by Alex Langer
Over the next few weeks here at The Tattered Pennant, we are taking a look at some of the worst things to ever happen to our favorite sports. Obviously, worst is an incredibly subjective idea, and many of you reading at home may disagree strongly with how we interpret the concept. This week, we’re talking Major League Baseball. It took me quite a while to come to a decision as to what was the worst thing to ever happen to baseball. At first, I thought of the "black sox" scandal of 1919, when several members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. Then I thought about the rise in interleague play, especially in recent years. A friend of mine, who is a diehard NL fan, suggested that the designated hitter rule was the worst thing to happen to baseball in its history. As a fan of an American League squad, I disregarded this suggestion as foolishness at best, and heresy at worst.
In the end, the obvious choice was the right one: the largest scandal in recent baseball history, the so-called Steroid Era. The sins of the users during the era have been counted and pontificated on at length. As such, I feel little desire to go over them in detail here. Suffice it to say, from the late 1980s until the mid-2000s, a significant percentage of baseball players, including many of its stars, were using anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, either to recover from injuries, or make it possible to train harder than is/was typically possible. During the era, the home run (both single season and career) record fell, as did numerous other records. The home runs came fast and went far, and baseball's popularity, tarnished by the 1994 Players' Strike, was perhaps never higher than during the height of the Steroid Era. This popularity was only matched by the soul-searching the MLB and its fans went through as the breadth of the problem was slowly acknowledged.
I contend that the worst thing to ever happen to Major League Baseball was not that the Steroid Era happened. I contend that the worst thing was, in fact, baseball’s reaction to the steroid epidemic. As a baseball fan who grew up in the era, it hurts. I believe, however, that it was the reaction of baseball to steroid use that has harmed the sport more than anything else. Every sport has issues with PEDs. Cycling is so infamous for it that HBO can make a mockumentary called Tour de Pharmacy and claim that every single cyclist was on a cocktail of steroids, and it doesn’t seem far-fetched. Every year, multiple NFL teams lose players for four games or more for a “banned substance.” Basketball, I’m sure, has issues with PEDs, though the sport seems immune to issues of catching offenders. Why is it, then, that PEDs and baseball seem wedded in the public imagination?
It hurts that Roger Maris’s and Hank Aaron’s home run records fell to men who were clearly using chemical supplements to cheat. It hurts that every breakout season or miraculous recovery from injury was greeted with suspicion and skepticism, not awe. It hurts that we never got to see what Barry Bonds would have been without the (alleged) steroid use. Bonds averaged around 30 doubles and 30 stolen bases for the first eight years of career. After that, and a move to San Francisco, his home run totals rose until he eventually broke the single-season and career records. It hurts that we’ll never know just how good Alex Rodriguez would have been without steroids. In 1996, as a 21 year old rookie, he batted .358 with 54 doubles, 36 home runs, and 123 runs batted in, while playing great shortstop and hitting in the No. 2 spot in the batting order, ahead of Ken Griffey Jr. No one, save perhaps Mike Trout, was better as young as A-Rod. By 2001 he was in Texas and using steroids, and willingly putting his legacy in jeopardy.
At the same time, fans quickly forget, or choose to not care, that many NFL players of the 1970s were using and abusing steroids. Many members of the “Steel Curtain” defense that propelled Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl titles were using steroids. NFL players today make absurd excuses about their PED use. Ray Lewis, before his Ravens won the 2013 Super Bowl, made a miraculous recovery using deer-antler spray. Riiiiiiight. And yet, when an NFL player is suspended for a banned substance, there is half the controversy as when someone like Dee Gordon is suspended. There were no congressional hearings about steroids in the NFL. There are no think pieces about LeBron James’ unnatural ability, or Russell Westbrook’s wild athleticism. In comparison, when Erik Thames, who was a middling corner outfielder for the Mariners a few years ago, went to Korea and bulked up, and is now a power hitter for the Brewers, hit several home runs off the Cubs in May, several Cubs players immediately insinuated he was using steroids or HgH.
Baseball is a numbers game. The importance of records in baseball outstrips other sports. 756, 61, 262, .400, 56 are all numbers that evoke reverence in the average fan. Perhaps it is for that reason that baseball seems to not forgive itself for the Steroids Era. Every year, when Hall of Fame voting takes place, baseball puts itself and its stars on trial for using. It cannot forgive itself for having allowed steroids to take over the sport. The irony of baseball’s attempts to forget that the Steroid Era happened is that the MLB used the stars of the era to promote the sport. The era was eminently watchable, especially before the pervasiveness of steroids was widely acknowledged. The home run races of 1997 and 1998 were good for baseball. Chicks dug the long ball, as the saying goes. And so the MLB tacitly allowed steroids and PEDs as long as it stayed a dirty secret. And then the secret came out, right as some of the most hallowed records in the sport were set to be broken by alleged cheats. And now, a decade after these records fell, the MLB looks like it is set to pretend the entire era never happened. Why? When Babe Ruth set the record of 60 home runs in a season, or 714 home runs in a career, he was snorting cocaine. When Roger Maris broke the single-season home run record, the league was deep in the middle of an amphetamine epidemic. In the 1960s, players used “greenies” to stay alert and awake through the rigors of the long season, much like players in the 1990s used steroids to enhance recovery. The history of sport is the history of players attempting to cheat to be better at their sport. Baseball should take a leaf from the NFL and other sports and acknowledge that steroids happened, and so did amphetamines, and so did cocaine in the 1980s, and stop agonizing over it.
The Steroid Era happened. It happened, and great players were forever tainted by it. Records fell that might never have fallen otherwise. But there is no way to go back in time and make steroids illegal earlier. What Major League Baseball has chosen to do, by tacitly banning those tainted by steroids from the Hall of Fame (even if, like Barry Bonds, they have never tested positive for a banned substance), by ignoring the records set in the era, by consigning an entire decade to a black hole, is not helping. It does not help baseball to have a long discussion about who the “real home run king” is, every time a fan asks (for the record, the Bambino did it in only 154 games). Spending a month, around Hall of Fame voting, every year, agonizing over the legacy of the era is not going to change the past. Baseball, to move past the Steroid Era, needs to acknowledge its legacies and move on. In the future, when players get caught using PEDs, baseball needs to not act like a terrified parent, wondering if they were a bad influence. If MLB continues to act as if the Steroid Era never happened, it will never be able to move past it.
 For the record, Tour de Pharmacy is hilarious. Come for Orlando Bloom’s heart exploding on a downhill, stay for the tender love story between two cyclists. And Jeff Goldblum.