On Baseball and Steroids
If we have learned anything since the specter of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs were injected into the game of baseball more than two decades ago, it is that we will never learn everything. The Mitchell Report did little but muddy the waters, splashing all over everyone. When history looks back at the report, its most telling statement may well be that, as Mitchell wrote “The use of steroids in Major League Baseball was widespread. The response by baseball was slow to develop.”
One has to be not only blind but considerably and willingly dumb to look at the last two decades of major league baseball and not raise an eyebrow at each and every number and achievement, not only of every single player, but of every single team, a point the Mitchell Report underscored. Apart from pushing the use of PEDs on the young, that is the worst aspect of this entire scandal, for just as the one player trying to throw one game calls into question everything that happens in that game, so to does the use of steroids and other PEDs by even a small number of major league players ripple through the game and undercut everything that happens after the umpire calls “Play ball!” The effects of steroids and PEDs on the game are not isolated events, but a like a disease, a long-term condition that affects every second of the patient’s life.
Consider Jose Canseco, who has openly admitted his use of steroids. In 1988 Canseco won the AL MVP award and the A’s won the pennant. His presence in the A’s lineup in that season and every other affected every single game his team played in ways far to numerous to count, affecting the batting order, pitch selection, pitching changes, who played and who didn’t for how long, who was traded away and traded for, drafted and let go, because everything that happens in a baseball game is inexorably tied to everything else. To believe otherwise is to deny both logic and reality.
When historians look back at this era there will be one irrefutable conclusion; it all stinks. Every number, every stat and every place in the game is suspect and tainted, artificial and enhanced. Since we cannot now and never will be able to state with any certainty who used what and who didn’t, how much and for how long, no player and no team comes out of this era pure. The implications of that are no more pleasant locally than they are in Oakland, New York or anywhere else, for just as the Canseco’s MVP award and McGwire’s and then Bond’s home run records are suspect, so to are the performances of those teams with those players in their lineups. And as the Mitchell Report told us, no team during this era was unaffected. There was a Jose Canseco on the field for every team in every inning of every game for most of two decades. Therefore the A’s 1988 pennant with Canseco in the lineup is as spurious as the Yankees four world championships in five seasons from 1996-2000, and – it pains me to say so for my Boston friends – as Boston’s two long-awaited championships in 2004 and 2007.
It is also personal. As an occasional writer of baseball history I do not look forward to a time in the future when I have to write about this era. And I am somewhat embarrassed by the way I have written about it in the past. Although I wrote about steroids in the pages of this magazine in 1998, my books barely mention PEDs and hardly consider their impact. Were I to re-write them today, armed with what we now know of the era, my recounting of the last twenty years would be radically different.
To move forward with any integrity, I believe that baseball needs to acknowledge these facts openly, publicly and for all time. The Mitchell Report – rightly, I think – sees no point in punishing individual players for past indiscretions, because there is simply no way to determine who was, and was not guilty.
But there is a way to punish the game, publicly and forever, to make it clear in the future what is at stake when the integrity of the game is so widely and openly breached.
There should be a plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, identical to the bas relief bronzes that honor players and other notable baseball figures. But instead of the bearing the head of a player, this plaque should bear a large asterisk. And instead of an inscription that that recounts a person’s achievements in the game, the plaque should say the following:
During this twenty-year period the authenticity and integrity of the game, its records and its results, were compromised by the widespread use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs by players and by Major League Baseball’s failure either to acknowledge or adequately address this issue.
All records and achievements during this time period by every player and every team should be considered suspect.