Steroids, Hypocrisy, and Cooperstown

It seems appropriate to re-publish this post from May of 2015 in light of the latest Hall of Fame voting. Next time up, I’ll address Vlad Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, and some other fun stuff. Thanks.In the summer of 1994, the baseball world, particularly the major leagues, was a mess.  According to the owners of major league teams, 19 of the 28 teams were losing money.  Without casting aspersions on the honorable philanthropists who bring athletic entertainment to millions of us, or on their highly paid and scrupulous accountants, let us just say that there was no way to prove this because, just like our national government, much of what they do is secret and unknowable.

The war that was going on in 1994 was widely reported as being between the players’ association and the owners.  In reality, the war was really between the large market owners, such as the New York Yankees, and the small market owners, such as the Pittsburgh Pirates.  There were boxcars full of money to be made from the sale of television rights and the small market teams wanted that revenue to be shared among all teams, a form of socialism that was apt to induce severe dyspepsia among the more well off owners.  The compromise that developed was that the sharing would occur, but only if the players, who still had something to do with the game, agreed to a salary cap and changes in the arbitration rules, a form of socialism that the players were benefiting from to the alleged ruination of owners and fans alike.

Much to the chagrin of the owners and sports page editorial writers, the players would not agree to what would have amounted to the destruction of their union and all that it had accomplished so far.  On August 11, the games began to be cancelled and a month later the commissioner did what he was paid to do and called off the rest of the season, including any attempt at a World Series.  It was shocking and infuriating to most of us but, while none of the owners or players had to sign up for food stamps, virtually the entire baseball loving public became turned off and pissed off.  “I’ll never go to or watch another game!” was a frequent vow.

When the 1995 season came near, some of the ice from the fans’ furor had melted, but certainly not all of it.  Replacement players were going to be used, at least as a threat, but not many of us were lining up for that farce.  Negotiations finally led to a late start and a shortened, 144 game season but attendance was down significantly and a sour taste remained.  How, you might ask, was baseball going to overcome its most recent fall from grace?  After the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when the World Series was corrupted by payoffs to some members of the Chicago American League team so that Cincinnati would win the World Series, it took the emergence of the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth, to bring popularity back to the big leagues.

Ruth played for the Boston Red Sox in 1919.  As a pitcher, he won 8 games and lost 5 with an earned run average of 2.98, not his best year. As an outfielder-pitcher, though, he smacked 29 home runs out of his team’s total of 33.  New York led the A.L. with 45 home runs that season, 10 by Frank “Home Run” Baker.  The next season Ruth became a Yankee and a full time outfielder and knocked 54 homers to set in motion the long ball era that helped the major leagues win back the fans that had been soured by the scandal.

Three things helped baseball revive itself after the fiasco of ’94—divisional play, which put more teams into competition for playoff spots; fan friendly ballparks, where now you could actually have a foul ball tossed to you rather than having to scramble and fight for it, and the long ball, which, we were told, chicks dig.

Small wonder it was, then, when managers, teammates, owners, and the commissioner’s office all began to suffer neck injuries from looking the other way while certain players began to suddenly look, act, and perform much differently as the nineties moved into the 21st century and home run records began to look as ridiculous as the real estate and tech market bubbles.  In 1996, the World Champion New York Yankees sported a team earned run average of 4.65.  Baltimore hit 257 homers, led by Brady Anderson’s 50 and Rafael Palmiero’s 39. Palmiero, once a high average but low power guy, had hit 39 the previous season as well, but Anderson had hit 16 in 1995.  The big change came in 1998, of course, with the big (and I mean BIG) battle between Mark (Mum’s the Word) McGwire and Sammy (No Lo Se) Sosa for the National League home run title.  One hit 70, one hit 66, and we were all hearing and reading things like “Well, maybe the balls are juiced,” or “There are a lot of really small ballparks now…” and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan authored a book extolling the virtues of the new power surge and how good it was for the game.  Then, finally, 2001 and 73 and all the crazy numbers that accompanied the steroid era. Now, just as it looked like we had gotten past all that, Alex Rodriguez comes back to remind us of the decade of wretched excess.

The worst part of it all to me is the way that most people have chosen to paint the picture now that the hideous hypocrisy of denial has been outed.  Players who used ‘roids or PEDs or whatever you want to call them are lambasted and disdained as “cheaters” for the most part.  What’s wrong with that is that, while there is no doubt that Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Ken Caminiti and countless others indeed performed better than they would have  otherwise, the thing that makes anabolic steroids evil isn’t that they help you perform better (at least in the short run).  There have been many forms of “cheating” in baseball and other sports over the years.  Some of them have been relatively harmless and even amusing while others have been dangerous.  It is the danger in using steroids that I believe ought to be the chief basis for their banishment (remember, they were not strictly banned at first and, even now, cortisone shots are plentiful).  If all they did was make you play better, well, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that good nutrition or honest weight training isn’t “cheating” as well.  Of course, steroids are extremely dangerous and, especially when we are addressing young athletes, that should be the reason we hate them

Our sons and daughters need to know that the common side effects from anabolic steroids are severe acne, oily skin, hair loss, liver disease such as tumors and cysts, kidney disease, heart disease, such as heart attacks and strokes, altered mood, irritability, increased aggression, depression and suicidal tendencies.  That’s not all.

In men, there is a likelihood of reduced sperm production and shrinking of testicles.  Those are reversible if you stop but baldness and breast development are not.

In women,one can expect enlargement of the clitoris and excessive growth of body hair.  When a child or adolescent takes steroids, resulting high sex hormones can prematurely signal bones to stop growing.

Steroids increase low density lipoprotein and decrease high density lipoprotein, thus increasing  the risk of fatty deposits in the arteries.

Lyle Alzado  was undersized in high school and began experimenting with steroids in college at Yankton, South Dakota.  He was able to star in football to the extent of being an all star linebacker for Denver and Oakland.  He said he spent $30,000 annually on steroids.  He was known for his short temper.  He was a “cheater”.  He was also dead from brain lymphoma at age 43.

The baseball establishment wants us to blame the individual “cheaters” for steroids or the unscrupulous dealers of the drugs for their widespread recent use.  That way acknowledgement that just about everybody knew what was going on would never lead to any sort of repercussions to executives or owners.  I find it very difficult to be stupid enough to go along with that.  Therefore I think steroid use should not be a reason to bar any player from the Hall of Fame.  Any admission or proof of such use should be noted on the plaque.

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