I really care about baseball’s steroid issue. I’ve found, however, that I am among the minority and that disturbs me.
Many passionate fans care about the steroid issue because it affects the integrity of the game, and it sullies the reputations of players who have been idolized by their fans. For me, the issue comes down to something as basic as cheating. Using illegal performance-enhancing drugs to one-up your competition is cheating. Just like corking your bat is cheating. Just like throwing a game is cheating. The fact that Major League Baseball had not explicitly outlawed steroid use before the 2002 Collective Bargaining Agreement does not validate any steroid use before 2002. It’s all cheating.
To understand this steroid phenomenon, it’s necessary to explore just how baseball, its fans and the media have built up a system where drug use is acceptable and encouraged. The deepest root of this evil – like many – is the promise of more money, more home runs, more fans. Would a steroid-less Giambi have received a $120 million contract offer? Would Jose Canseco have received his own overvalued $25 million contract back in the late 1980s without his steroid-fueled MVP campaign? Of course not. The drive for greed has led many players to drugs that will mess them up later in life.
But it’s not just the players who are to blame. The owners, managers and general managers can’t walk away scot-free. Tony La Russa says he knew that Jose Canseco was juicing up. The Yankees supposedly removed the word steroid from Jason Giambi’s contract. This is nothing new. In 1976, according to Wednesday’s New York Times, then-Twins executive Clark Griffith wanted a mandatory drug testing program and mandatory treatment for players abusing drugs and alcohol. The general managers voted it down, and as they told Griffith, they wouldn’t report a player without first checking out his stats.
Can this really come as a surprise to anyone? Of course not. Baseball managers and general managers are not oblivious to what goes on in the clubhouse, and they’re not blind either. When a player looks different physically and hits the ball with a little more pop in his bat without hitting the gym, something isn’t natural. But the game is about winning. Why would you rat out your best players?
Then, there is the media, possibly the guiltiest party in the entire scandal. The media is having a field day with the steroid scandal. CBS garnered high ratings from the Canseco interview; the story is splashed across tabloids across the country; and columnists on the web are audaciously suggesting that Barry Bonds retire before he further sullies some of baseball’s exalted records. Self-righteousness reigns supreme in the press.
But something’s not right because these are same sports commentators who lapped up the McGwire-Sosa 1998 home run race. These are the same sports commentators who were enthralled by Bonds’ 2001 pursuit of the home run record and are eagerly counting down the at-bats until he reaches 715, 756, and beyond. The media once trumpeted the offensive age of baseball as they applauded the game for drawing in fans to fill the seats after the strike of 1994-1995 saw a decline in baseball popularity.
If more home runs means more coverage and more coverage means more revenue, then the press – the Fourth Estate of American life – is just as guilty for encouraging steroid use as managers are for ignoring a drug problem in baseball’s clubhouses.
Furthermore, the media loves everything that sells. They love home runs; they love steroids. It’s the great hypocrisy of the press. One season, they’ll tout the great offensive explosions; the next winter, Murray Chass will wax poetic about the pressures of the new drug policy. And that’s where the fans come into play.
This is the trickiest piece of the puzzle. Are the fans to blame? Yes, but not for the obvious reasons. The fans are to blame because they don’t care enough about the steroid scandal and how it affects the integrity of the game. In a recent unscientific SportsNation poll on ESPN, more fans by a 51-49 margin, said that competitive balance was the biggest problem facing the game, not steroids. And this comes after a five-year stretch in which five different teams won the World Series. Drug use, folks, is now more acceptable than having five out of six divisions feature wide-open races this season. (Only the AL East will be a two-team dog fight.) If these SportsNation voters are only those interested enough to seek out the poll to vote, I can only imagine the apathy the rest of baseball’s more casual fans feel about steroids.
But the fans do care about the publicity. Canseco’s book was the number three seller on Amazon the day it was released. Millions of people eat up steroid news everyday. These fans, however, only seem to want more names and more details. They want gossip and innuendo. They want to know who has done what and how.
All of this stems from one overarching belief that many fans share: As long as their team’s players produce on the field, it doesn’t matter what happens off the field. This isn’t to say that everyone feels this way; I know plenty of people who are highly disappointed that players would stoop to steroid use. But these sentiments can be found everywhere among baseball fans.
I, for one, do not approve. We baseball fans should care about what baseball players do in the locker room. We should care what players who are admired by young and old alike do with their bodies. We should care about the fact that cheating is becoming a socially acceptable phenomenon in the game called America’s Pastime. While many baseball fans want to leave the steroid issue behind and just focus on the games, it’s time for baseball fans to demand accountability and integrity from the greatest game on Earth.