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Ken Burns' The Tenth Inning: A New Perspective on Steroids in Baseball

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Ken Burns' The Tenth Inning: A New Perspective on Steroids in Baseball
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
A baseball fan holds up a syringe to heckle a player during the steroid era

Ken Burns’ documentary The Tenth Inning aired nationally last week, picking up on his original nine-inning documentary series, Baseball.  One of the central themes of the documentary was how rampant steroid use in baseball shaped the state of the game from the post-strike period until now. 

Now, I’m not here to review the doc, which was great.  I’m here to give a little perspective on steroid use in baseball.  My opinion started to evolve this summer while working in the minors as the broadcast and media relations intern for the Kinston Indians, Cleveland’s Advanced-A affiliate.  Burns’ documentary only helped to reinforce those new-found beliefs.

I used to be like the majority of baseball fans, disgusted that these macho players had taken more shots than a frat guy on his 21st birthday and were cheating their way into the record books.  This past season made me realize that baseball is so much harder than people think.  Fans believe that players just show up, take batting practice and play baseball, and have the easiest and best job in the world. 

What most fans don’t appreciate is the difficulty of surviving the grind of playing stretches that can be as many as 30 days in a row without a off day.  The players go through 140 games in a minor league season and 162 in the majors.  I was just working for the team in a non-labor intensive job, and even I was mentally and physically exhausted by the time mid-August came around. 

The players, who are going through workouts, batting practice and the game itself, are all afflicted by bumps, bruises and injuries of some sort.  There is not a single player that isn’t hurting and/or tired by the time the stretch run comes around. 

How much do you think minor league ballplayers make?  Sure, early-round draft picks make big bonuses, but after that, everyone might as well be selling popcorn at the stadium for how much they get in salary. 

Where am I going with this?  There are so many players trying to make it to the majors and fringe major leaguers fighting just to keep their jobs.  Those that have a fairly stable spot in the majors, still have the battle to make more money and gain recognition along with winning awards and championships. 

It takes so much more than talent to be successful in baseball.  Players have to be able to stay consistent through the everyday grind and avoid major injury.    

Along came steroids.  Here’s a drug that will help your body recover through the long grind of a season, increase strength and muscle and improve baseball performance.  That helps players to get to the majors, stay in the majors and make more money.  Oh, and everyone is doing it, so if you don’t, the playing field is tilted against you.  Good luck making it to the major leagues, young prospect, and good luck staying there, crafty veteran. 

I almost forgot to mention, baseball is the one sport where you can do steroids and get away with it!  They won’t even test you!

Of course, there are a plethora of short-term side effects and long-term health risks that arise with steroids that still make them wise to turn down.

I don’t know who originally said this but it makes sense: “If you could take a shot or a pill to earn more money at your job wouldn’t you do it?”  Baseball players are constantly in the spotlight and are under immense pressure to perform at the highest level. 

My intent is not to apologize for the players, but just to present their reasoning.  Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire are the faces of the steroid era for their record-breaking performances, but there were plenty of unidentified users during that time period who in some way owed their jobs to the juice. 

It’s a sad commentary on that time, and it’s refreshing to see some signs that the era is over.  There have been six no-hitters in 2010, including Roy Halladay’s postseason no-no on Wednesday.  According to Baseball-Reference.com, this season featured the lowest ERAs in each league since 1992 and fewest home runs per game since 1993.  The purists are thrilled, but those who grew up in the homer-happy era might start pining for the long ball sometime soon. 

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