I was eight years old when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa brought Major League Baseball back to life.
Four years after the 1994 baseball season was cut short by a player strike, America was still trying to rebuild its relationship with its national pastime. But baseball had a lot of work to do — it had, after all, walked out on the country, and you don’t just walk back in and expect everything to be fine again — you have to rebuild trust.
You have to make people believe again.
Big Mac and Swingin’ Sammy made us believe. By sending baseballs farther than anyone had ever seen, they made us once again remember why we fell in love with baseball, and why, despite its many flaws, it still had a place in our hearts.
Of course, I didn’t need much convincing. By 1998, my love affair with baseball had reached full bloom. My first season of fandom — 1995 — came at a time when many lifelong baseball fans were too bitter to even look at a box score.
That was fine — more box scores for me.
Football, basketball, and hockey were all well and good, but baseball had the numbers. With twice as many regular season games as basketball and hockey (and ten times as many as football), baseball statistics are in a league of their own for number-freaks like me.
And they are endless. Once I got bored with ERA, WHIP, and OPS, I discovered sabermetrics: WAR, xFIP, BABIP, and DIPS. Heaven on Earth.
But in 1998, only one stat mattered: HR.
As much as I pored over the sports page every morning, it was nothing compared to my obsession during the waning months of summer in 1998. I made my parents mail me box scores at summer camp. I had to know — did Sammy hit one last night? Did Mac?
I remember almost coming to tears on the night when McGwire blasted #62. It was sensational. You couldn’t write a better story. And I had seen it all. I had seen history be made.
Turns out, I hadn’t seen anything yet.
We all know what happened next. It soon became obvious (though in retrospect, wasn’t it always?) that McGwire had not gained those tree log arms simply through discipline and hard work. That the “pop” in Sammy’s bat had a little something extra behind it.
Jose Canseco’s Juiced. BALCO. The Mitchell Report.
America had let baseball back in the house, and in return it came back and hurt us even worse than before.
Slowly the phrase “steroid era” came into the popular baseball lexicon. I can safely say that my first true heartbreak was when I realized the full implications of such an era in baseball.
It wasn’t so much that the greatest players that I had watched growing up — Bonds, Clemens, Palmiero, Rodriguez, Ramirez, Piazza — had been pulling the wool over our collective eyes. It took me awhile to realize that that wasn’t the source of my deep anger and sadness.
Because it’s not that I don’t understand why they did steroids. Professional athletes are, by nature, insanely competitive. And they are also, by design (see my last column), worth an absurd amount of money. With so much money and pride at stake, it’s no surprise that baseball players constantly seek ways to make themselves stand out from the crowd. Since the game began, teams and players have utilized illegal methods of gaining an advantage, from throwing spitballs to stealing signs. We’re not dealing with a “new breed” of unscrupulous athlete, just a new generation with more extreme advantages available.
And, I can’t say for sure what I would have done in their shoes. No one can.
Think about this: you must take an exam that you know ahead of time will be graded on a curve. You also know that at least half of the class will have answer sheets with them. What do you do?
Do you take the test honestly, knowing that the best of your abilities will be judged against those who have given themselves an unfair edge, and risk having your B+ performance turn into a C- when placed on the curve? Or do you cheat, like everyone else, to pull a decent grade on the test?
Now let’s say you get $5 for a C, and $5,000 for an A.
And you’ve been training for the chance to take this test for your entire life.
It’s not an easy question, and baseball players in the steroid era found themselves with an almost impossible choice: juice to stay relevant, or refuse and fade into obscurity?
What would you do?
So while it’s upsetting that it happened at all, I don’t find myself interested in condemning the players for succumbing to pressures that no one among us can say for sure we would have resisted.
What really broke my heart was that I realized I could never look at baseball statistics the same way again.
When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run record in 1961, people wanted to put an asterisk next to his record because the season had been extended by eight games that year. There must be some permanent indication, they argued, that Maris had an advantage that Ruth did not have.
Should we put an asterisk on every stat sheet from the last 20 years? Do we wipe the record books clean of every player from the last two decades who has been connected to steroids? How do we judge the careers of those who were never implicated in the steroids scandal? How do we judge the careers of those who were?
Barry Bonds was a Hall of Famer before he ever took steroids, and he knew it. But he couldn’t stand to see juiceheads McGwire and Sosa in the spotlight while he quietly hit 40 home runs and stole 40 bases. So he gave America what we clearly wanted: a hulking beast jacking balls into the upper deck every other night. Like most things in his career, he did that better than anyone else in the history of baseball. He now owns the record for home runs in a single season (73) and in a career (762).
He still may not make the Hall of Fame.
We’ve already seen that would-be Hall of Famer Rafael Palmiero will likely never make it — that finger wag was a mistake (“I have never intentionally used steroids. Never. Ever. Period,” he told Congress sternly, five months before testing positive).
McGwire and Sosa will certainly never make it. Their heart-stopping 1998 season will always be a bittersweet memory for me. For many others, it will serve as a constant reminder to never trust your heart to a professional athlete.
There are countless players with Hall-worthy numbers who will likely be left out due to their involvement with steroids. There are likely hundreds more who could have made it, had they not been judged against juicers their entire career.
Nothing about the situation is fair. Steroid users and non-users alike will suffer the consequences.
But as we enter the supposedly post-steroids era, it is we, the fans, who must sort through it all — the disappointment, the anger, the betrayal — to determine who, if anyone, still deserves our respect.
And that’s easier said than done, because there’s no sabermetric in existence that can measure the impact steroids have made on the game of baseball.
But maybe that’s a good thing — that’s the first stat I can think of that I don’t think I would want to see.
Ian Trombulak is a rising senior at Middlebury College, and is interning at the Addison Independent as a news reporter and member of the online team this summer. He likes sports — a lot — and, as with most things he likes, he spends a lot of time thinking about them. He hopes that you enjoy the cathartic weekly release of those thoughts, and that you will share yours as well in the comments below.