Monday, March 05, 2007

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Steroids

Ahhh, the sounds of spring approach. Major League Baseball spring training games have started in Arizona and Florida, optimism from Seattle to New York, from Milwaukee to Miami is as high as it's going to be all year, and the bitching about steroids in general and Barry Bonds in particular, is back in full throat.

For those of you who just bussed in to Earth, hate sports, or live in Kansas City, I'll recap Bonds-Gate: San Francisco Giants' right fielder Barry Bonds, who went from a very slim, very fast, very talented youngster who hit lots of home runs and stole a lot of bases in the late eighties (top picture) to a very talented bald old guy with bad knees who hits even more home runs and who now is built more like actor Ving Rhames (bottom picture) , is now the second most prolific home run hitter in major league history, with Hank Aaron's crown in sight this year.

The issues first started a few years ago, when a scandal broke out about former home run hitter Jose Canseco and steroid use. This 'blockbuster' news shocked almost no one, as Canseco looked like he stepped right off of Muscle Beach, hit long home runs, and had a very short career (at least in good years). The scandal took off when Canseco revealed in his book "Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big", that 85% of major league players took steroids. While that number has been hotly disputed by many in the game, several of the big names named by Canseco have since either admitted steroid use, tested positive for them, or both.

Since then (2005), several 'sub-scandals' have been reported, most notably from the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) allegedly supplying steroids to a number of baseball players. Barry Bonds trainer since 2000, Greg Anderson, was the BALCO employee indicted. Despite three separate reports that federal investigators were about to indict Bonds for perjury last year in denying he used steroids, and despite an admission later in the year that Bonds was indeed a target in that federal investigation, no indictments were ever filed, failing any proof. There was also a big story just a week or two ago about Human Growth Hormone (HGH) being sold on the internet, in numbers exceeding hundreds of thousands of dollars, to groups from high schoolers to pro baseball and football players.

Of the players, coaches, trainers, and ex-players either naming or named by these scandals, none is receiving the backlash that Bonds is. Sportswriters who complain bitterly that Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame despite his admitted gambling on baseball are jumping on the "asterisk" record bandwagon. These are the people who say when Bonds breaks Aaron's record, he should have an asterisk by it, denoting it was somehow questionable. This would be funny if it weren't so pathetic. Most of those same sportswriters (the older ones) were writing when Aaron himself was chasing Babe Ruth's record back in the early 70's. Nobody seems to remember the death threats, the disrespect, the plain old-fashioned bigoted hatred that stalked Aaron. The protests, the death threats, the boycotts. That a black man would DARE to claim the home run record from the legendary Babe Ruth. But this too passed, and now, bizarrely enough, the outsider is the 'home run king' that's being subverted by the pretender with the 'performance-enhancing drug' crutch.

My problem with all the Barry-bashing isn't about whether or not he does or has used steroids. It's about the double and triple standards that come with every record that falls eventually. And all of them do, sooner or later. But legends not only die hard, they die really really cranky.

Let's look at the objections one at a time: He built his body up chemically. Ok, let's assume for just a moment, that he didn't. Let's assume, just for one split second, that it was done with state of the art training and nutrition. Training and nutrition that didn't exist 40 years ago. On machines that didn't exist. With the benefit of 40 years of sea changes in body building. Obviously that's a benefit that Bonds' predecessors didn't have. Is that cheating?

Secondly, let's assume the allegations are indeed true. If steroids are indeed that prevalent, even if only half or two thirds use them, why is Bonds achieving so much more than his contemporaries? He's presumably hitting against genetically engineered pitchers, and other hitters are doing the same, yet he's hit more home runs than anyone in history but one. Not to mention, if he's so bulked up, how is he able to hit the fastest pitches from these chemically created Frankensteins? From 2002-2004, he hit .370, .341, and .362 (two of those three led the league in hitting).

Thirdly, times and the league itself change. Let's look at the legendary Babe Ruth. From 1901 until 1919, the home run leaders in the American League averaged 8.9 home runs. All season. This was in the so called Dead-Ball era, when the ball was literally wound very loosely, the same ball was kept in play for over 100 pitches, spit, and other, more disgusting foreign objects were legal, and foul balls were not counted as strikes. Players like Frank "Home Run" Baker, who led the American League in home runs four years in a row, and Frank Schulte, who held the major league home run record with an absurd 21 in 1911, have never been heard from again, after the ball and rules were changed in the 20's and players like Babe Ruth started hitting them. How fair was that to the previous record holders? Ruth, and Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx, the golden boys of the golden era, played the best ball of THEIR time, and were the record holders. No one "asterisked" their records because of "unfair" advantage.

Players get bigger, better, have better training regimens, and the sport evolves. Every sport does. Perhaps baseball's biggest draw is also it's biggest bigotry: It's a game that evokes the past, and things pastoral. It's played in a 'field' or a 'park', and almost everyone has waves of nostalgia when they think of baseball in their youth. But the people that play the game evolve. They play to compete, they play to win, they play to make money. To vilify the use of some of the tools and not others, is just plain hypocrisy.