Steroids in Baseball: Tinker to Evers to a Second Chance

Matthew DonatoCorrespondent IJune 26, 2008

It was so noticeable in its absence, like a recently passed loved one at a large family gathering.

Before this defeat, it had been an unyielding symbol of pride and tradition.  Both man and mother nature herself had tried to stop it, even for only a little while, and yet it had prevailed.

Now October of 1994 was without its festivities, and it was as unbelievable as Memorial Day without a parade, or the Fourth of July without fireworks.

The World Series, which had persisted perennially despite World Wars, an earthquake, and anything else that could stand in its way, was not held for the first time since 1904.

Had it happened, fans would likely have been treated to a series featuring the Montreal Expos and the New York Yankees, and perhaps this chance at a championship would have been the thing that saved baseball in Montreal.

Instead, it became a bitter insult to the fans of the league, because it was not war or a natural disaster or anything insurmountable attacking from the outside that prevented the end of the 1994 season—it was a disease that rotted from within.

Major League Baseball collapsed upon itself in a labor dispute and locked out many of its most loyal fans.  Attendance plummeted as many fans were not eager to forgive the league and the players for being so blind in their lust for money.

There seemed to be no revival in sight.  America was moving on, and Major League Baseball was being left behind.

Hope for the sullied tradition revealed itself in 1998, in the form of a year-long Home Run Derby that gripped the nation.  Three players—Ken Griffey, Jr., Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire—would take aim at the single-season record of 61 home runs, set by Roger Maris in 1961, and two would surpass this most fabled mark.

Because of this chase, and because one of baseball's most hallowed records was in jeopardy, baseball became a hot topic again in America.  It was debated and reveled like it hadn't been since before the player's strike, and attendance across the league began to noticeably increase.

Today, we know that at least one of those players who helped save baseball with his incredible home run tally that season, Mark McGwire, was using steroids.  Although steroid use was not meant to last in baseball, its brief impact revived the league, and despite its many evils, succeeded in doing many good things.

One negative that did emerge once it became clear that players were using steroids were the dishonestly broken records, and many fans felt that they had been drawn back into their relationship with baseball under false pretenses.

Once it was revealed by the Associated Press' Steve Wilstein that McGwire had taken androstenedione, the joyous story of his home run record became a debate about greatness and integrity that has only swollen further in the decade since.

Now greats like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have also come under fire with allegations of their own steroid use.  Just how good were these players?  Would they have been Hall of Famers without the help of steroids?  How do they compare with the hitting and pitching legends that came before and after them who did not participate in the abuse of steroids?

Fortunately, baseball is not completely about statistics.  It is difficult to compare numbers between any two eras due to all the variables, and adding unknown steroid use makes it almost impossible.  Every baseball fan has his or her own favorite players, and will rank players differently from other fans.

Even though Barry Bonds has the most home runs now, fans are still well within their rights to argue that Hank Aaron is still the home run king, that Babe Ruth is still the greatest power hitter of all time, or that Josh Gibson could hit the ball further than any man who has ever lived.

A player's greatness is all based on opinion, with statistics there only to back it up, and that will never change.

Because of this, steroid use is just another variable, such as the height of the mound or the distance of the mound from the plate, that has not remained consistent throughout the history of the game.

Another problem that surfaced once some of baseball's heroes were exposed as steroid users was how parents would be able to explain the situation to their children.  This was especially problematic for parents whose children were old enough to understand the concept of steroid use, and had the means to obtain it.

Although suspected and proven steroid users across the league have found success in multi-million dollar contracts, awards, and postseason success, parents and society still have to prove that these men did so without honor and, because they cheated, have lost their credibility.

Rafael Palmeiro was ready to become one of the few men in Major League Baseball history to accumulate 3,000 hits and 500 home runs in his career when he appeared before the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  While pointing his finger at the questioning senators, he declared that he had never used steroids in his life.

Later that same year, Palmeiro was suspended for 10 games for taking what the New York Times reported was a steroid called Stanozolol.

Parents can use Palmeiro as an example about how the public feels about those who cheat to get ahead.  Players like Palmeiro are the opportunity within this crisis.

No matter how successful he was in his career, or how much he earned during that career, he will never receive the same amount of respect, even in the cities he played for, as those who do not fall under the shadow of steroids.

The Mitchell Report may not have even happened were it not for the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's investigation into steroid abuse within Major League Baseball and the inability to police the illegal use of such drugs by its players.

The committee was worried that teenagers were being tempted to use steroids based on the example that professional players were setting.  Those who spoke before the committee were Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling, Frank Thomas, Jose Canseco, and as previously mentioned, Rafael Palmeiro.

During his opening statement in regards to a player being asked if they have used steroids, McGwire said, “If a player answers 'No,' he simply will not be believed.  If he answers 'Yes,' he risks public scorn and endless government investigations."

In the court of public opinion, most sluggers of this era are already considered guilty.  Every era of baseball had power hitters, and if they could hit so well without using steroids, then there is a chance that some sluggers of the last decade or two were able to perform at that level on their own.

Baseball has had many great hitters during this era, including Ken Griffey, Jr., Vladimir Guerrero, and Manny Ramirez, whose integrity has never come into question.

Jose Canseco, who before testifying before the House Committee had written a book about his use of steroids over his career that also named a few other players as having injected or purchased steroids, requested immunity for his testimony.

When it wasn't granted, he kept his answers guarded, but he chastised the media for blaming the players when it was Major League Baseball that condoned the behavior of the players by not testing properly for steroids.

In an interview before his testimony, Canseco estimated that 85 percent of professional baseball players were using steroids at some point.  Curt Schilling would later plead that the committee and the nation should not listen to Canseco, flatly stating, “He's a liar.”

It may be that Canseco was merely trying to promote himself with his book and return to the spotlight, but McGwire's insistence that he did not want to talk about the past and avoidance of questions about his alleged illegal steroid use, along with Palmeiro's staunch testimony that would soon blow up in his face, discredited them in the long run.

Although the government decided not to seek perjury claims against Palmeiro because they were unable to determine whether he had taken steroids before his testimony to the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, or if he did for his first time afterwards, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are both currently under investigation for perjury regarding their steroid use.

If they are found to have lied under oath, then there will be solid grounds to use them as examples in the same way that Palmeiro was vilified for his hypocrisy.

Parents do not need much more than the stories of these men and their career- and life-altering choices to prove to their children that steroids can come with dire social consequences, even without the specifics of their dire health effects.

Nobody wants the baggage that would come from being the next vilified superstar, and the peer pressure of a nation that disapproves of the use of steroids could help discourage young athletes from taking the drug.

The Mitchell Report claimed to have found enough evidence on 86 current and former major league players to have listed them in Congress's official steroid investigation.

Most of this evidence came from the investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO), the testimony of former New York Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, the testimony of former New York Yankees personal trainer and conditioning coach Brian McNamee, and newspaper reports, although one player admitted his use in a phone interview for the investigation.

The overwhelming majority of evidence came from the Radomski testimony, who was cooperating with officials in exchange for a lighter sentence after pleading guilty to distributing steroids and money laundering.

Since so much of the evidence came from one source that had something to gain from his testimony, it would not take much to believe that there were more players involved in steroid abuse that the investigation failed to reveal, or players who were falsely accused.

Because of this, it is difficult to accept this report as being the definitive list of professional baseball players that participated in steroid abuse.  Considering the Mitchell Report has been the most extensive investigation into steroids within Major League Baseball, there is a good chance that some players who participated in steroid abuse will never be brought to light.

Since fans cannot control the situation and will never know the complete truth about the practice of steroid abuse among Major League Baseball players, it may be best to accept the steroid era as a time when huge offensive numbers and scandal renewed baseball and made it relevant again.

The announcement of the Mitchell Report kept baseball in the front pages, even though it was the offseason, and the speculation of steroids in baseball has been a feature of news broadcasts for years, catching the attention of Americans who otherwise would not have cared much about baseball.

Dating back to May of 2002, the Vanderbilt University News Archive has counted 165 stories about steroids and baseball on CNN, Fox News, NBC, CBS, and ABC—and that does not even count the stories featured on ESPN or any other cable sports channel.

Some in the public relations field argue that all publicity is good publicity, and for better or for worse, America was enthralled with what was happening in baseball.

Baseball players have been trying to get an edge for as long as the game has existed.  These methods vary from superstitious acts, like Wade Boggs's pre-game chicken meal or Nomar Garciaparra's adjustments between pitches, to illegal maneuvers like sign-stealing, scuffing baseballs before they are pitched, or Gaylord Perry's spitball.

It was even said that back in his playing days, Ty Cobb would sharpen his cleats so that when he had to slide into second base on a steal, the player covering would hesitate to apply the tag for fear of serious injury.

Steroids were, at the time they started being used, simply the next in line on the progression of cheating within the sport.  Had they been more available in previous years, then the problems they caused would have started earlier, and dealt with in the same way earlier.

The players of today are no better or worse morally than players of any other era.  They just had access to the steroids.

This will not stop players from looking for an edge either.  There is too much at stake for them and their families.  Players struggling to stay in the league want to keep being paid professional baseball player money, and players who are above average want to be paid superstar money.

Players already get eye surgery to artificially improve their vision.  Who is to say that in the future there will not be surgeries to make muscles more durable and faster, a type of medication that would let you make better pitch decisions, or a drink that would make you run faster?  How would the public accept players that took these advantages?

There will always be players who are willing to go first and test the waters.  Steroid abuse was not always illegal in baseball.  When Mark McGwire admitted to taking androstenedione during the 1998 season, it was not banned in Major League Baseball.

Getting an edge on the competition is part of human nature.  It is something people seek in a working environment to make them stand out and get a job done better.

Working men and women are always after the latest technology to make their lives easier, and if your job is your body, then steroids during this latest era was that technology.

I have been good friends with some men who admit to having used steroids in the past.  Their claim at the time (2004) was if steroids are taken in the proper dosage and are used on a cycle, then they would have no adverse health effects.

Researchers have discovered that use of anabolic steroids can lead to, among other things, tumors, acne, and infertility.  Since my friends were not qualified researchers, one must take the word of the scientists who did the study.

In defense of the friends though, their claim was made before Major League Baseball was under investigation, and steroid research findings had not yet been brought to the forefront.

This has been another positive outcome of baseball's steroid scandal—these friends have since stopped using steroids because they are now aware of what could happen to their bodies if they continued abusing steroids.  They may not have found out if baseball had not made it a front page issue.

It is a situation similar to tobacco use in the past.  People used to think that it could not hurt you but now know better thanks to high profile research.  Without Major League Baseball's scandal, steroids may never have undergone such high profile research.

Baseball players are part of a fraternity, and that fraternity is governed by the rules set forth by Major League Baseball.  If one player like Jose Canseco found success with the help of steroids and had no repercussions from the league, other players who might not have taken steroids on their own would have taken his lead and begun using themselves, thinking that under the new circumstances, it was completely acceptable.

Doris Lessing wrote in her essay “Group Minds” that it only takes one person in a group to step over the line of what is acceptable without anyone else in the group stopping him for that thing that was once immoral and unacceptable to all of a sudden become acceptable.

The players waited for Major League Baseball to stop them, and Major League Baseball felt it had too much to lose by putting an end to their practices.  This stalemate could have continued indefinitely had Congress not stepped in.

For all of its strengths and weaknesses, the steroid era brought about the revival of fans.  In 1993, the last full season before the strike, the average Major League team drew 2,509,212 fans over the course of the season.

In 1995, the first full season after the strike, the average team only drew 1,802,472 fans over the course of the season.

By the home run chase of 1998, attendance had climbed back up to 2,353,371 fans over the course of the season, but the the number of fans that would go to support the average baseball team would not pass its record high from 1993 until the 2006 season.

Last season, with steroids under investigation and all the buzz about stricter testing and reform swirling around the league, attendance for the league as a whole jumped by a total of 3,488,145 fans.

Purging the league of steroids was the final act in the circle to entice new fans with more home runs and offense in general, and then make a scandal of it that caught everyone's attention, completely redeeming Major League Baseball from its strike.

This also brought about a new generation of fans who were too young to remember the bitterness of 1994, as well as casual fans who got caught up in the scandal and front page news that baseball had become.

The investigations into the health risks that surrounded steroids also became focal news topics, opening the eyes of many young athletes who felt that steroid use could be done without any adverse effects to their health.  The exposure and subsequent humiliation of some of the sport's best players have been further examples of the social stigma that comes with cheating.

Steroids united fans with great offensive numbers, and then, upon their revelation, united fans against cheating.  Now they have united fans by getting their sport back to the way it was meant to be played.

For all of its evils, steroids did a world of good, and we are better for it.  We strengthened ourselves from this problem like one develops an immunity to a sickness after getting it once.

When historians look back on the steroid era, they will see something resembling the death and rebirth of a phoenix—with the ravages of age being the strike of 1994; the flames being the inflated offensive numbers, shattered records, and government investigations; and the healthy young phoenix that is reborn as the state of baseball now and in the future.

Attendance at games are higher than ever, the sport is gaining popularity in other parts of the world, and to the delight of all baseball fans in this new world, the game will be clean again—at least until the next artificial advantage comes around.