Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Steroid Era Not Quite Over in MLB

As another new PED revelation unfolds, it's safe to say more MLB players will be implicated in the use of banned substances, and that list may grow quite large upon further investigation.  This should come as no surprise to anyone, based on what transpired nearly fifteen years ago.

In the immediate aftermath of that PED-aided-homer-happy 1998 MLB season, which saw Roger Maris' single season home run record of 61 obliterated by both Mark McGwire (70 HR) and Sammy Sosa (66 HR), a voice of reason tried to warn the world of baseball of serious trouble brewing.

The voice of reason belonged to Texas Rangers pitcher, Rick Helling, during the '98 MLBPA winter meetings in Nashville.  Helling saw what was happening; the use of performance enhancing drugs had become so widespread, it was forcing normally honest players to jump on the bandwagon just to keep up with the pack.  Helling realized this was making it impossible to maintain a "level playing field" between the users and the non-users; something had to give.

Of course, nobody listened.  Taking the sort of action Helling was recommending would be terribly inconvenient; worse yet, it would be terribly costly.  Sacrificing revenue was a preposterous notion; especially since the fans were clearly enjoying the pumped-up performances throughout The Show.  While the McGwire - Sosa home run spectacle got most of the national attention, attendance throughout MLB was clearly on the rise, along with the home run totals.  The infamous players' strike of '94, which not only wiped out the last couple of months of the regular season, along with the postseason, also alienated millions of faithful fans; many of whom vowed to never attend another game again.  However, all that animosity seemed to fade away with every September home run smashed by the two friendly rivals.  By the time the New York Yankees completed its four-game sweep of the San Diego Padres in a somewhat anti-climactic World Series, baseball was back, with its image restored, quickly regaining its pre-strike popularity.

As the seasons rolled by, the unprecedented power surge continued, as more and more players were mysteriously muscle-bound, hitting balls farther than anyone ever dreamed possible.  It was no mystery to Rick Helling; he continued voicing concerns about PED use at the winter meetings, and the MLBPA continued to ignore him.  By 2001, a brand-new single season home run record had been established (73) by an amazingly pumped-up Barry Bonds, while fans were flocking to games in record numbers.  In the July 2001 issue of Playboy (of course I read the articles), sportswriter Allen Barra suggested MLB was experiencing a new "golden age".  After all, he concluded, "there's never been an era with so many outstanding performances at every level."  How true.

Few seemed to care what caused all those "outstanding performances".  Strangely enough, in that same July 2001 Playboy, there was another article, written by Scott Dickensheets (no kidding), exploring the growing popularity of steroid use among young men ("Steroids - All the Rage").  The author observed that steroid use had become mainstream, since so many "athletes" (role models) were users.  Although baseball players weren't singled-out, they clearly had the motivation to use performance enhancing drugs; for some, it was a competitive desire to perform better than their peers.  For others - as Rick Helling warned back in 1998 - it was simply an attempt to keep up with the pack; from their perspective, the only way a level playing field could be maintained.  Baseball had reached a tipping point right around the start of the new millennium; there were more forces than ever nudging players toward steroid use, and fewer considerations urging them to just say no.

In the meantime, even Lance Armstrong - the all-American boy with an impecable image - was routinely using PEDs to win seven consecutive Tour de France cycling marathons.  He had become the world's greatest athlete; a courageous cancer survivor who battled back to reach the summit of his profession, and stay there for an unprecedented reign of supremacy.  He was Superman, with a girlfriend even hotter than Lois Lane.  When allegations of PED use surfaced, Armstrong steadfastly denied them, citing hundreds of clean drug tests as proof.  He even went so far as to sue anyone who had the audacity to accuse him of what was actually true; and he fraudulantly won many millions of dollars in court over the years, to maintain his squeaky-clean image.  Here's what he had to say during a 2005 interview with Kevin Cook:

"All I can say is thank God we're tested.  When baseball players were charged with using steroids, what was their defense?  Nothing.  Whereas my defense is hundreds of drug controls, at races and everywhere else."

When Armstrong finally came "truly clean" on Oprah recently, it was with little remorse.  To him, his doping routine had  become just that; a "routine" to prepare his body for the grueling challenge of competing in an event that requires extreme stamina, against a field comprised of other PED-aided rivals.  To Armstrong, he was merely doing what he had to do to maintain a "level playing field".
The fact that he got away with it for so long, is almost as amazing as winning all those races.  It makes me wonder if some of Armstrong's tricks of the trade have been used by more than a few MLB players over the years.

We may never know just how widespread PED use was throughout baseball during the peak of the Steroids Era.  Rick Helling had the guts to come forward and voice his concerns.  He saw what was going on; there was little attempt by the users to hide what they were doing.  Surely, there are many others who saw what was going on in their own clubhouses throughout MLB and never said a word about it to anyone.  To this day, they insist they never saw anything suspicious, and of course, all deny ever doing it themselves.

I have a difficult time believing any of them.  Again, we may never know the actual percentage of players who have used performance enhancing drugs at one time or another.  However, I suspect at least half of the players knew precisely what was going on, even if they weren't doing it themselves; and I suspect the players who weren't taking PEDs were in the minority - and probably had shorter careers than they had bargained for. 

After all, it's hard to compete without a "level playing field".  That's why the latest scandal brewing out of Coral Gables, Florida may be a disturbing trend; but it should come as no surprise to anyone that the Steroid Era may not quite be over in major league baseball.

No comments:

Post a Comment