For most of the glorious 20th Century, Major League Baseball was considered a gentleman’s game. It was left to other professional sports like Football or Boxing for the brutes to dominate. Indeed, a burly body was thought to be a hindrance in every aspect of baseball save one: the Home Run.
Big muscles just got in the way if you were running down a hot grounder, finnessing a split-finger fast ball or tracking a long, lazy fly. The lithe, graceful, athletic build ruled in most aspects of the game and fans were content to wait for the cleanup man to take his turn at the plate. He was usually the biggest guy.
But sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s a momentous shift occurred in baseball which gave rise to a new era. And the fans ate it up. Suddenly the long ball came to prominence and the home run began to dominate like never before.
At first it was thought that it was the baseball itself that was juiced. Then bats came under scrutiny. After all, subtle changes to their legal composition were introduced and sanctioned by the MLB. It wasn’t long before those theories evaporated in the face of an overwhelming, emerging reality: players were getting humongous.
And it wasn’t just a new crop of rookies benefiting from accelerated weight training. Players who had evolved from the pastoral model of the gangling youngster to the solidly mature veteran were suddenly sprouting bulges in places rarely seen in a set of pullover jerseys and flannel leggings. Seemingly overnight. Or at least over the Winter break. What happened?
Advances in conditioning techniques and equipment were at first suspect. Why wouldn’t that technology keep pace with the rest of the changing gadget world? Then the dirty secret was finally revealed. It was the players themselves who were juicing up.
For the last 20 years an assault on the record books has been taking place at a pace never seen before since the first box-score was penciled in. In the future, these last two decades will be referred to as the time when the asterisk ruled the record books while the era of steroids ran its course.
Let’s take a look back and see where it all began, and where we are today.
MLB officials institute a ban on steroids. It was quietly introduced, did not cause much of a stir and was largely overlooked by commentators and journalists. After all, steroids were the bane of lesser sports like “Pro” wrestling or Olympic weightlifting and the ban was seen as merely perfunctory. A sort of pre-emptive strike.
To prove the point, there was no move to randomly test for the substances. In fact, anabolic steroids were perfectly legal at the time. Still, the rumblings had begun. SOMEBODY knew SOMETHING.
As he was making his run for the A.L. MVP, Jose Canseco came under scrutiny by the Washington Post for his seemingly overnight transformation from stocky youngster to Hulk-like demi-God. Rumors were rampant that steroids were being used more widely and more openly.
But at the time Canseco was regarded as a fanatic consumed with maximizing his physique and his MVP run was the natural result of dedicated, strenuous conditioning. Then, in September, along came Mark McGwire and the assault on baseball’s single season home run record. Canseco’s story was left in the dust around home plate as the focus shifted to McGwire’s record breaking run.
After the excitement of the home run race died down a bit over the off-season, the rumors began to build into a major story. For the next several years, as the home run record was flirted with again and again, the whispered rumors became more open to serious debate. The evidence was there for anyone with eyes in their heads. Baseball players were beginning to look more like linebackers.
2002 – 2004
To answer the growing furor, MLB began a random testing program. By the end of 2003 it was learned that 7% of the testees came up positive for steroid use. The results triggered a mandatory testing program for all players and Congress got into the act by calling up 10 players before a committee to testify about steroid use in the bigs. The images recalled the big Tobacco execs swearing that nicotine is not harmful. Only this time there was no billion dollar settlement.
Since the activities were unprecedented, and we were talking about living, breathing legends, baseball was slow to penalize offenders over the next several years. High salaried mouthpieces managed to cast doubt on the testing process and results were kept tightly secret. But it couldn’t last forever.
From 2005 through 2008 a number of players felt the heat of the rising controversy and had their toes nipped by the flames, including David Justice, Mo Vaughn, David Segui and Lenny Dykstra. But it wasn’t just sluggers. Strikeout King Roger Clemens tried using his best stuff during his own testimony about steroid use on the Hill, but his curve had definitely lost its zip. Even so, most of the batters up before the Congress drew another walk.
But the fans didn’t look the other way. Purists clamoring for the good old days began to have an effect on the collective consciousness and baseball became tainted in a way that hasn’t been seen since the days of the Black Sox scandal of 1919.
When asses in the seats began to decline, a real crackdown was mounted that is beginning to restore America’s love for its game and ticket sales began to climb again. The testing process has some teeth and some multi-millionaire players have actually felt the pain in their wallets through suspensions and sanctions against a positive pee test. Manny Ramirez is still sore over his unplanned 50 game break earlier this year. But you can bet your sweet Aspercreme that these days he looks twice at even an aspirin.
As it stands now, the ball stays in the yard a lot more than it used to. That is perhaps the best indication that baseball has weathered the storm and players are once again on an even playing field with the past – and the future.
It looks like the pure athlete has made a comeback in baseball. And the sluggers are back where they belong – in the number 4 spot, well away from the top of the order.
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