The steroid era is upon us again. The inescapable reminder that America’s sport was once a den of cheaters. For the first time, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Roger Clemens are eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Five years removed from their playing days, three of the largest names of the steroid era will be at the mercy of the Baseball Writers Association Of America vote. While it is hard to imagine that any of them will receive enough votes on the first ballot, is it right to keep all of them out for forever?
The steroid era was one that people will remember for forever. Not because of failed drug tests or admittance to using performance enhancing drugs, but because of the years that saved baseball.
At the height of the steroid era, baseball was a struggling sport. They were struggling to draw fans, and struggling to keep public interest in the sport.
Enter Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
The 1998 race to break Roger Maris’s 37-year-old home run record saved baseball. McGwire and Sosa race to 62 home runs and beyond captivated the sporting nation. ESPN’s Sportscenter often lead with coverage of both men and their accomplishments for the day. It resuscitated a sport that was on life support. And lets be clear, Major League Baseball knew it.
MLB was reaping all of the rewards. Did they care how or why McGwire saw his career best in home runs topped by 18 more? Or how Sosa bested his career best by 26? The answer is no.
While Steroid use had been banned in baseball since 1971, drug testing and policing of banned substances weren’t started until 2002.
Barry Bonds’ single season home run record of 73 and career total of 762 will forever have a asterisks next to them in the public’s eyes. But his other accomplishments are hard to ignore. He was record setting seven-time MVP winner, 14-time All-Star and 8-time Gold Glove winner. He is also the all-time leader in both walks (2,558) and intentional walks (668). He also stole 514 bases in his career. The argument could be made that he was well on his way to entering the Hall of Fame before steroid allegations began.
Sammy Sosa’s case with out the power numbers is a bit more difficult. “With the Rangers, Sosa hit his 600th career home run to become the fifth player in MLB history to reach the milestone. He is also the all-time home run leader among foreign-born MLB players. Furthermore, Sosa is one of only two National League players to ever reach 160 RBIs in a season, a milestone he reached in 2001.Sosa is the only player to have hit 60 or more home runs in a single season three times.” Sosa made his name as a power hitter, but offered little in the way of fielding and base running like Bond’s did. With or without steroids, the numbers are still impressive.
Roger “The Rocket” Clemens was one of the most dominate pitchers to ever take the mound. Clemens’ career lasted for 24 years. An impressive feat all by itself. Many pitchers struggle to compete for more than ten do to the wear and tear on their arms. Clemens more than doubled that number. Oh, and his numbers were impressive as well. He passed the coveted 300-win mark, finishing with 354 career wins. He had a career ERA of 3.12 and finished with 4,672 career strikeouts, third all-time. He also owns the record for most strikeouts in a nine inning game, 20. He won seven Cy Young awards, the most of any pitcher in history. Clemens was known for his dominating style and his ability to change the face of any pitching staff. Clemens is also a great of example of how steroid use was not limited to position players.
There are plenty of misconceptions that are used when judging the accomplishments of players related to steroid use.
The first common misconception that the power sluggers were the only ones cheating is wrong. Baseball was littered with cheaters and they didn’t just stand in the batters box. The competition to stay on a 25 man roster is fierce, especially if you’re numbers 22-25. There will be plenty of names that we don’t remember and will never know that were guilty. They won’t ever be indicted or have to worry that their misconducts being brought to light. Are they any less guilty than Bonds, Clemens, or Sosa? Did they taint the game any less?
The second misconception is that steroids somehow turn below-average players into superstars. There are plenty of players that used steroids that never amounted to anything more than a utility player on a team. Using steroids doesn’t solve one of the most basic obstacles of baseball, putting the bat on the ball. Steroids don’t make the ability of making contact any easier. If you were a strike out king before steroids, you’d most likely be one after steroid use. It also doesn’t give you the ability to become a savant of the strike zone over night. The ability to draw a walk is just as important as getting a hit. On-Base Percentage, OBP, and On-Base Plus Slugging, OPS, have become to very important statistics in the Sabermetric world that baseball has become. As Brad Pitt says in the movie “MoneyBall”, “Do I care how you get on base? No, a walk is as good as a hit”. While it is hard to deny steroid use lead to the increase in home runs during the steroid era, it still doesn’t explain away many other aspects of the game.
The third misconception is that using steroids is the only way to cheat the game. Uppers, downers and greenies defined much of the 1970’s. Players used them deal with the long season and their ability to be alert during every single game of a 162-game season. Tim Raines is on record saying that he used to have a gram of cocaine in his back pocket during games that he would use. He used to slide head first to avoid breaking the bag in his pocket. Using these stimulants is a performance enhancing drug. While the ability to play high may be more impressive than playing lucid and juiced with steroids, it still gives a competitive advantage to a player. This issue has never been one that the media, as well as the public, have used to determine the worthiness in evaluating the credentials of possible Hall candidates.
The steroid era will be a hard one to escape as the names associated with it continue to reach their eligibility date. There are also names such as Alex Rodriguez, admitted user, who will have the accomplishments when their time comes in future years. While I am not condoning the use of steroids or any other PED in professional sports, the issue is that it happened. We know it happened. The BBWAA will have a hard decision when it comes to the high profile players associated with this time and whether they should enter the Hall, but to keep them out will be difficult. They were the best cheaters of a cheating era. Maybe the Hall should erect a special section, but to deny them completely will be difficult.