A baseball fan in the steroid era

0603_largeI still remember the day the Ken Caminiti news broke. June, 2002. Without the internet as a major vehicle to drive the news at that time, the allegations hit the airwaves early in the week and on Thursday, Sports Illustrated came out with its memorable cover, a baseball crossed by syringes. I remember literally waiting for that week’s SI to come out to read the story about Caminiti and to finally get the scoop for myself. I read the story and Caminiti’s words inside it in complete disbelief:

“It’s no secret what’s going on in baseball.   At least half the guys are using steroids. They talk about it. They joke about it with each other. The guys who want to protect themselves or their image by lying have that right. Me? I’m at the point in my career where I’ve done just about every bad thing you can do. I try to walk with my head up. I don’t have to hold my tongue. I don’t want to hurt teammates or friends. But I’ve got nothing to hide.

“If a young player were to ask me what to do,” Caminiti continued, “I’m not going to tell him it’s bad. Look at all the money in the game: You have a chance to set your family up, to get your daughter into a better school…. So I can’t say, ‘Don’t do it,’ not when the guy next to you is as big as a house and he’s going to take your job and make the money.”

To that point, the only player I ever had really connected with steroids in my mind was Barry Bonds, and a nagging voice in my head always told me the only reason I thought Bonds was on steroids was because I wanted him to be on steroids due to my personal dislike of him.

I was 17 at the time and I was disgusted by what I read in that story. How could those players do that to the fans? To me? As a kid I obsessed over players like Ruth, Gehrig, Aaron, Johnson, Koufax, Williams, Clemente, Stargell, Kiner, and Wagner; those guys were my mythology. I read baseball encyclopedias for fun. I constantly got in trouble with the librarian at the Shenango Valley Library for taking out too many books on the same subject (which I still think is a stupid rule). In 2002, I felt like this story was depriving me of my own Olympus of baseball players. Like most Pirate fans my age, I grew up hearing stories about the amazing Roberto Clemente, about the ’79 World Series team that Pops and the Cobra pulled out of a hole to defy the odds and win a Championship. I heard my uncle rave about the way Al Kaline swung the bat and patrolled the outfield. How could I possibly talk about these steroid addled players with such reverence to my own children in the future?

That was seven years ago. Yesterday, when debating the A-Rod story with my fellow FanHousers, I wrote this:

And I’m sorry, but I hate the “I don’t want to see Aaron lose his record to a bunch of cheaters” argument. Baseball evolves over time. How can you tell me that the 100-meter dash world record has been lowered by so much time since Babe Ruth retired, but only two guys have hit more home runs? Pitchers and hitters are constantly getting better, but they keep each other in check and it creates the illusion that somehow, we can compare Babe Ruth in 1924 to A-Rod in 2009. I honestly think that the ’27 Yankees would get smoked by every single big league team today 9 times out of 10 … just because these eras seem comparable doesn’t mean that they actually are.

I understand what a bold statement that is and it might seem like I’m making that point to argue for arguments sake, but I can assure you I’m not. But after I wrote that, I realized that my 17 year old self would want to punch my 24 year old self in the face for saying it.  Is that really what I believe? (Yes, yes it is.) Do I think that because I think it’s true or because the combination of being a Pirate fan and a lab rat has made me so hopelessly cynical that I’ll never enjoy anything the way I used to enjoy baseball? That question is harder to answer.

The truth is this: what I love about baseball are not numbers. I use numbers a lot and this blog can sometimes be analytical, but that’s because that’s who I am. What I truly love about baseball are the stories it’s created. I don’t love Ted Williams’ 521 home runs or his .406 average in 1941; I love that he could feel when pine tar made his bat too heavy, I love that when teams started shifting on him, he used a heavier bat to hit the ball into the holes in the shift, I love that the guy had such amazing eyesight that he was a fighter pilot in World War II. I don’t love Lou Gehrig’s 1995 RBIs, I love that he could’ve hit five home runs in a game if only a teammate hadn’t mistaken a home run for a flyout and run off the base paths, allowing Gehrig to pass him and costing him a home run. I love that even faced with an uncertain future and a disease that robbed him of all of his amazing talent, he still considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I never cared how far Mickey Mantle actually hit a baseball, I only care that he hit a ball so far that people still talk about it 50 years later. I don’t love the fact that Roberto Clemente had 3,000 hits, but the idea that one of the most decent men to ever play the sport somehow hit one of the game’s magic numbers on the nose, and shortly afterwards stepped on to an overloaded plane and gave up his own life trying to help someone else is pure magic.

Who cares how many home runs Barry Bonds hit? Who will ever forget that his dad used to throw him tennis balls with numbers scrawled on them and told him to only swing at the even numbers? Or the way managers were so afraid of him that they’d walk him regardless of the situation? Or the villian he created? Who can forget Mark McGwire’s rush to embrace his son after hitting his 62nd home run? Tell me he cheated, but don’t tell me he’s a bad person. What about a tired Pedro Martinez coming out of the bullpen in Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS to spin six shut-out innings against one of the best offenses of the 1990s? What about Rob Mackowiak celebrating the birth of his son with two of the most memorable home runs in PNC Park’s short history?

Sure, the numbers are part of that mythology. But doesn’t the steroid era glorify some of them? Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games and no amount of HGH or Winstrol could help anyone top that. Roger Clemens did some amazing things on the mound, but Greg Maddux won one more game than he did and no one, not even Sandy Koufax, dominated quite like Pedro Martinez did in a pure hitter’s era. We still have numbers, we’ll just have to change the way we value them.

Sports, and baseball in particular, have always been about finding an edge. Babe Ruth swung with a uppercut! Some (but not all!) players in the 60s and 70s took greenies! Gaylord Perry threw a spitball! Tommy John got part of his shoulder put in his elbow! Just because science has advanced cheating doesn’t mean that it invented it. All that ever really matters is that the playing field is level and for the most part, it really has been. The Ranger teams that played early this decade might have been juiced, but they weren’t winning World Series because of it. The A’s teams in the late 80s and early 90s might have been steroid pioneers, but they really only stood out above the rest of the league for three years and in those three years, they won one World Series. It took a while, but baseball tests for steroids now and so long as steroid abuse remains illegal, they should. That doesn’t mean players will stop trying to find ways around the tests, but with the money and fame involved, can you blame them? They only reason past players didn’t take steroids is because they weren’t available and that’s just a fact.

If you love baseball, you love (or at least love to hate) cheaters and jerks. Ty Cobb the racist and Babe Ruth the womanizer went right into the Hall of Fame with Honus Wagner and Christy Matthewson. The villification of Pete Rose has made him more famous than induction in the Hall would’ve. If I have a son that tries to emulate Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds, I will consider myself to have failed as a father and that has nothing to do with steroids.

All the focus right now is on the numbers, but did Hank Aaron invalidate Babe Ruth? Did Pete Rose make Ty Cobb’s feats less impressive? Did Nolan Ryan eclipse Cy Young or Sandy Koufax? No, and just like the earliest generations of the game live on, so will Aaron and Maris and Rose and Ryan, no matter how many strikeouts or hits or home runs modern players rack up. The true allure of baseball has never been the numbers themselves, but rather the lore — the myths, the heroes, the villians —  that the numbers have created. And steroids will never change that.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.