregame preparation, dietary understanding and, voila, you have bigger, stronger athletes breaking records.
Furthermore, I don't advocate heaping scorn on those players who have been caught up in the PED net.
If you have a problem with performance-enhanced athletes, you should direct your animosity at the league front offices, the owners and the players unions' brass before taking aim at the players. Those are the entities that are charged with the protection of the game, and they are the ones with the most realistic power to do so.
You do not ask the lunatics to run the asylum.
Owners and leagues have been known to lock out players over financial concerns, yet they throw up their hands as if they're powerless when it comes to PED use.
The unions would, of course, fight any attempt to force the most effective doping tests into a CBA even though they would help dispel suspicions and protect those players who want to compete while clean (which should be the majority if the Steroid Era is dying out, right?).
What's more is that those groups enjoy only marginally better returns thanks to PED use. Sure, maximum performance makes for maximum dollars, but owners/commissioners/union heads will be lucrative positions whether the game is clean or dirty.
On the other hand, if you have a system of PED detection that tolerates a significant level of use, the difference between competing clean or dirty for a player can be life-altering. For many of these guys, it really boils down to a needle/pill and professional success...or the moral high ground and professional failure.
That's one of those choices that's easy to make until the hypothetical becomes reality.
As for the ol' athletes-as-role-models chestnut, it sounds good, except it's like fixing the hole in the ozone layer by requiring everyone to wear SPF 1000 sun block. To solve a problem, you must attack it rather than a symptom of the problem.
Regardless of where you stand on the PED issue, however, the prevalence of historic or otherwise extraordinary performances combined with the number of known dopers casts a justifiable shadow of doubt over these sports.
Which brings us back to the media.
That same group that was so beside itself with guilt in the aftermath of the home run explosion in baseball is...where?
Oddly silent as Braun—who, fresh off a narrow escape courtesy of a flimsy excuse, finishes second in the 2012 National League MVP voting. Nowhere to be heard when Melky Cabrera gets a nice, fat contract following a year in which he served a 50-game suspension for PED use.
Yasmani Grandal, Carlos Ruiz, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner—all professional athletes of some repute who've all fallen into the PED trap in the last month (here, here and here). Still no concerted outcry.
Ironically, portions of the media are fretting over the "bygone" Steroid Era and its implications on the Baseball Hall of Fame. Others have moved on to concussions in football or the NHL lockout or something LeBron-related in the NBA.
And that is the point.
If performance-enhancing drugs were once a serious problem, they are still a serious problem. The issue hasn't been resolved simply because a vocal chorus says so.
Alas, that's precisely where we are.
Welcome to the Age of Hypocrisy.