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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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Posted by Ben K. on Thursday, February 17, 2005

Steroid Scandal Shows Major League Disconnect

This column is posted at 360 The Pitch. You can read it all here, but I'd prefer if you clicked here to check out the new site.

I really care about baseball’s steroid issue. I’ve found, however, that I am among the minority and that disturbs me.

Most passionate fans care about the steroid issue because it affects the integrity of the game and it sullies the reputations of players who have been idolized by their fans. For me, the issue comes down to something as basic as cheating. Taking steroids is cheating by using illegal performance-enhancing drugs to one-up your competition. Just like corking your bat is cheating. Just like throwing a game is cheating. The fact that Major League Baseball had not explicitly outlawed steroid use before the 2002 Collective Bargaining Agreement does not validate any steroid use before 2002. It’s all cheating.

To understand this steroid phenomenon, it’s necessary to explore just how baseball, its fans and the media have built up a system where drug use is acceptable and encouraged. The deepest root of this evil — like many — is the promise of more money, more home runs, more fans. Would a steroid-less Giambi received a $120 million contract offer? Would Jose Canseco have received his own overvalued $25 million contract back in the late 1980s without his steroid-fueled MVP campaign? Of course not. The drive for greed has led many players to drugs that will mess them up later in life.

But it’s not just the players who are to blame. The owners, managers and general managers can’t walk away scot-free. Tony La Russa says he knew that Jose Canseco was juicing up. The Yankees supposedly removed the word steroid from Jason Giambi’s contract. This is nothing new. In 1976, according to Wednesday’s New York Times, then-Twins executive Clark Griffith wanted a mandatory drug testing program and mandatory treatment for players abusing drugs and alcohol. The general managers voted it down, and as they told Griffith, they wouldn’t report a player without first checking out his stats.

Can this really come as a surprise to anyone? Of course not. Baseball managers and general managers are not oblivious to what goes on in the clubhouse, and they’re not blind either. When a player looks different physically and hits the ball with a little more pop in his bat without hitting the gym, something isn’t natural. But the game is about winning. Why would you rat out your best players?

Then, there is the media, possibly the guiltiest party in the entire scandal. The media is having a field day with the steroid scandal. CBS garnered high ratings from the Canseco interview; the story is splashed across tabloids across the country; and columnists on the web are audaciously suggesting that Barry Bonds retire before he further sullies some of baseball’s exalted records. Self-righteousness reigns supreme in the press.

But something’s not right because these are same sports commentators who lapped up the McGwire-Sosa 1998 home run race. These are the same sports commentators who were enthralled by Bonds’ 2001 pursuit of the home run record and are eagerly counting down the at-bats until he reaches 715, 756, and beyond. The media once trumpeted the offensive age of baseball as they applauded the game for drawing in fans to fill the seats after the strike of 1994-1995 saw a decline in baseball popularity.

If more home runs means more coverage and more coverage means more revenue, then the press — the Fourth Estate of American life — is just as guilty for encouraging steroid use as managers are for ignoring a drug problem in baseball’s clubhouses.

Furthermore, the media loves everything that sells. They love home runs; they love steroids. It’s the great hypocrisy of the press. One season, they’ll tout the great summer home runs; the next winter, Murray Chass will wax poetic about the pressures of the new drug policy. And that’s where the fans come into play.

This is the trickiest piece of the puzzle. Are the fans to blame? Yes, but not for the obvious reasons. The fans are to blame because they don’t care enough about the steroid scandal and how it affects the integrity of the game. In a recent unscientific SportsNation poll on ESPN, more fans by a 51-49 margin, said that competitive balance was the biggest problem facing the game, not steroids. And this comes after a five-year stretch in which five different teams won the World Series. Drug use, folks, is now more acceptable than having five out of six divisions feature wide-open races this season. (Only the AL East will be a two-team dog fight.) If these SportsNation voters are only those interested enough to seek out the poll to vote, I can only imagine the apathy the rest of baseball’s more casual fans feel about steroids.

But the fans do care about the publicity. Canseco’s book was the number three seller on Amazon the day it was released. Millions of people eat up steroid news everyday. These fans, however, only seem to want more names and more details. They want gossip and innuendo. They want to know who has done what and how.

All of this stems from one overarching belief that many fans share: As long as their team’s players produce on the field, it doesn’t matter what happens off the field. This isn’t to say that everyone feels this way; I know plenty of people who are highly disappointed that players would stoop to steroid use. But these sentiments can be found everywhere among baseball fans.

I, for one, do not approve. We baseball fans should care about what baseball players do in the locker room. We should care what players who are admired by young and old alike do with their bodies. We should care about the fact that cheating is becoming a socially acceptable phenomenon in the game called America’s Pastime. While many baseball fans want to leave the steroid issue behind and just focus on the games, it’s time for baseball fans to demand accountability and integrity from the greatest game on Earth.


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