Baseball, Steroids & the Conscience of America

Alan ThomsonCorrespondent IDecember 3, 2008

The cork is out of the bottle so to speak.

The Mitchell Report was the official declaration that performance enhancing drugs have infiltrated Major League Baseball on a mass scale. Commissioner Bud Selig and baseball’s powers that be have shifted into full crisis management mode, attempting to minimize the steroid related spillage and restore their venerable product’s reputation.

In any other sport, this would not be the public relations nightmare that it is. Baseball, however, like no other sport, is held to the loftiest of standards by both its fans and sportswriters.

The reason for the collective outrage over the steroid flap is the very reason that baseball will survive: Baseball is a brand that is inextricably connected to the conscience of America.

Performance-enhancing drugs are known to be rampant in sports, both amateur and professional, and have been for quite a number of years. Athletes from virtually every sport imaginable have tested positive for steroids including tennis players, swimmers and yes, even a ping pong player back in 2003.

Yet, until it had crossed inside the foul lines of the baseball diamond, it somehow seemed to be taken in stride by the writers, sports fans and the general public.

Tennis is as popular as ever, the retirement of Anna Kournikova notwithstanding.

We still tune into the Olympics every fourth year and root for our shower-capped compatriots to dominate the pool and win the gold.

As for ping pong, I doubt that there are any fewer basements with a folded up ping pong table wedged into a corner as the result of any failed drug tests.

Granted, tennis, swimming and ping pong are not exactly the staples of American sports. But even when compared to the other major sports, baseball is looked at through a different set of sports goggles.

It’s almost as though no one has ever turned on a television set on a blustery Sunday afternoon in the fall. Isn’t it obvious that perhaps some of these football playing 340-pound lineman and running backs with biceps the size of Barry Bonds now infamous head have been fed something a bit more potent than corn? 

Yet, the masses remain unvexed. Not so when it comes to baseball. Baseball carries with it its own yardstick.

Why is baseball held to a higher standard than any of the other major American sports?

Basketball certainly doesn’t want for fan sentimentality, but it lacks baseball’s illustrious heritage. Football is smash mouth; it is without baseball’s inherent aura of innocence. It is where we go for three hours on shivery Sunday afternoons to rant and rave and let loose of the angst that we have accrued throughout the week.

Hockey is more of a northern U.S. and even Canadian sport. And soccer is...well, soccer.

Baseball is an extremely unique brand that represents something much deeper than athletes gallivanting across a field, tossing a ball about.

In order to understand what a brand represents, we need to understand its history. Baseball is a rare commodity in that it doesn’t just have a history. It is a part of history. It is Babe Ruth and Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.

It has served as a crutch that helped the nation through the Great Depression, World War II, and Vietnam. No matter what the circumstance, through our darkest hours, there stood the boys of summer, pinstriped and existing in a seemingly magical world where grown men could play a boys game.

And on Sept. 25, 2001, exactly two weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center, the Yankees returned home to Yankee Stadium for one of the most emotional nights in not just the history of sports, but perhaps in recent American history as well.

The nation watched as members of the New York police and fire departments joined the players on the field in a tearful pregame ceremony, an enormous American flag covering the outfield. Baseball is quintessential America. 

Now, as the result of its players having used illegal performance enhancers, baseball and the American conscience have taken a hit. Throughout history there have been many issues which have hit at the conscience of America, yet we persevere. What sustains us as a nation is our heritage, our history.

So it shall be with Major League Baseball. Its history is our history. The goodwill of its brand is rooted in the history of the goodwill of a nation. This is a type of brand equity that other business entities can only dream of. Rather than simply resting on its legacy, that legacy must be heavily promoted, at least until the crisis blows over and becomes footnoted as the “steroid era” of baseball.

Just as the nation has leaned on baseball in its times of trial, baseball now leans on the nation. But not to worry. Baseball and the nation are one and the same. People just need to be reminded. Nothing that some quality PR work can’t handle.