“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
We have arrived at that point in the Baseball season in Minnesota when it is actually beginning to feel like summer. Last Tuesday was the first time this season that Target Field finally started smelling like a ballpark. It was warm and sunny enough that you began to catch the scent of hotdogs, popcorn, cotton candy and beer through the lower concourses around home plate. The crowds are now big enough to support the concession stands that may have been closed during earlier games this season. Some, like the State Fair stand near Gate 3 in center field are finally now fully open and serving fish & chips and corndogs. These are small, subtle indicators of summer’s beginning.
The big news around baseball this week concerned itself with Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano. Cano, who was placed on the disabled list last week after he broke a finger when hit by a pitch, was suspended by Baseball for 80 games after testing positive for the diuretic furosemide, which violated the MLB’s drug prevention and treatment policy. A licensed doctor in his native Dominican Republic prescribed the drug, which is commonly used in the Dominican to treat “various medical conditions.”. He reported that he didn’t know that furosemide was a banned substance. For Cano, this means he will lose $11.85 Million of his $24 Million deal for the season.
For the Mariners, it becomes a huge blow for a team currently sitting with a 25-19 record and currently contending with the Houston Astros in the American League West. With the suspension, they lose an 8-time All Star and a career .304 hitter with 5 Silver Slugger awards during his 14-season career. In addition to the 80 games, Cano will be ineligible for any potential post-season play. This will hurt Seattle immeasurably.
Aside from the monetary loss, which is significant, what is most harmful to Cano is the potential effect it will have on his legacy
as a player. This will most certainly affect what would otherwise be considered a career with an eventual plaque in the sacred hall in Cooperstown among baseball’s other immortals. That certainly seems in doubt at the moment, which is a real shame.
Performance Enhancing Drugs, or P.E.D.s are certainly of major concern in the game. The Baseball Players Association, in concert with the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, adopted the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program in 2006 in order to strip the sport of anabolic steroids, and any other illegal drugs, that may serve to help players achieve performance levels that might not otherwise have been reached.
The problem, as I see it, is that steroids significantly aided baseball’s current condition. Baseball is a business that generates billions of dollars every season. The 30 teams that play all contribute to the tax bases of the cities in which they operate, and are tied into thousands of businesses from Papa John’s Pizza, to Pepsi, to Budweiser and Coors. How many companies are represented in the game simply by the name of the stadium in which the team plays? Progressive Insurance in Cleveland, Busch Beer in St. Louis and Tropicana Orange Juice in Tampa Bay to name but just a few. In fact, try to name a few stadiums that don’t have the name of a corporation in their title. Once you get past Dodger Stadium, Yankee Stadium and Fenway, you are gonna struggle a bit. Baseball is big business. HUGE.
I believe steroids were a primary contributor to baseball achieving this business performance level.
In 1994, baseball went on strike. The strike began on August 12th and resulted in the cancellation of the remainder of the
season. It went on for 232 days and would not end until April 2, 1995. A total of 948 scheduled games went unplayed. Baseball was in a funk financially, and the owners tied a revenue sharing plan with a salary cap that required the player’s union to sign off on it all. As expected, the players balked. Tensions between “Management” and “Labor” can be traced back to the beginning of time. Just look at the situation between Chicago owner Charles Comiskey and the eight Chicago Black Sox players who took money from Arnold Rothstein to intentionally throw the 1919 World Series will give an indication of what these pressures can lead to. It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that things were not looking good in 1994. Jon Pessah outlines much of these issues in his outstanding 2015 book The Game: Inside The Secret World Of Major League Baseball’s Power Brokers. It is a fantastic read and well worth your attention.
By the time August rolled around, there was some really competitive baseball being played. The Montreal Expos had the best
record in baseball 74-40. This was their best season ever, and the strike stopped it. In the NL Central, the Cincinnati Reds led the division with a 66-48 record and the Houston Astros were right behind them with 66-49. Things were even tighter in two divisions of the American League. The Chicago White Sox at 67-46 were atop the Central, holding a one game lead over Cleveland. In the West, the Texas Rangers at 52-62 were staving off the Oakland Athletics and their 51-63 record. Interesting to note that at the time, the Milwaukee Brewers, then in the AL Central were in dead last place at 53-62. Had they only been in the AL West…
From a player’s perspective, the strike ended a number of possibilities. Tony Gwynn had a .394 batting average at that point and had an opportunity to end the season with a .400 average, the first since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. San Francisco hitter Matt Williams had 43 home runs with 50 games to go, and was on a hitting tear. He had Roger Maris’ 61 home run record in his viewfinder. The strike ended it all. One fell swoop and the season was washed away forever. Forever. As if it all never happened. There would be no World Series as the sound of crickets bounced off the empty stadium walls. It was like the season of Dallas that ended with Bobby Ewing in the shower at the end. Fans were upset. They turned away. They were done. Baseball was on life support.
Then 1998 happened. St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire began hitting home runs. He hit one in each of his first four games. Sure, both McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. looked like they were threatening Roger Maris’ single season record of 61 the prior year, but both fell short at 58 and 56, respectively. 61 was a seemingly unbreakable mark to overtake. The toll that it takes, both physically and mentally, to overcome a record previously held by Babe Ruth looked to be insurmountable challenge. Baseball was looking for a story that could move the game into the collective American mindset, and began the promotion of a possible McGwire/Griffey Jr. rematch and chase before the season even began, but the media wasn’t biting. Yet.
April ended with McGwire recording 11 home runs. He added another 16 in May to lead the league at 27. Home Runs are funny things. Physics will tell you that baseballs will fly higher and farther in warmer weather due to what is known as “the ambient-temperature effect.” McGwire started the first two months with 27 of these things, and it had yet to get really warm.
By the time June rolled around, Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs began to heat up. He may have started the month with 13
home runs, but he added 20 during June, a record for the month that still stands. Once July rolled around, Sosa was now in the mix, matching Junior with 33, and McGwire leading the pack at 37. The world began to take note, and people began coming back to ballparks. Interest was beginning to awaken.
By the time the 1st of September rolled around, McGwire and Sosa were tied at 55 dingers. They only needed 7 to break Maris’ record. Griffey, Jr. was sitting at 47. It was unlikely that he would surpass the duo, and he began to fade from view. As each hitter neared the fabled 61 mark, network television began interrupting broadcasts to cut to at-bats of the hitters. It was amazing. The country was riveted by the moments that were taking place in ballparks where the Cards and the Cubs were playing. Neither of the teams were really contending, but these two hitters were chasing immortality. History was inevitable, and we waited to see it happen.
On September 7th, Mark McGwire sat with 60 home runs when he stepped into the batter’s box in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, the home of Sosa’s Cubs. The imagination of poets like Robert Browning could not have written a more dramatic setting. Mike Morgan set to pitch, and the Cards hitter sent it 430 feet out to tie Roger Maris for the single season record. The next night, he took Steve Trachsel deep, breaking the most coveted and sacred record in Baseball. Sosa hugged him as he rounded the bases. Grown men cried. The universe was perfect. We lived it. Sosa also went on to break the record, finishing
with 66 on the season. It wasn’t over until McGwire took Carl Pavano deep on September 27th to mark his 70th home run of the season. A record that stood for 37 years was now ash.
Then, in 2001, Barry Bonds broke the record again, hitting 73 home runs. Wait. What? A record that had stood for 37 years was now crushed just three years later? Hit by a player who had never had more than 50 in any of his previous seasons? Seriously? Something smells fishy here. A quick look at Bonds’ rookie baseball card vs. how he looked in 2001, and there appeared to be a little, uh, “enhancement.” Actually, this really smells.
It began to smell so bad that Congress began to look into it, which is never good. In March 2005, when asked at a congressional hearing if he had ever used steroids during his playing career, Mark McGwire answered “My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family or myself.” Asked by Representative Elijah E. Cummings if he was pleading the fifth, McGwire replied with a convenient “I’m not here to discuss the past. I’m here to be positive about the subject.” Damn right he was pleading the fifth.
McGwire retired in 2001 and Major League Baseball began testing for Anabolic Steroids the following year with penalties issued
in 2005. McGwire admitted to Bob Costas in a 2010 interview that he had, in fact, used steroids throughout his career, including his record-breaking 1998 season.
It was all a lie. It was a fake record. When Maris broke the Babe’s record it was noted with an asterisk because his 61 was done in a 162 game season while only 154 games in a season when Ruth did it. Still, as far as the public saw it, a record was broken. Interest in the game was restored. It appeared that the damage done by the strike was past and baseball could move on to bigger, more profitable times. The number of new stadiums built, and financed with taxpayer money, was staggering. This was capitalism with a capital C. “If you build it, they will come” could not have been a truer statement. In the end, a lie fueled by steroids had re-engineered baseball’s comeback.
“The Steroid Era” is an uncomfortable moment for everyone associated with the game, and it should be. It was a time when the game both lost its footing, and regained its standing in American culture. That is the exact definition of “uncomfortable.” Baseball is correct to now issue very harsh penalties to those that cross the P.E.D. threshold. It doesn’t matter that the average person can buy the substance in question at the local GNC. They don’t belong in baseball.
As for me, I am a purist. Anything beyond a corn dog, a beer, and cup of coffee is suspect in my book. I also love the sun and warm weather. If any Major League team wants to send me to the Dominican Republic over the winter to monitor everything their players ingest during the course of a long Minnesota winter, I am more than happy to oblige. Hey, we had a blizzard on April 14th, so I’m up for it…
Daniel G. Moir is a freelance writer, musician, and baseball enthusiast. He hardly ever misses a Minnesota Twins home game at Target Field, and when the team is on the road he watches at home with his pal Brubeck. He can be contacted at @DMoir5150.
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