The Steroid Era: A Fan’s Lament

I’ve been a baseball fan, and a Giants fan for over thirty years. I’ve seen good teams, average teams and bad teams. I’ve seen different styles of play within baseball over the course of my time being a baseball fan. I have mixed feelings about the steroid era, because one of the biggest stars, Barry Bonds played for my team, the Giants. He was one of the prime players of the steroid era; although, there are certainly other big players who used and abused steroids, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and Roger Clemens.


I have my own recollections and beliefs about the steroid era in baseball I do believe that the roots of the steroid era go back to the 1994 Baseball Strike. The baseball owners were trying to limit how much players made in their contracts first using collusion, and then, an arbitrary salary cap. The players and their powerful union were not willing to accept this prospect. (I accept that players do make a lot of money, but it is so difficult to make it to that level of play, and most baseball careers are so short. Human nature being what it is, I think that you would be really hard pressed to find a person who wouldn’t accept millions of dollars to play a professional sport. However, not only is it hard to get to the top level, but it is equally difficult to stay there). The last quarter of the 1994 baseball season was cancelled including the All-Star Game and the playoffs. The owners were even looking into the possibility of using of replacement players, a horrible idea.


In the aftermath of the strike with the requisite frustration and disgust of the fans, the owners needed to have something drastic and dramatic to bring fans back to the game of baseball. While I do sincerely love the consecutive game streak of Cal Ripken, Jr. who passed Lou Gehrig, this streak was just not enough nor sexy enough to bring back the fans to baseball nor was it big enough for fans across the country to embrace (On a personal note, I made the decision to not go to one baseball game in 1995).


Major League Baseball was suffering financially due to the aftermath of the strike. Somehow, the idea percolated that homeruns would be the way to bring back the fans. It was not a bad idea until it got mixed up with video games, and the thought of how players could hit more homeruns. “Better living through chemistry.” Canseco was already using steroids, and had probably turned Mark McGwire onto this idea. Of course, ballplayers talk like everyday friends talk, and this is probably how the idea spread throughout the players. The owners and Commissioner were looking away, and besides they wouldn’t be penalized if their players were doing something that wasn’t entirely illegal yet.


There are two significant problems in the steroid era—one, is that it’s made the homerun records look like they’re from an out-of-sync video game. The home run totals are just ridiculous, and unfortunately, there is no way to correct this aberration. I don’t think that most fans were not fully aware of how out of proportion the homerun totals would eventually end up, but they are certainly aware of this now. These home run totals are no longer the measure of baseball greatness that they once were. I have no doubt in my mind that Sammy Sosa would never have hit 60 homeruns once in a season let alone more than that, if not for steroids, nor would he have ever reached the 500 home run plateau. While the era, which I’m not entirely sure is over yet, was noted for big name stars who did steroids, there were a lot of lesser known players who did it to try to get an advantage or to try to make it to the major leagues. Ego and the struggle to make it to the highest levels of sports competition have driven these athletes to do this. Of course, baseball is not the only sport to have to deal with the effects of drug enhancement. One of the lessons to come out of this era, not just for baseball, but for all sports is that just because you weren’t caught doesn’t mean that you didn’t do it. I have seen instances of someone being found not guilty, and just because they were found not guilty does not mean that they are necessarily innocent. Of course, there are people like Lance Armstrong who have taken this to the nth degree…going after innocent people who knew that Armstrong was doping, and he went after them in a vicious personal vendetta. I have to wonder how Lance Armstrong can even look at himself in the mirror everyday. And, even worse, what message does this send to his children, as well as to other children who looked up to him as a hero? Somehow, with human flaws and tragedy, I always seem to reflect back on the ancient Greeks, or William Shakespeare, because they wrote about human frailties so well. And Lance Armstrong, to me, is the quintessential tragically flawed human being almost like Oedipus, with his prideful ego, was condemned by the gods to murder his father and marry his mother.


The other significant problem is that it throws the whole baseball world out of whack with some players who did it, and some players who didn’t do it. I once heard a baseball fan say that perhaps all players should do steroids. This is not the answer, because of the disastrous long-term toll that steroids take on the human body, and some athletes do not want their bodies subjected to these effects. Baseball has always prided itself on being played on a level playing field. And the use of steroids in baseball, and in professional sports, makes the playing field completely unfair. It is about competition, and how you have athletes competing against other athletes who have taken an unfair advantage against them.


While I know that the players who did PEDs or Performance Enhancing Drugs are now perceived as villains in this saga. However, I believe that the players are both partially victims and partially villains. They are struggling to have a professional career and establish themselves, knowing that someone is always pushing them from behind to get their roster spot and produce. No one is entirely blame-free in this, the steroid era. For a long-time, Major League Baseball, the Commissioner, Bud Selig, and the owners were not concerned with the sanctity of baseball’s records, and they did nothing to curtail the use of steroids. They were concerned with getting fans in the seats, and they viewed the best way to do this was with an extreme proliferation of homeruns. The Commissioner and Major League Baseball only acted when it became apparent that steroids would negatively impact how much money they would make, their bottom line. I think that the ethics of using steroids came much in later and only after the damage had already been done to the game, and the players.


As a fan, I know that home runs are certainly very exciting, and can be game changing, but the bottom line comes down to winning ballgames. One of the things that I loved about the 2012 San Francisco Giants is that they won the World Series while being last in the league in home runs; proof that you don’t need homeruns to win games. The last team to win the World Series, and also be last in the league in homeruns was the 1982 St Louis Cardinals. If you look at the teams that had big home run hitters in the late 1990’s, none of them won the World Series…not the Cubs, the Giants, the Cardinals or the Rangers, although, Roger Clemens did win the World Series with the Yankees.


I still like to believe in ethics, and the difference between right and wrong. Life becomes so much more difficult for the individual when they commit selfish greedy acts for their own personal benefit. Baseball, like most sports, is a team sport, and requires the co-operation of your teammates, and working together to win. You win and you lose as a team, even though there are multiple individual competitions throughout the course of any baseball game.


I am not going to address the past usage of PEDs, which started in the late-1990’s, because I think that this has been re-hashed to death. I am going to address two specific instances of PED usage. The first one I’m going to mention is from 2012 with Melky Cabrera, because I think it does horrible things to a team when one selfish player puts himself above the team. The Giants could have folded up, and collapsed. Melky Cabrera made significant contributions in the first half of the season, which included being named All-Star Game MVP. I think that since he was looking at pending free agency, he chose to take the risk and go for it in hopes of getting more money. The Giants were on the verge of offering him a huge multi-year contract, I believe, before his steroid use was exposed, and Melky considered trying to use some excuse to cover it up. I actually believe that Melky’s use of steroids not only cost him a great deal of money, but his professional reputation; he would have gotten more dollars and more years than he got from the Toronto Blue Jays had he not used steroids in the first place. What I absolutely loved about the 2012 Giants team is that they re-grouped, and played together better as a team than they had with Melky Cabrera. Yes, he received a World Series share and a World Series ring, but I think he short-circuited his chance to actually play in the playoffs and in a World Series, which is every player’s ultimate goal, or should be their ultimate goal.


The other instance of steroid use I would like to address is Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees. It now becomes apparent that he had a long history of steroid use, and I’m not sure how far back it goes. It amazes me that you have great players with so much natural talent they are willing to do this to their bodies in the name of trying to either get more money or get significant sports records. It’s surprising, because the records seem to mean less, and you can’t take money with you, and then, your reputation seems to have a dark mark next to it like an asterisk. I can also see in the stands at Yankee Stadium the conflict with the fans—you have some fans booing A-Rod, and you have some cheering for him, holding up signs that they support him. Every fan that rooted for a big slugger, now must struggle with their own ethical dilemma of having their own great memories from a tainted era. I watched a news clip of a fan of Ryan Braun’s, and aside from the money spent for Braun memorabilia I could see the general sadness within the guy and his family that their hero was human, and that he had failed himself and his fans. The fan used Ryan Braun as an object lesson that he had cheated, and they packed up Braun’s memorabilia replacing it with Green Bay Packers memorabilia. This is a sad reality of life, and yet, another black eye for baseball. A-Rod strikes me as a tragic figure, like Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds, as someone who is there, but who just won’t go away casting a shadow over the game.


It is nice to finally see players get the realization that steroids are bad for the game of baseball, and bad for sports, in general. I know that there were heroes in the steroid era, and great players who didn’t use steroids like Frank Thomas or Ken Griffey, Jr, but I also like the lesser known heroes like Rick Helling, former Marlins and Rangers pitcher who spoke up early about stopping steroid use and was shouted down, or AP journalist, Steve Wilstein, who discovered a brown bottle of Andro in McGwire’s locker in 1998, and started asking questions about it, especially since it was banned in football. If McGwire, Sosa and the others had come out honestly and said that they were doping to break baseball’s sacred records I might somehow have some respect for them. Instead, I am stuck looking at Jose Canseco, a slightly ridiculous character as someone who was honest enough to speak the truth about steroids. Do I really want Jose Canseco as a roll model? Not particularly, but I’d go with him and Rick Helling over those other players, owners or journalists who looked the other way while all of this was going on. My hope is that one day the steroid era will be a distant memory, but unfortunately, we‘re still stuck with those ridiculous looking homerun records.


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