Lissi of the MLBlog … posted a paper she wrote about the use of Instant Replay in Major League Baseball. (Very intresting, check it out!) So, I figured why not do the same? I wrote this a few weeks ago and got an A on it. It explains my true feelings on the steroid era and who is to blame for it…
QUICK NOTE: I used the book “Game of Shadows” as a source here, but as of right now I still haven’t finished the book yet. Had to put it aside to focus more on schoolwork. The stuff I used in the paper was from the begining chapters.
Point Fingers at Many, Place Blame on One.
I am writing this as your casual, everyday sports fan. Someone who just enjoys watching ESPN and going to games no matter what sport it is. Ok, you likely won’t see me waiting in line for tickets to the World Figure Skating Championship or find me clearing my schedule so I won’t miss watching the World Series of Poker, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy watching those when they do catch my eye.
I’m not a stats guy either. I don’t know how to really add up a batting average. I don’t care who had the most sacks on the season. And why anyone knows – or wants to know – who scores the most 3-pointers on days when the full moon lands on the 5th day of the month in even numbered years I still can’t figure out! I just consider myself a fan of the competition of the game. I’d much rather just sit back and enjoy the game than try to figure out who is doing what in my fantasy league. To me, skill outweighs stats.
At least, it used to… It seems that athletes in sports – especially in baseball – under the pressure to win titles and receive big-money contracts worth millions of dollars are treating the game more like work rather than actually having fun doing what they love. It almost seems that players forgotten about the fans and the “love of the game” so they could focus their attention to breaking unbreakable records and assuring their spot in Cooperstown.
Thus brings us to what is now known as “The Steroid Era” in baseball. You may have heard of it… it’s only on every bleepin’ time you watch SportsCenter! About two decades ago, performance-enhancing drugs were only used by a few aging players trying to squeeze a few more years out of their careers. It wasn’t until a 2002 story in Sports Illustrated that the public finally realized how big of a problem it had become when Ken Caminiti, the 1996 National League MVP, came out a and said “I’ve made a ton of mistakes; I don’t think using steroids is one of them.” And, “At first, I felt like I was a cheater. But I looked around, and everybody was doing it” (Verducci).
I was 12 when I read that article and I felt enraged, confused and heartbroken all at the same time. For the first time in my young life, I truly felt cheated by those I looked up to. I had always loved baseball and to discover that just about everyone in MLB were not only using but really didn’t think it was that bad to do just turned my world upside down.
Caminiti later said in the same article, “If a young player were to ask me what to do, I’m not going to tell him it’s bad… I can’t say, ‘Don’t do it,’ not when the guy next to you is as big as a house and he’s going to take your job and make the money” (Verducci). Of course, he said these things as a former alcoholic and drug abuser who would die two-and-a-half years later in at the age of 41 from an enlarged heart – likely from the steroids – and a drug overdose. But, the echoes of what he said about himself and many others in Major League Baseball still ring in the minds of fans everywhere.
Drugs like steroids and Human Growth Hormone (HGH) while illegal now, were rampant in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. And even though the NBA and NFL had a steroid policy and regular drug testing, MLB had neither. They did, however, have a testing system in the Minor Leagues. Tom Verducci, head baseball writer for SI, sat down with a minor league outfielder named “Pete.” Pete told Verducci that “Last year [I] tested positive for steroids under the program administered by Major League Baseball. So did several other players on [my] team. Here’s what happened to them: nothing.” He continued by adding “Pete says the follow-up to his positive test was familiar to any minor leaguer on steroids: A club employee told him he had tested positive, warned him about the danger of steroids and sent him on his way.”
Times have changed since then. MLB now has a strict policy on performance-enhancing drugs. The league has made PSA’s about the negative effect steroids can have on kids’ growing bodies. The U.S. Congress has stepped in to try and stop the use of steroids by athletes in major sports. And, of course, you can’t turn on any news show about sports without hearing something about someone using.
It can be best summed up like this, “O.K., performance-enhancing drugs… bad. Athletes who use them… bad. Influencing kids to use them… bad. On to the next problem” (McCallum).
That next problem is figuring out who, or what, exactly is to blame for the steroid era in the first place. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially when you think about all the factors that have led to it. I’ll do my best to give my opinions as to how and why these reasons have contributed to the use of steroids in baseball and why one factor deserves the most blame of all.
#1 – The 1994-95 MLB Strike. Due to a labor dispute over a salary cap between the MLB Players Association and the team owners, the players walked out on their job – and the fans – which led to the cancellation of the ’94 postseason, the World Series and the beginning or the ’95 season as scheduled. As a result, fans turned away from the game. TV ratings and ballpark attendance went down, fans showed their anger by protesting outside of stadiums or by throwing things onto the field, and one fan “paid for a plane to fly over Riverfront Stadium that dragged a sign reading ‘Owners & Players: To hell with all of you!'” (“1994 Major League Baseball strike”) The game was on the verge of dying and desperately needed something to dig baseball out of the hole they dug themselves into.
#2 – The 1998 Home Run Race. Baseball needed something big, and I mean BIG, to bring fans back to the game. I was still rather young at the time, but I know fans were still reluctant to return after the strike and were begging for a reason to come back. So when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were battling to break Roger Maris’ record of 61 regular-season home runs, it caught everyone’s attention. I think most expected McGwire to be the one to break the record and after trading the lead with Sosa a few times, he not only broke the record, he shattered it with 70 HR on the season.
But, there may have been a catch to McGwire’s success in ’98… While waiting to talk to “Big Mac” after a game, a writer for the Associated Press started to write down what was in plain view in McGwire’s locker. He found bottles of something called Androstenedione which the writer thought was some type of vitamin. But Andro was really a testosterone boosting steroid that at the time was already banned by the International Olympic Committee, the NCAA and the NFL. (Fainaru-Wada/Williams, xii-xiii)Did Major League Baseball care that McGwire was technically cheating while he broke one of the biggest records in all of sports? No. No steroid testing existed in MLB then, so I guess they all thought – from the clubhouses to MLB HQ – No Harm, No Foul.
#3 – The Players and Team Owners. Greed was a big a factor in the MLB Strike in ’94. Players wanted more money and the owners wanted to keep the cash for themselves. After the strike, owners became a bit more understanding. The players, however, were still money-hungry and knew the union wasn’t going to help them this time. They knew the only way to get more money was to get a big-money contract and the only way to do that was to find a way to up their game. Enter steroids and HGH. Fueled by greed, pressure and the fact that McGwire more or less got away with it, Baseball became juiced… and juiced fast. And the team owners were starting to encourage the use because they were selling tickets at the fastest rate in years.
#4 – Barry Bonds, Victor Conte and BALCO. Victor Conte Jr. was describe in the book “Game of Shadows” by Mark Fainari-Wada and Lance Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle, which goes in-depth into the steroids scandal as someone who felt like he could take on the world. His father would introduce him by saying “This is my son Victor. He’s never worked a day in his life,” (7) but Conte actually helped run rock bands including “Tower of Power” with his cousin in 1977 before both were fired from the group. (8-9) He and his wife started a health supply store, but Conte wanted to “turn the couple’s legitimate business into a moneymaker.” After reading dozens of books on nutrition and biochemistry, Conte closed the health store and turned it into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative – BALCO.
Conte went on to help dozens of athletes, including Marion Jones, Greg Tafralis, and Jim Doehring (1-6, 16-17) all of whom are former Olympic athletes who were busted for, you guessed it, steroids. Surprisingly, after they were caught they held no ill-will toward BALCO or Conte.
Barry Bonds was destined for greatness in baseball. His father, Bobby Bonds, and his Godfather, Willy Mays, are among the all-time greats the game has ever seen. But, Barry was also a jealous man if he saw anyone he thought was better than him at any level of the league. He saw the 1998 Home Run race between McGwire and Sosa as an insult and a challenge. After the ’98 season, Bonds’ ego suffered a blow. The game and its fans were less interested in a great RBI hitter who was good in the outfield; instead they wanted to see strength and power hitters launch the ball in to the stands. (Fainaru-Wada/Lance Williams, XV) Barry went to Conte and BALCO to bulk up and since then, He went from a very skinny frame to almost resembling an NFL linebacker. Bonds broke McGwire’s home run record by hitting 72, and Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record of 755 by hitting 762. And he has appeared in court countless time saying he never took steroids – and may have perjured him self in the process. The sad thing about Bonds is not that the reigning home run king cheated to get to his crown, but that he knows what he did and truly believes he did nothing wrong.
#5 – The Fans. I truly believe that we, the fans, are the ones who bear the most blame for the Steroid Era in baseball. We want to see the long-ball go over the centerfield wall. We want to watch the pitcher throw heaters at over 90 MPH. We watch to see the outfielders make the amazing diving grabs to end the game. And this is nothing new.
Steroids have been a while now, and even after the strike “MLB attendance has hovered
around 70 million per season since 1998,” in 2007 attendance “reached a record 79,502,524” (Rolfe) We drove the sport and its players to cheat in order to entertain us.
Do we really care that McGwire and Bonds cheated? Not really. We want to see a show so we can feel like we got our money’s worth when we’re at the games and so we don’t feel like we wasted a day watching on TV. And if that’s a bit too theoretical to except, let me try to spin it to you this way…
Take pro wrestling, a sport heavily influenced by its fans – just like baseball. It’s also a sport where steroids have been known to be in high demand. Now, forgetting about when Vince McMahon was charged by the FBI for handing out steroids to his wrestlers, take two of the sports biggest stars that died way too soon.
Eddie Guerrero was one of the greatest wrestlers ever. He overcame being an Alcoholic and drug addict to become WWE Champion. But, in 2005, days after he celebrated his 4-year sobriety and just hours before he was set to win his 2nd World Title, Eddie was found dead in his hotel room from a heart attack at age 38. The years of drinking and drug abuse caught up with him. He should have been wrestling part time, but continued to go full-time because of how much he loved to perform for the fans.
I don’t think I really need to go detail about Chris Benoit, the wrestler who snapped and killed his wife and 7 year old son before himself. I will say as a fan of his, it was not “‘roid rage” like everyone assumes. Instead, Benoit’s brain was like an 80 year old Alzheimer’s patient as a result of his countless performing of his fan’s favorite move… a flying headbutt off the top turnbuckle.
Is baseball going to wait until someone dies on the field until they do something about the steroid issue? I’m praying it doesn’t come to that. But some players are worried it will, like pitcher Kenny Rogers. “We’re the closest ones to the hitter,” he said “I don’t want the ball coming back at me any faster. It’s a wonder it hasn’t happened already. When one of us is down there dead on the field, then something might happen. Maybe.” He continued by saying, “And if it’s me, I’ve already given very clear instructions to my wife: Sue every one of their *****. Because everybody in baseball knows what’s been going on” (Verducci). Let’s hope that never happens.
The game has survived worse than this, like the many league strikes, the Black Sox scandal and Pete Rose betting on his own team. But this problem isn’t going away. Not as long as Barry’s in court, McGwire continues to “Not talk about the past,” new test results come out and new masking agents are being made.
For a brief moment, I really thought this season was going to be different. But, when the A-Rod story broke, I knew that the Steroid Era in baseball isn’t ending any time soon.
Fainaru-Wada, Mark and Lance Williams. Game of Shadows. New York: Gotham
McCallum, Jack. “Steroids in America: the Real Dope.” Sports Illustrated (11March
2008) 27 Feb 2009.
Rolfe, John. “You, too.” Sports Illustrated (18 Dec 2007) 27 Feb 2009.
Verducci, Tom. “Totally Juiced.” Sports Illustrated (3 June 2002) 25 Feb 2009.
Wikipedia, 1994 Major League Baseball Strike 26 Feb 2009.