David Ezra, an attorney with the California-based firm Bergen Kahn, is a uthor of Asterisk: Home Runs, Steroids, and the Rush to Judgment.
Playoffs, 1988—A's and Red Sox at Fenway. The Boston faithful started chanting. "Steroids! Steroids!" A playful Jose Canseco flexed a bicep for the crowd. They cheered.
We knew about steroids all along. In 1995, then San Diego Padres General Manager Randy Smith was widely quoted as estimating steroid use among 10 to 20 percent of major league players.
We knew. And we had no problem with it. Sammy Sosa; Mark McGwire; 1998; THE BEST SEASON EVER! When McGwire was "caught" using "Andro" as he chased Roger Maris, the same media that now wants suspected steroid users inducted to prison defended him. After all, how could we criticize McGwire for trying to be healthier and stronger?
We knew about steroids. But we also knew modern players had discovered a fundamental truth prior generations never knew—lifting weights (with or without steroids) makes you stronger, and it doesn't ruin your swing or your arm. Back then, we seemed to realize steroids couldn't help players refine their batting eye or hit Randy Johnson's slider.
As soon as 37-year-old Carlton Fisk bought a Nautilus machine and changed his diet, then went out and hit 37 home runs in 1985 (11 more than he ever hit in his "prime"), Maris's record was doomed. Born bigger and faster, modern players were avoiding alcohol and tobacco, watching their diets, and hiring strength coaches. Of course they were going to break records. Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Jim Rice—they never lifted weights. Barry Bonds trained four hours a day in a sweaty weight room and we're shocked when he hits a lot of home runs. Please!
Like it or not, baseball changes. Smaller strike zones, livelier baseballs, smaller stadiums, harder and lighter maple bats, "body armor" allowing hitters to fearlessly attack the ball, and so on. That's why stat guru Bill James has said steroids may have had minimal impact on home run totals.
Let's face it: When baseball's hierarchy wants offense, offense happens. It requires only minor tinkering. Look at 1930. With the stock market crash heralding the Great Depression, a shot in the arm might boost attendance. Presto! A tighter baseball with less prominent seams went farther when hit and was less apt to curve when pitched. The entire National League hit an astounding .303. Hack Wilson of the Cubs, standing all of 5-foot-6, hit 56 home runs and drove in an unbelievable 191 runs. Ten players had averages above .366, and countless hitters had career years (including Chuck Klein, .386, 40 HR, 170 RBI, and Al Simmons, .381, 36 HR, 165 RBI).
Baseball had to tone it down. Home runs dropped from 1,565 in 1930 to just 1,088 in 1931, a whopping 30 percent decline. There were no steroids to blame for 1930s excess; no steroid testing or perjury trials to blame for 1931's precipitous decline. Despite the absurdity of the numbers, we would never argue for wiping 1930 out of the record books or removing Wilson, Klein, or Simmons from Cooperstown.
After the 1994 strike, baseball wanted offense. We got the home runs we wanted. But today, the media elite and some vocal bashers say they hate it. Taking oversimplification to new heights, they blame steroids for everything. A pitcher has a good year; must be HGH. An infielder hits 35 home runs; must be steroids. They believe in magic potions that turn Clark Kent into Superman.
For every alleged steroid user who thrived, another was awful. They say Randy Velarde took "the Clear" in 2002. Velarde was no Bonds. He hit .226 with two home runs and 32 strikeouts in 133 at bats. We're told that Jason and Jeremy Giambi were both BALCO steroid/HGH users in 2003. Jason hit 41 home runs. Jeremy, the younger brother, hit a pathetic .197 with five home runs, and one strikeout every three at-bats. Jose Canseco hit 462 home runs. His twin brother Ozzie hit zero home runs. Maybe that's why the Mitchell Report quietly revealed that "studies have shown that [HGH] does not increase muscle strength in healthy subjects or well trained athletes."
Most fans are not bashers or baseball writers anxious to punish arrogant athletes by excluding them from Cooperstown. Regular fans enjoy the home runs and the strikeout pitchers. We know every generation has its faults, and we aren't calling for wholesale eradication of the multiple generations of players who used amphetamines; we aren't trying to revoke Gaylord Perry's Hall of Fame pass because he threw a spit ball; and we don't think Babe Ruth's statistics are "tarnished" or "illegitimate" because he never played in a racially integrated league.
We understand and appreciate the different eras, and we know our favorite sport was, is, and always will be comprised of fallible types known as "human beings." They make mistakes and say stupid things. We know it is inherently wrong to punish a few for the sins of many. And we will keep watching and cheering as long as our favorites are out on the diamond trying to give us a winner.