Why Baseball Can’t Relegate Steroids to the Past

Yesterday the Cubs held a fan event in Chicago. At it, owner Tom Ricketts surprised everyone, including Ryne Sandberg—who was present, with an announcement that a statue of Sandberg would be made and unveiled at Wrigley Field in 2024. It’s a well deserved honor, and in/of itself a fine moment. With the ongoing renovations at Wrigley, it’s also been announced that the Cubs Hall of Fame will be opened this year…and that this year’s inductees will be Mark Grace and Sharon Dunston. All well and good. Then some media member asked the inevitable question about why Sammy Sosa has not only not been honored for his 15 years as a Cub but hasn’t even been invited to events for years.

Ricketts’ answer was telling: “I’d like to get this behind us as well but I want to be thoughtful about it and do it in a way that’s respectful to both the people that love Sammy and people that respect the game too.” You see, apparently in Ricketts’ mind one cannot both like Sammy Sosa and simultaneously respect the game of baseball. That is the crux of the matter, an unbending emotional attitude that is still common both in some segments of fandom and within baseball itself. Steroids cannot be left in the past because this group of people won’t allow it to be. One cannot simply acknowledge a player’s accomplishments (like Sosa being the only player ever to have three 60 home run seasons) and failures (like Sosa generally being thought to have used PEDs); no, in their minds one has to add the judgment of said player “respecting the game” or not.

For the owners and MLB front office, where was that respect with the whole “chicks dig the long ball” TV ad campaign in the 1990s? Where was it with managers and team front office personnel telling players they needed to get bigger? How is it respecting the game when the only pariahs are the players who happened to set a record of some sort? It’s generally acknowledged steroid use was extremely widespread from the late 1980s into the 2000s. Yet Sosa, Clemens, Bonds, McGwire, Palmeiro…they’re history’s greatest monsters instead of just a sample of players who did something we wish they hadn’t. They even get called cheaters even though there was no official rule until 2004.

Do I think steroid use, or other PED use for that matter, was okay? No, but I can acknowledge that it happened without a visceral response or insisting that the players who succumbed to temptation intentionally disrespected the holy game of baseball. Lots of other things have happened that have been bad in baseball, too. One of the statues there at Wrigley Field is of Fergie Jenkins, who got arrested for possession of cocaine in 1980. Baseball was riddled with cocaine scandal throughout the 1980s. I’ve actually had people tell me in all seriousness they think steroids are worse than recreational drug use. It’s an assertion so preposterous I shouldn’t have to address it, but I will. Cocaine has ruined (and ended) lives as well as careers. We’ve all heard “cute” stories about things like Tim Raines altering his slide to not break the glass vials of cocaine in his pocket—yet being in the HoF anyway. Stories about Steve Howe, Darryl Strawberry, Dave Parker, and Dwight Gooden aren’t cute. They all damaged their lives, their teams, and MLB with recreational drug use. Nobody accuses them of disrespecting the game.

Three times in the 1980s owners got caught red handed colluding against the players. Illegally restricting free trade obviously hurts the product on the field. They intentionally provoked the 1994 strike that wiped out the World Series in an effort to break the MLBPA. They do not get accused of disrespecting the game.

I could go on with paragraphs about illegal sign stealing, doctoring balls, amphetamines literally being left out in clubhouses in candy jars, etc, but I think I’ve made that point. Heck, artificial steroids themselves have been around since Dianabol was introduced in 1958–with documented use by athletes, including baseball players, in the 1960s. Before that exogenous testosterone (Brown Sequard solution) was used all the way back into the 19th century. Players trying to find artificial means to get an edge is as old as the game itself.

Baseball is a great game, and it’s a lot of fun watching amazing athletes do amazing things. However, as amazing as they are, they are still humans. They have human temptations and failings. To still react emotionally years/decades after one does something bad is not helpful to anyone, nor to the game itself.

Back to Sosa himself for a moment. Do I think he belongs in the Hall of Fame? Eh. He was a prodigious home run hitter, but it is fair to discount that somewhat due to PED use, even though there is no way to truly quantify it. It’s also fair to point out that for much of his career, his power was the only genuinely great thing about his game. However, making him a pariah, not even inviting him to fan events? That’s too much punishment.

So, to anyone who wants the “Steroid Era” to be relegated to history: quit keeping it alive by actively ostracizing a few players who happened to be at the forefront of a wide spread issue.

One thought on “Why Baseball Can’t Relegate Steroids to the Past

  1. Many interesting points. I’ve always felt that there is a difference between steroids when no rule existed, and after the ban. Your point about clubhouse amphetamines – I’m certain that trainers may have encouraged steroids, probably with the approval of their superiors.

    My opinion of steroid use is still evolving. Barry Bonds was an outstanding ballplayer for many years before he became extraordinary. Point being, he was a step ahead of his peers, then went two steps ahead. He extended his career and increased his earnings, and he got the Giants to the World Series (losing to the Angels. Can’t forget that part.) It’s almost a given that Bonds would have been a Hall of Famer without the stats he collected after bulking up. He picked up four straight MVP awards starting with his age 36 year, the same year his OPS was 200 points higher than any previous year. If Bonds had retired at 35, he would have been a first ballot inductee.

    No, I’m not becoming a Bonds apologist. However, Bonds, Sosa, some of the others… They were not nice guys. Interviews with the press, reaction to fans in the stands, or just hated by fans whose teams they constantly beat, some of the steroid club were widely disliked.

    On another of your points: There is a lot of bad actors in baseball history. Currently we deal with Bauer. He isn’t the first abuser in baseball, and some other abusers are back in the game after serving suspension – and claiming recovery through therapy. Bauer, on the other hand, claims he has done nothing wrong while admitting behavior most reasonable people consider horrifying. He is clearly a human POS and he won’t be back until and unless public opinion changes.

    My point then is that it’s easy to hate the action when it is performed by people you hate. You are rightly pointing out that these issues are more complex. A simple yes or no they are not.

    Liked by 1 person

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