On Thursday night, August 26, 2010, St. Louis Cardinals 1st baseman Albert Pujols reached quite a milestone in record time, as he hit his 400th home run against the Washington Nationals. He became the third youngest player to do so in major league history, and the first ever to hit 400 homers inside of ten full seasons. Ten years ago, this might very well have been the biggest story of the day. We have one of the biggest names in the game, possibly the biggest baseball superstar of the generation, hitting long balls at a blistering pace. Yet preseason football is stealing coverage from one man's quest for baseball immortality. One might ask, "What's the reason?"
The answer is simple: the 1990's. After the players strike in 1994, the sport was all but dead to most fans. Baseball needed a spark and needed it quickly, but what could it be? How could league officials get us all interested in the game again? This question brought us the most explosive, yet ultimately most destructive era in professional baseball history: the long ball era.
Winding the ball tighter, raising the mound, and turning a blind eye to rampant steroid use had the game as exciting as it had ever been. Every season brought us multiple players hitting 40 and 50 home runs. Guys in there mid-thirties were suddenly staying healthy and hitting 60-70 home runs a year in what was supposed to be the twilight of their careers. It was anarchy, and we loved every minute of it.
Even Barry Bonds, who would've gone down as one of the leagues best ever anyway, felt compelled to keep up in the "arms race". In the decade that followed, it became evident exactly why all these hitters were so explosive, as people started asking questions that we really knew the answers to all along. "How are all these guys who are pushing forty not slowing down?"
Over the course of the 2000's, investigation after investigation produced list after list that linked many of our heroes from a decade ago to a collage of performance enhancing drugs. By the time congress got involved, it was already clear that much of the 90's was a sham. A number of players were dragged in front cameras and drilled with questions about their involvement in the use of growth hormones and steroids of all types. They compounded their shame with denial, completely ruining the integrity of the game for generations past, present, and possibly future.
Even Alex Rodriguez' 600th home run came and went this season with little care or concern from the public, as he too has been outed as a "cheater." Unfortunately, any player who played during this shamed era can't pass a milestone unscathed. The question is always in the back of our mind, if the answer isn't in the forefront: "Did they cheat?"
Since then, hitting numbers have finally gotten a bit more pedestrian. So congratulations, Albert, as you very well may be one of the good ones. Maybe by the time you get to 600 or 700 home runs, we will finally be able to put this whole mess behind us. I for one hope so. Until then, keep plugging along and doing it the right way. Our parents taught us that hard work and dedication pay off, and cheaters get caught. Many of the cheaters have been caught, and the time for hard work has returned.