Talking Baseball

Your weekday baseball fix. Some days.

Posted by Jon on Friday, February 18, 2005

Breaking Records, Not Rules

Baseball’s 2004 seasons was one for the ages. The impossible was possible, and ‘dramatic’ hardly begins to describe the October magic witnessed by fans. But before anybody even realized that the World Series baseball was in a safe in Florida, the buzz had returned to steroids.

The recent off-season was filled with important developments and player transactions, which reshaped certain teams’ organizational plans and even relocated one franchise. But in this void of games played, the overarching theme of the winter’s baseball lull has been steroid use.

Some fans are not troubled about the fact that steroid use in baseball has been proven a fact. I am one of these fans, and I find it surprising that I don’t particularly care for the steroid issue. My preference is that players don't use them, but I’m not surprised or outraged that they are—we suspected that steroids were a part of the game since the early 90s.

Sullying the game that we call America’s pastime isn’t anything new. While fans view baseball at its most pastoral and idealistic, cheating has always been an accepted part of the game. From a pitcher secretly rubbing a baseball against a pin or some sandpaper to a batter corking his bat, cheating permeated baseball long before it was America’s pastime. And before the scandalous 1919 World Series, it wasn’t even uncommon for players to have a monetary stake in the games they played. Baseball has always been a game in which ‘it’s not cheating unless you get caught.’

Hall of Fame pitchers are known to have altered the contour of baseballs, illegally creating more movement on their pitches, a clear advantage derived from cheating—but where’s the outrage? Why are there no requests for them to be erased from the record books and shipped out of Cooperstown? Players took Greenies in the 70s; now the drug is steroids. Both were technically illegal but not explicitly outlawed in Major League Baseball.

Most who are outraged over steroid use in baseball are not as concerned with the fact that players are breaking rules as they are about players breaking records. Most obviously, homerun records that we constitute in the form of sacred numbers (61, 715) are being broken or threatened with more regularity than ever before. The game is changing, and it is this break with from the continuity of the past that causes this alarm.

Because of baseball’s intricate and descriptive statistics, players’ numbers are considered sacred. In no other sport do the past and present collide with more impact than in baseball.

But baseball fans should understand that players will do and have always done whatever possible to create an advantage over their competition, whether they’re trying to defeat the opponent or just make the team. America’s idyllic notions of baseball are founded on the sport’s interactions with the past. These images of perfection cannot realistically be applied to those who play the game.

The appeal of baseball remains unchanged after over one hundred years. We see ourselves as no different from the players we watch on a daily basis. We played the game as children, with our fathers, in the green pastures of innocence and boundless hopes and dreams. We can relate to baseball players because we remember hitting that game-winning single to leftfield and we can recall the thrill of reaching home plate. Americans don’t see Johnny Damon patrolling centerfield; they see themselves. Baseball transcends time.

We set up a double standard when we hold baseball players to a higher moral standard than others in society. These people are no different from you and me. If your dream was to make it as a Major League ballplayer and you knew you had a much greater chance of reaching the Majors with steroids, would you take them? What if your family was poor and you wanted, more than anything, to be able to support them?

Baseball players taking steroids mirror other forms of cheating in our society, but few seem to mind. In college, Ritalin, bought illegally without a prescription, is just as popular as caffeine. Is there any difference between the two situations, aside from the fact that we watch baseball players every day and expect more from them because they play a game we hold sacred?

Framed by baseball’s history of cheating, the steroids story is not surprising to most fans. Until players are caught, they will take steroids, just as pitchers who sandpaper a baseball and hitters who cork their bats continued their forms of cheating until outed.

Baseball players have always broken the rules when they perceived a chance for advantage with a minimal possibility of being caught. Baseball’s unique statistical build-up of stories, its unique ability to recall the past and compare players of different eras, and its pastoral nature create a structure in which fans hold players to a higher standard than they reasonably should.

The past and present are colliding, and for the first time in the sport’s history, the idyllic feature of the game is under siege from the outside while sacred records are being broken from the inside.

Cheating is not the problem. The problem is that the cheats have been successful enough to fracture baseball’s essence: its relationship with the past.

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