Should We Care About Steroids?


Here are my reactions to Sammy Sosa’s testing positive for performance enhancing drugs:

No shit.

You couldn’t tell that by looking at him?

He already got caught corking his bat…

I’m surprised it took this long to come out.

Next you’ll tell me Mark McGwire took steroids!

How about you just list players who didn’t take steroids.

Notice how none of my responses included the following:



Slammin’ Sammy is clean, he just said he was clean!

Maybe McGwire, but not Sosa!

He didn’t know what he was taking, he can’t speak English.

All this phony indignation needs to stop.  We all knew Sosa took steroids; we just didn’t have the test result to prove it.  We had all the circumstantial evidence in the world, like a monstrous uptick in home runs late in his career followed by a sharp decline after baseball instituted it’s drug policy, a body that ballooned faster than Kirsti Alley’s, a corked bat proving he cheated, inclusion in Jose Canseco’s book, and a less than convincing performance on Capital Hill.  Now we have the hard evidence.

It’s the sad state of baseball, but baseball players are guilty until proven innocent.  We knew Sosa took steroids just like we knew Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds took steroids.  We may not have the test results (yet), but Clemens and Bonds gave us the same clues over their careers.  Like Sosa, both saw a huge jump in production in their 30s, both saw their bodies change drastically (if Simmons was making a Mount Rushmore of steroid users he could use Bond’s actual head), both have been implicated in federal investigations.  It’s only a matter of time before we have solid proof they used.

Sosa’s steroid use brings old questions back to light, questions we still haven’t answered.  Do we care about steroids anymore?  Should we?  Does this taint Sosa and McGwire’s historic pursuit of Maris’s home run record?  Should it?  How will history judge this “steroid era”?  Are we there yet?

American society doesn’t care if you cheat to succeed.  Name five actresses in Hollywood who haven’t had plastic surgery.  Name five people you know who have never cheated on a test, tax return, or significant other.  You can’t do it.  We’re all guilty of cheating and given the opportunity many of us would cheat again, so we let it slide.  So why can’t we let it slide in baseball?

History.  Baseball has always had the most history, which is a nonsensical sentence but perfectly describes the mindset of baseball purists.  According to your typical baseball purist, baseball has changed the least of America’s three major sports.  Basketball added a shot clock and a three-point line; football instituted the forward pass and changes its rules literally every year.  Since baseball remains basically the same game it was 100 years ago, it gives the illusion that we can look at Babe Ruth’s numbers and Albert Pujol’s numbers and compare and contrast them.

And isn’t that the basis for every sports argument ever?  What’s more fun than playing what ifs across the eras?  Could Mike Tyson beat Muhammed Ali?  Is Peyton Manning better than Johnny Unitas?  Wilbon and Kornheiser would be out of a job if we didn’t love these debates.

It’s hard to have these discussions in football because offensive numbers are skewed to favor modern QBs and wide receivers because of pass-happy shotgun spreads.  You can’t quantify guys like Reggie Miller and Ray Allen in the NBA because the three point line didn’t exist 30 years ago.  Baseball, on the other hand, supposedly allows us to compare a guy who played before the advent of television to a guy born after Ghostbusters went to VHS.

It’s a false hope.  The game HAS changed.  Ty Cobb never faced a black guy.  Roger Maris played a longer season than Babe Ruth.  Cy Young pitched three times a week.  The mound height has changed.  Pitchers don’t have to bat anymore.

This doesn’t mean we should give up on the Best Ever arguments.  We just have to contain our statistical comparisons to each era, not the entire history of the game.  When we evaluate players we need to look not at how current players compare to the men who played 80 years ago, but how they measure up to their contemporaries.

When Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs it was more than any other team in the American League that year.  Clearly he was the best player of his generation.  Guys like Clemens, Bonds, A-Rod and Manny are the best players of the current era, and they’ve all done steroids.  Therefore the era should be known as the Steroid Era, plain and simple.  Baseball has gone through the Dead Ball Era, the Live Ball Era, and now the Steroid Era.  It’s something we have to accept.

Some former players estimate 80% of major leaguers were on the juice at some point.  Even if the actual number is half that, a third of that, it’s enough to justify the Steroid Era tag.  (After writing this article I went to ESPN and discovered this article by Bill Simmons about the different eras in baseball.  Bad timing, totally screws any chance people see my piece as original.  F U Simmons and your Boston-loving ways)

Does that mean we should care about steroids?  Yes and no.  We should care enough to put a stop to steroid use in sports, and Major League Baseball and the players union have put in place a strict testing policy, although it’s kind of like Angelina Jolie adopting a bunch of foreign babies and playing house with Brad Pitt, hoping we would forget the time she locked lips with her brother and wore Billy Bob Thorton’s blood around her neck.  Too little, too late.  At least they’re trying now.

Still, we shouldn’t care enough to keep all the users out of the Hall of Fame.  If Manny’s numbers compared to his peers justify his Hall of Fame induction, and they certainly do, then he deserves to get in.  Same goes for Bonds and Clemens and everyone else who used.

Ideally, it would be nice to take a hard line and keep everyone who cheated out of the record books.  The problem with that is we will never know all of the culprits, even if we release the List of 104.  Besides, steroid use doesn’t get you banned for life like betting on baseball.

Should we care enough to let it taint the 1998 home run chase?  I say no.  It was pure entertainment, and that’s what sports are ultimately about.  I was 13 at the time, just becoming aware of baseball outside of the Yankees.  Actually, I would say that Sosa and McGwire MADE me aware of baseball outside of the Yankees.  I remember coming downstairs every morning and going straight for the daily newspaper, which seems incredibly outdated in retrospect.  Sports news from a newspaper

It was thrilling to read the bold headlines, each day Big Mac or Slammin’ Sammy’s image in full color on the front page, enhanced upper bodies straining the confines of their jerseys.  To be cliché, they were larger than life, and I loved it.  They were superheroes in uniform, minus the cape, and chicks dug it.  My dad and I bonded over the chase.  He could remember Mantle and Maris’s pursuit of Ruth, and now he was reveling in my own joy of the modern pursuit.

I think we can still enjoy the memories of 1998, just like we can still enjoy home movies of Christmas when we were six.  In fact, Christmas was more special when I thought a magical fatty in pajamas was dropping my presents down the chimney, so why not go back to that childlike wonderment and just appreciate ’98 for what it was?  We may have been naïve at the time, but I’m not saying we forget or ignore the steroid aspect of Sosa and McGwire’s pursuit of 61.  PED’s are a footnote, just like they are a footnote to the entire era.

It’s not an ideal solution.  Answers to tough questions rarely are.  I think letting them all in beats the alternative, Sosa included.

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