Drugs, Cheating, and the Purity of America’s Pastime
Most children who have grown up in an American household have at one point in their lives looked up to sports figures as heroes. Whether it was your grandfather telling his stories of watching Babe Ruth become a legend, your father’s stories of Mickey Mantle and the legendary Yankee teams of the 1950’s and 1960’s, or your own memory of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chasing the home run record, the feeling of wholesomeness that baseball provides has always found its way into many people’s hearts. Steroids have tarnished these sacred memories, casted doubts in the minds of many on the legitimacy of records and statistics and finally affected the way younger players play the game.
Baseball, America’s pastime, is embedded in the fabric of society. The players and teams have come and gone, but the thing that remains constant is baseball’s ability to unite people as well as families. My own personal experience of this came right after September 11th, 2001. Following the tragedy that was 9/11, the country needed something to help everyone return to normalcy. In our moment of weakness and uncertainty, baseball helped calm my nerves. Fifty three thousand three hundred and twelve brothers stood up in unison and took back their lives. The electricity of that game, the sense of regularity in my life, and the knowledge that millions of people were finding comfort together with me during such a hard time, helped me feel a sense of closure that the worst was behind us.
It is the mystique and aura of the players, the exciting tales behind them, as
well as the history of the game that keeps us interested as fans. These are the reasons why people, children especially, see these players as invincible, and perfect in every way, shape, and form. What would happen if after a century of inspiring stories, and incredible tales of heroism, the inconceivable notion that these players were not perfect, took prominence? Or that many of these superstars cheated their way to the top?
Recently the topic of steroid use in baseball has been everywhere in the news. It has finally come to the attention of Major League Baseball, and now the general public, that a vast percentage of players have been using illegal performance-enhancing drugs. This not only casts a cloud of suspicion over which players are using steroids, and makes one wonder which players are genuine, but it tarnishes the reputation of the sport. It puts into question every player that has ever played the game, as well as all the records and statistics that have been kept as a measuring point of success throughout the history of the game. This latest discovery of steroid use has the chance to step on the hearts of many young fans of the game, and turn away the most loyal of fans. This whole situation has the opportunity to become a crushing blow to a country at war in need of its national pastime; a country that needs its heroes.
The most rampant issue regarding steroids in baseball lately has to do with the investigation of BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative), its dispensing of steroids, and the players that willingly accepted them. Aside from the fact that these are illegal
drugs, and several BALCO employees face federal punishment for distributing them, just as someone selling heroin or cocaine on the street would be, the investigation must be able to tell us which players accepted and used the steroids which they were given. So far the only discovery that has been made was that three superstar players Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, and Jason Giambi, allegedly received the drugs from BALCO, but there has been no proof as to when, or even if they were definitely used by them. (Wada Williams)
The fact that three of the most prominent, popular, and notable players in the game had been given steroids radically changes the public’s perception of them. Whether or not they used the steroids given to them is another story in itself, but the mere fact that they have put themselves in this situation casts a huge cloud of doubt over their recent performance. There is no reason for the public to judge these players favorably, or support them in this case when so many signs are telling people that they are guilty. If the players want the American people to support them through this rough time, then they need to provide us a reason to do so. One way to vindicate themselves would be to take a drug test, and prove to the public that they are clean. (That is one way you can look at it.) You can also fault Major League Baseball itself for not taking action sooner. With millions of dollars being allocated to those having the best statistics in the sport, players are constantly looking for an advantage. When there is this kind of money and honor at stake and there is no foreseeable punishment or consequence for your actions, aside from the immoral characteristic of being a cheater on your conscience, who can blame them for being driven to such drastic measures in order to advance themselves?
In so many other sports, there are stringent rules and testing regarding drugs and steroids. The Olympic drug testing policy is indisputably the most stringent of any sport.
The games are a worldwide competition seen by billions of people throughout the globe, and the people running these games are not willing to sacrifice the dignity of the Games. If someone has won a race, or plans to, because they have used steroids, or anything else to enhance their ability to win, the committee will find out about it. Going back to the 1988 summer Olympic Games in Seoul, Spain, track star “Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal he won in the 100-meter race after he tested positive for an illegal steroid” (Johnson). Johnson had won the race in an unheralded amount of time. Everyone was singing words of praise for the man, until a few days later when the results of the mandatory drug and steroid testing given by the committee came back positive for steroids. Johnson was immediately stripped of his title, and the humility and embarrassment were left with him, not with the pure name of the Olympics. Baseball can learn a few things from the way the Olympics conduct their games and the strict standards they have set for themselves. I believe that by testing players in baseball, as successfully as they do in the Olympics, it will instill a fear in the players’ hearts of being shamed, and therefore reduce the steroid use. In addition to this, I think that if someone were naive enough to think that they could still get away with this, only the credibility of the player would shatter, not the game itself, which is very important.
Without a stronger testing system, we will only have suspicion. If that is all we have, then every single person will be looked at in a bad light for every move, and that is an unfair way to conduct a game of such prestige. After Giambi returned to spring training from the off-season BALCO scandal, he looked much skinnier than the previous season. He claimed to have only lost four pounds but every other person was heard speculating and commenting that it had to be much more than that, and that there must be no better explanation for it other than him getting off those steroids (Ortiz). Even when the San Francisco Chronicle published a front page article outlining federal grand jury testimony on Giambi’s steroid use, Jason denied everything.
Another player who has gained weight over the past few years is megastar Barry Bonds. He went from a tall skinny player into an extremely built, muscular homerun hitter. Many people are aware of his intense off-season training program, but refuse to attribute it only to that, merely because they want to assume he is on steroids. When a player can’t even lose or gain some weight without being put under the microscope, whether he was part of the BALCO investigation or not, it tells you that there needs to be a defining change in the way baseball tests its players. Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker even compared it to “McCarthyism,” saying that “they’re looking to see who looks like a communist. That’s how I equate it. Oh, he lost weight, oh, he gained weight.” He later added that “there are guys who are going to have a cloud over them who don’t deserve it” (Sullivan).
Whether these athletes want to realize it or not, children all over look up to them as role models, and they cannot be expected to look up to cheaters, or people taking drugs to excel. We must have a better way of understanding how to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys.
Something that has been somewhat of a hot topic lately is whether or not Barry Bonds is the greatest baseball player that ever lived. Many of his numerous Major League records (home run record, walks record, 6 Most Valuable Player Awards, etc.) would make it safe to say he’s one of the best, if not the best ever. However, based on the information we have, one might have to question Bonds’ accolades. Does he deserve his place in the history books? While the steroid scandal is going on, how can we ever truthfully find out?
In February 2004, in an interview with all the major sports news broadcasters, Bonds’ former teammate, second baseman Jeff Kent, defended his colleague and his work ethic because he knew first hand how much effort and devotion Bonds puts into his workout regimen and training for the season. In the process of sticking up for his ex-teammate, Kent asked the press how we can be so sure that the legends of years past, specifically Babe Ruth and Roger Maris, weren’t on steroids as well. “Babe Ruth didn’t do steroids? How do you know? How do you know those guys were clean? Did they test those guys?” Kent asked the reporters (Ortiz). While these questions give us even more to think about, how can we be sure Major League records are credible?
The answer to all of these questions is that we can’t be sure anymore, not until we get a stricter testing policy to clearly identify who is truthful and honest, and who is trying to cheat. We need to develop systems that will make players think twice about their actions, prior to doing them and figure out a way to make the questions surrounding the issue disappear for good. All the legends, and all the folklore that is baseball history, and all the things that used to be so easy to accept as a reality, are now tainted because of this situation, and something needs to be done to restore the glory that the game deserves.
The steroid problem is not solely at the Major League level. Controversy surrounding this plague has begun to rear its ugly head in youth leagues in the Dominican Republic, sometimes involving children as young as nine years old. As ESPN the magazine reported in its May 10, 2004 issue, the pressures to succeed have translated into coaches and mentors pushing their kids to use steroids to gain an advantage over the competition and make a life for themselves; sometimes even forcing these kids to inject animal steroids into their bodies. “It is sad to say, but this is as much a common practice in the Dominican Republic as going to school is for American children” (Farrey).
Besides the fact that these children are being taught that the best way to succeed is to be morally corrupt, the problem goes much deeper than that. The health risks and ramifications that one takes by using steroids even just one time can be extremely harmful to your body, sometimes even resulting in death. This was the case in 2001 when 19 year old catching prospect Lino Ortiz passed away in the aftermath of severe steroid abuse (Farrey). Some of the side effects can include severe acne, heart and kidney disease, liver failure, mood swings, and bone damage. The health risks for adolescent users include all of the above, in addition to reduced growth rate, shrunken testicles, and growth of breasts for males (Buch).
It is hard enough to understand why adults of 25 years of age and older would want to subject themselves to an uncertain future in terms of their health, but it is mind-boggling, aside from being sickening and disgusting, to think that pre-teens are using these dangerous drugs. What’s worse is the fact that this behavior is encouraged by the elders in these children’s lives.
Because of the lavish rewards that come with the territory of being a Major League baseball player- such as fame, fortune, and power – many children are being pressured to act like Lino Ortiz did, in order to provide a better life for themselves and their families. We must do something to solve this problem and it has to start at the top, with Major League Baseball cleaning up its own act first.
Many involved with the situation believe that another catalyst to the steroid epidemic stems from the management of these teams. With the commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bud Selig, reporting a loss of $519 million for teams in 2001, as well as a $3 billion debt to pay, the owners were looking for a way to turn a profit once again (Bodley). The biggest draw to the ballpark for most people is the home run ball. Owners are aware of this, and the potential revenue that can come with it. If it is obvious that home runs will put fans in the seats, then owners would be strongly advised to bring in the strongest players that can best drive the ball well beyond the fence. I don’t think anybody is saying that the owners supply the players with the steroids themselves, although nothing can be ruled out at this point, but it is very possible that with realizing the potential financial gain available at hand, perhaps they have been looking the other way at the issue, rather than facing it head on. A major proof of this belief comes with learning the fact that all Major League Baseball owners have a reasonable-cause testing provision’ in the current collective bargaining agreement, and have so far declined to take advantage of it (Chass). This only deepens the problem further because by looking the other way, as well as rewarding home run hitters with larger paychecks, the ownerships of these teams are just condoning this behavior.
The only answer to all of these problems is to make a drastic change in the way we deal with the steroid issue. As I’ve previously stated multiple times, we must change the way we test the players. There has to be a better system that can invoke fear in the players to the point that they will no longer even consider steroids as a viable option. Something that could be done is to focus on stricter testing in minor league baseball, thus making it clear to players that this behavior will not even be tolerated at the lower level, let alone at the Major League level.
Major League Baseball is already off to the right start, recently having anonymously tested 1,100 players at random in 2003 (2004 numbers are not yet available), with 5-7% of those players testing positive (Wharton). In addition to that, Major League Baseball will start testing 1500 minor league players in the Dominican Republic in June 2004 (Espn.com). The individual results of these tests have been, and will be kept confidential, and rightfully so for the time being. However, the fact that Major League Baseball is showing that they are finally becoming adamant about ridding themselves and their reputation of this problem, is something that should give us hope for now, as well as for the future.
Even more so than simply testing the players though, I think a key issue that has been overlooked and that may be a huge contributor to the steroid problem without many
people being aware of it, is the incentives given in a player’s contract. Getting rid of the six figure bonuses commonly given for a certain amount of home runs, hits, strikeouts, innings pitched, etc, will help reduce the apparent need to use steroids as a source of instant reward and income. While doing this there will still most certainly be players drawn to steroids as a means to get ahead of the competition for personal glory or other reasons, the fact is eliminating bonuses has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of users in the league. It is then, and only then that we can be prepared to fully eliminate the steroid problem as we know it today, remove the cloud of doubt over everyone’s heads, and return the game of baseball to the past glorification that it once knew, as the true American pastime.