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Diamond Juice: Baseball's Steroid Era And It's Effect On The Game

Updated on May 4, 2014

A-Rod

Source: CC: BY - SA, via Wikimedia
Source: CC: BY - SA, via Wikimedia | Source

The Steroid Era

If you ask any baseball purist about the "Steroid Era", you're likely to get an earful about how steroids have "forever destroyed the purity of America's pastime", and how all players these days share in the responsibility, and guilt, for not having done more to keep the game clean.

You'll hear them blast players like Bonds, Sosa, and McGwire, denouncing them as cheaters and demanding their expulsion from Baseball.

Yes, if you ask the hardcore baseball fans, you'll hear any number of reasons for why the Steroid Era came to be; one thing you're not likely to hear however, is the truth.

The truth is, we know exactly who created the Steroid Era. We know exactly who created the environment in which players felt forced to cheat in order to perform. We know who helped cover it up, and who convinced Major League Baseball to "look the other way" while it was all going on.Yes dear reader, we know exactly who was responsible for the Steroid Era... because it was us.

A-Rod Denies Using Steroids

Why It Happened

After the strike in 1994, Major League Baseball was hurting. Attendance was low, revenue was down, fans were still angry with the owners and players (but mostly the players), and, for the first time in nearly a century, there had been no World Series.

It seemed like nothing that baseball did could win the fans back. This wasn't the first time that there had been a work stoppage in baseball, in fact the '94 strike was the fifth since 1980. But something about the '94 strike was different, people were furious over the perceived greed of the owners and players alike, and they had had enough.

When the strike finally ended and play began in April of 95, players were, to say the least, rusty and out of shape. There was a near epidemic of strains and pulled muscles in the early part of the 1995 season, owning to the fact that there had been no spring training.

It was a "perfect storm" of conditions that all worked in concert to set the stage for what would become some of baseball's biggest moments, and unfortunately, it's darkest days since Shoeless Joe and the Chicago Black Sox of 1919.

McGwire & Sosa Chase History

1998 And The Race For History

Heading into the 1998 season, baseball had found, what it thought would be its saving grace. Over the past two years, a home run rivalry had begun between two of the biggest stars in the game: Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr..

Since 1996, the two men had hit a combined 215 home runs, both coming within a breath of breaking the single season home run record of 61 (set by Roger Maris in 1961). Major League Baseball, realizing that a serious run at one of its most prestigious records was in the air, jumped all over the story and promoted the living hell out of it.

As it would turn out, the story was even better than the MLB could have hoped for; not only were McGwire and Griffey on pace to break the record, but there was a third player who had a serious chance to, not only beat Maris' record, but to actually beat out McGwire and Griffey that season. That man was Chicago Cubs Rightfielder, Sammy Sosa.

The three men continued to battle it out for most of the season, but after a rough August, Ken Griffey Jr. had fallen well off the record pace. Heading into September, there were only two men left in the chase for the single season home run record: Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Then, on September 8, 1998, in a setting that could not have been scripted any more perfectly, Mark McGwire, sitting on 61 home runs (having tied the record the previous night), in front of the home crowd in St. Louis, and facing the Chicago Cubs and Sammy Sosa, in the bottom of the 4th inning, on the very first pitch, hits a line drive that just barely cleared the left field wall. McGwire had broken the record that had stood for 37 years, he had hit 62 home runs... baseball was officially back.

Barry Bonds: Poster Boy Of The Steroid Era

Source: CC: BY - SA, via Wikimedia
Source: CC: BY - SA, via Wikimedia

Barry Bonds*

Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a single season stood for 34 years; Maris' 61 stood for 37. When Mark McGwire finished the 1998 season with an unbelievable 70 home runs, the "experts" thought that that record would stand forever... it lasted 3 years and 27 days.

In 2001, Barry Bonds, of the San Francisco Giants hit an amazing 73 home runs. More shocking than McGwire's short reign, was the fact that Bonds, up until that year, had never even broken 50 home runs in a season, his previous career high coming the year before with 49.

Despite never again reaching 50 home runs in a single season, Barry Bonds would go on to break Hank Aaron's record of 755 six years later, in what would end up becoming his final season. Bonds finished his career with 762 home runs, and a career batting average of .298.

In 2003, Barry Bonds came under fire during the BALCO scandal, when the company and Bonds' former trainer Greg Anderson admitted to distributing steroids to many professional athletes, including Barry Bonds.

In 2007, Bonds was charged with Perjury and Obstruction of Justice, and in April of 2011, he was convicted on the Obstruction charges.

Juiced: The Book That Brought Down Legends

Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big
Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big

In his 2005 tell-all, Jose Canseco blew the lid off of the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs in baseball, and revealed the Steroid Era to the world.

 

Rafael Palmeiro Testifying Before Congress

Mark McGwire

Source: CC: BY - SA, via Wikimedia
Source: CC: BY - SA, via Wikimedia

The Legacy Of The Steroid Era

Of course it was the players who ultimately made the decision to cheat, and they certainly deserve the lion's share of the blame, but there are others who deserve to take, at least part of the responsibility for the rise of steroids.

During the chase in '98 we never asked questions, we never wondered how a record that had stood for nearly four decades was suddenly broken six times in three years. We never asked how a 36 year old man, who had never hit 50 home runs in a season, suddenly blasted 73 in one year.

We never asked how 40 year old pitchers were still throwing 120+ pitch complete games, and 97 mph fastballs. We never asked about pitchers who got bigger and stronger as they got older, or about how a player that had knee surgery in April was suddenly ready to go after the All-Star break.

We never asked because deep down, we already knew that these things just didn't add up. We knew that what we were seeing defied over 100 years of baseball experience, all modern records, and even biology itself. We knew, and we said nothing- it was the dirty little secret than nobody talked about.

For a while in the late 90s and early 00s, the MLB had more in common with professional wrestling than it did with traditional baseball; over-sized, larger than life personalities competing in physical contests that were convincing, and fun to watch, but not actually real.

The owners knew what was going on, but they sold the integrity of the game for increased gate receipts and higher ratings. They turned a blind eye to the field because, once again, the stands were full.

The sports writers knew what was going on, but the stories were too amazing to resist. Historic records, records held by the legends of the game, were falling left and right. From the chase in '98 to the quest for 756, the stories were just too good to be true, and the writers weren't about to look that gift-horse in the mouth.

Even the officials in the MLB offices knew what was going on. These are people who arguably know more about baseball than anyone else, and yet they never stepped in. The fans had returned, the owners were happy, and baseball was dominating the sports world again, so why on Earth would they want to rock that boat?

So while it was the players who actually did the cheating, we're the ones who let them. We're the ones who cheered, and with every home run, with every record broken, we cheered. Then when it finally all fell apart, we looked around angrily for someone to blame, someone to hold accountable, someone we could ask "How didn't you see what was going on"; we were desperate to find someone that should have known better, because all the while, while these men- our heroes, were cheating... we cheered.

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  • Shawn McIntyre profile image
    Author

    Shawn McIntyre 4 years ago from Orlando, FL.

    @lions44, Thanks for taking the time to read my article =)

    I have no doubt that, eventually, Bonds will be in the HoF, the integrity of the HoF demands the the all time leader in home runs be admitted, especially when you consider that he never failed a drug test.

    Clemens on the other hand, is a long shot. He's definitely got the numbers for it, but he always had a bad relationship with the media and now the sports writers who vote on the HoF are going to have too much fun smacking him around.

    As for McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, Braun, Giambi, and the rest of the "juice pops", the only way they're getting into Cooperstown is if they buy tickets.

    With A-Rod, the best part about his (what is expected to be) lifetime ban, is that it will help give perspective and a little political cover to Selig to lift the ban on Pete Rose and allow him eligibility for the Hall.

  • lions44 profile image

    CJ Kelly 4 years ago from Auburn, WA

    You're the first person I've read to make the firm connection between the '94 strike and the explosion of PEDs between 95-2005. At least I never read a major sportswriter come out and say it. Certainly not somebody like Peter Gammons, et. al. Great analysis. I would still put Bonds and Clemons in the HoF. We know when they started PEDs (around 2000). They already had HoF #s. But forget about everyone else. For some reason, McGwire gets me more annoyed than anyone else. I'm just happy A-Rod is finally going away along with Ryan Fraud. Keep up the good work.