Baseball’s strongest pillar is its history and the belief that everything that is happening in today’s game can be compared to what happened in the past. In a word, nostalgia, is baseball’s most powerful support and PEDs are what threaten that base the most. In short when we talk about Biogenesis, BALCO or Palmeiro and Sosa’s testimony to congress it is important to know what we are talking about. Yes we may brand players cheaters, liars as dishonest hucksters and as bad teammates but all we’re talking about is history. Baseball is not the only sport that has seen an epidemic in the use of PEDs in the past 20-25 years, cycling, track and field, football and as another example entire East German Olympic sports apparatus was accused of using drugs to improve their athletes. So is why baseball, its fans, the media and team management so much more concerned with PED use?
Again it all comes back to baseball’s fetish with history and its “hallowed” records and awards and ultimately with whom those numbers are associated with. 61 and 755 are more than just simple numbers in baseball’s institutional mind, they are holy totems to be aspired to. Reached by men that in the imagination achieved them through sheer force of will and honestly. The Biogenesis case is more than just the latest chapter in A-Rod’s personal soap opera with the American public. He is the target of an investigation that also hit Francisco Cervelli and Sergio Escalona, which nobody seems to care about. Baseball cares about Rodriguez and Ryan Braun to a certain extent because of their discourse with baseball history, its totems and mythos. Storied players, men that we have raised above others Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt have won the National League MVP. We ask ourselves. how can somebody be so dishonest to cheat and get themselves to the same heights as those great men?
Steroids bend the curve away from the past and skews it towards the players that want to make a future for themselves and the best way to do so is by cheating. Baseball cannot abide cheaters, the people that tamper with the integrity of the game. Before yesterday the two longest suspensions in baseball history, lifetime bans, were handed to “Shoeless” Joe Jackson for affecting the outcome of the 1919 World Series and Pete Rose, for gambling on baseball while still in the sport. These men were cheaters that debased themselves and the game by gambling. We must ask ourselves is what Nelson Cruz and his cohorts did as bad as what Joe Jackson did during the 1919 World Series?
They did break the rules, both the gamblers and the users. But steroids is no guarantee of success, I don’t want to come off as being an apologist for he players involved in the Biogenesis case and especially A-Rod. But is what they did so beyond the pale that they deserve the shame being rained upon them now? In the collective mind of baseball, yes. The reaction beyond the suspensions is completely warranted. In baseball’s eyes, these men are nothing more than cheaters and have tampered with the true outcome of a historically revered game. I would like to see it in a different way, while the Biogenesis players might be wrong in doing what they did, it should not be seen as an offense to the entire history of the sport. The issue is as tied up to the present as to the past.
The system itself seems to be broken, the incentives for cheating are larger and larger every day. Bigger free agent contracts, more media exposure, endorsement deals an above all glory. Baseball by aggrandizing the old slogan “chicks dig the long ball” have created a trap that encourages cheating and the easiest way to achieve that payoff is by using PEDs. The balance between integrity and entertainment is sorely out of whack and it has bred the current generation numbers obsessed players. Numbers, milestones, awards are ways to put yourself in the big book of baseball’s totemic history as well as the giving the fans the show they expect. Outrage over steroids is a response to a larger issue about the state of the game in the current age in the face of a juggernaut like the NFL, baseball is no longer America’s most popular sport. To most Americans it seems to be a relic of the early 20th century, a pastoral game, more associated with whispered lore about Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth than something that is grounded in the proverbial now. It is this conflict between flash and substance, the modern and the historical, cheating and integrity that under-girds the entire argument about steroids in baseball.
I don’t condone cheating and think what the players suspended for the Biogenesis case did was wrong, let make that clear. What I disagree with, is how the conversation around the steroids issue is framed. The past is the past, these offenses should be seen as nothing more than breaking the rules. Not as some slight against the entire meaning of what baseball has become in American culture and history. To put in concrete terms Barry Bonds‘ all-time home run records don’t cheapen Hank Aaron‘s, Babe Ruth’s or Roger Maris‘ they are just events that happened with the aid of an illegal substance. Taking steroids is cheating but it doesn’t destroy baseball history. Trying to pinpoint a “steroid era” and segregate it from the rest of baseball would be a meaningless task, we must treat the “steroid era” as something that happened and can hopefully be forcefully legislated out of the game in the coming months and years.