Quite a difference a few years makes, eh? In the mid 90s, PEDs were all but administered by teams themselves to their rapidly bulking players. The sport needed a revival; fans were upset about the strike in 1994 and many still hadn’t returned. Ratings were down, attendance was down, and the game wasn’t enjoying the same kind of success it had in decades prior. They needed something new, something exciting. Something to draw the outlier fans in. Something to bring in more advertising dollars.
Steroids and Baseball were meant to be together. Now, the league couldn’t outright endorse the usage of PEDs, but they did little to stop it. The year before the strike, 1993, Barry Bonds and Juan Gonzalez tied for the MLB lead in HR with 46. Including those 2, 5 men hit 40 HR. 3 years later, in 1996, two years after the strike, seventeen MLB players hit 40 or more HR, 6 of them with at least 45, and 2 over 50. In 1997, 12 more players eclipsed 40 HR, and Mark McGwire hit an eye-popping 58 round-trippers.
1998. The year of the dinger. McGwire hit 70. Sosa hit 66. Griffey Jr hit 56. 32 players hit 30 or more home runs. 7 million more people attended MLB games in 1998 than they did in 1997. 11 million more than 1996. MLB was inexorably profiting from the usage of steroids. Everybody was happy. Baseball had recovered from the strike, and it had steroids and the rise of the home run. In 1995, the year after the strike, 4,081 home runs were hit by MLB players. By 2000, 5 short years later, that number ballooned to 5,693 home runs. Yes, expansion was a factor. The Diamondbacks and Rays joined MLB in 1998.
However, looking at the graph below, a sharp increase in home runs is noted.
As previously noted, you can disagree with the notion that steroids caused this large bump in home runs, but no other era experienced such a large jump in home runs. The MLB shrugged their shoulders, chuckled, and cashed every check with a smirk on their face.
Now Major League Baseball, feet firmly planted back in the sport landscape, want to rid themselves of all the cheaters and bad guys associated with steroids. In recent years, we’ve begun to grasp just how widespread steroid usage was in the 90s and 2000s. Players like Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro all admitted to or were found to have been using steroids during their careers. Some of the biggest records, most precious moments, and crowd pleasing performances were found to have been tainted. Stained. Unclean.
Personally, I don’t really mind if players use steroids. It’s a highly competitive world, with so much money on the line, you can’t blame the players for wanting to squeeze every drop out of their bodies. It doesn’t last long. You’re not a baseball player forever. You’re not young forever. There’s only so many times you’re going to wake up feeling good, pain-free. How many times can you wince in pain while rounding the bases, or swinging the bat, or throwing the ball? There’s only so many chances before you’re sent down, forgotten, dreams in hand, with nary a tear to be shed. You’re instantly forgotten; an asset. You’re part of a board game, just a piece, and once the game’s over, you’re thrown away, never to be used again. Sure, you’re fairly compensated, but at what price? Our freedom? Our bodies? Our youth? The time with family never to be regained? The moments missed?
It’s hard to truly understand what a professional athlete endures. People dream about the money, the accolades, the popularity, but like many dreams, they’re not based in reality. How many of us would take a shortcut, a boost or two if it meant the difference between losing our job or keeping it? Major League Baseball, after all the money gained, the tickets sold, and the attention received, has ultimately decided to shun those who it profited off for so long. It’s a short-sighted view that rubs me the wrong way. We’re not punishing the system for letting this happen, we’re punishing the players alone. Now, I’m not here saying that they shouldn’t be penalized. It’s against the rules now, and any edge gained or shortcut taken through the use of PEDs should be penalized. But is it simply enough to punish 14 players harshly? Is Bud Selig walking down the hallways of his office building, whistling dixie?
PED use won’t go away. This is something we know. Unfortunately, the most we can hope for, in the form of justice, is a long, drawn out scandal, where the players and the players alone are blackballed, shunned, and made to carry the weight for all players who have used.
Major League Baseball should be made to stand for the crimes they have committed against its players. They are complicit. The MLB has a deep, storied history of cheating, from spitballs and doctored balls to greenies and PEDs. If they really want to rid themselves of the “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying” attitude, it has to come from within. Making deals behind closed doors with guilty jerks like Ryan Braun is transparent.
It’s not about steroids. It’s not about cheating, or cleaning the sport. It’s not about the integrity of the game.
It’s about money. It always has been.