Like so many other baseball fans at the time, I enjoyed what some people called “the summer of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa” – the battle to see who would be home run king and break the all-time single season record was a crowd pleaser. In 1999 the fallout that came after the longest baseball strike in Major League Baseball history (August 1994-April 1995) still haunted the fans and affected ticket sales and TV ratings; this slugging contest seemed to be just what the doctor (or was it then commissioner Bud Selig?) ordered.
Yet there were those of us even then who wondered about McGwire and Sosa’s bulging arms and their moonshot homers. These were guys who went from looking like tall string beans to Arnold Schwarzenegger. While we might have wanted to think the ball was juiced (as some claimed), it was far more likely that they were, but even people who may have thought it seemed not to care. This contest ended with Sosa hitting 63 dingers and McGwire swatting 65. Records were broken, baseball was back, but what price had been paid for all the glory?
Flash forward to 2017 and the announcements of this year’s selections for the MLB Hall of Fame. It is baseball’s most exclusive club, and being a member guarantees a player’s legacy for future generations. The choices this year may leave some people like myself scratching their heads and thinking about where we are heading in what is now (or is it?) the post Steroid Era in baseball.
Like McGwire and Sosa, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez used to be a string bean who was a decent catcher and had little or no pop. Suddenly “Pudge” became the Incredible Hulk and was swatting lots of long flies. So what happened? Did he do a Popeye and suck down cans of spinach? Did he hit the gym every day and just blossom? Or was it something else?
Rodriguez’s co-inductee is Jeff Bagwell, the former Houston Astros slugger who hit 449 homers with arms the size of Mount Rushmore. Questions always seemed to arise about his morphing into this power hitter overnight, but there never has been any definitive proof that he used PEDs, yet we who saw Bagwell play know he hit those rockets just like Sosa and McGwire before him, and if that ball was juiced then why wasn’t everyone hitting all those homers?
While Rodriguez has denied PED use, former swollen homer god Jose Canseco implicated Rodriguez in his book Juiced, claiming that he actually injected drugs into the catcher during their time playing for the Texas Rangers. Of course, this is not concrete proof but just adds another log to the fire of suspicions.
At this point it seems the Baseball Writers’ Association of America is starting to either forget or even forgive players from the so-called Steroid Era as they are coming up for nomination. Rodgriguez makes it on his first year on the ballot, while Bagwell had to go through seven ballots before getting selected.
Some critics have noted that the turning point may have been last year when former New York Mets and LA Dodger catcher Mike Piazza was elected despite years of rumors about his use of PEDs. Piazza, like Bagwell and Rodriguez, has always denied usage, and the salient things that connect Piazza to these guys are his bulging muscles and homers sent into orbit.
The obvious issue is that two guys for whom real evidence of PED use exists – Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens – got a little closer on the ballot this year. If guys with rumors of PED use are getting in, how long before they do as well?
In the past I have argued for the sport to be pure because there are many players who work hard and play the game the true way. They work out, they practice, they stay human, and give 100%. Those guys have always been the true baseball heroes, even though they will most times not be recognized because their numbers are ordinary and they have not distinguished themselves.
Rumors are what they are and evidence is what it is. Bonds and Clemens put up extraordinary numbers, and all the other stuff does not negate their records (even with all the talk of using asterisks), and it would seem the BWAA is moving away from the practice of turning away from these guys and recognizing statistical greatness regardless of rumors or proof.
So Rodriguez and Bagwell say they did not use PEDS, and we can either accept that or call them liars. Either way they will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It has also been said that statistics don’t lie, and if the BWAA embraces that, it seems clear that Bonds and Clemens will be inducted sometime before their opportunities expire.
I don’t know what this means to all the fans, but I recall how kids had McGwire and Sosa posters tacked up on their walls during that wild slugging contest. They have all grown up now and perhaps are forgetting or forgiving (and maybe some of them are members of the BWWA) those sluggers for their use of steroids.
It is today’s children who are also watching and getting mixed messages. We tell them in school and at home about the dangers of drugs, but they discover that former baseball players are getting rewarded for their past use of them. How do we explain it in a way to make sense? I am not sure that we can.