It’s time to be honest about steroids. It’s time for everyone to be honest.
Back when steroids were exclusive to football players and Bulgarian weightlifters, no one really seemed to worry about their impact. Most assumed that steroids were simply a way to build bulk and muscle, and therefore were only beneficial to a limited number of athletes anyway.
It wasn’t until Ben Johnson burst on the scene in the ’88 Olympics that people started to realize what steroids could do for an athlete. Johnson’s physical appearance in addition to the fact that he blew Carl Lewis’ doors off made people take notice, and maybe it was Lewis’ status as a fan favorite that made them outraged as well. No one seemed to care when the Cowboys and other NFL teams considered giving Johnson a look. When it comes to steroids, football players still seem to get a pass.
Jose Canseco arrived onto the scene around the same time as Ben Johnson, and there weren’t many who hadn’t figured Canseco for a “juicer”. And even though Canseco was clearly the best offensive player in baseball for a short period of time in the late 80’s and early 90’s, most didn’t seem outraged by his suspected steroid use. As long as Canseco stayed in the 40/40 ranges and didn’t threaten any of baseball’s most coveted records, most saw Canseco as little more than a sideshow.
As it turns out, Canseco may have left a bigger footprint on the game than any other player of his era, Canseco will always be seen as the granddad of the steroid era. After Canseco came a host of others, but aside from Jason Giambi, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, there were few who were overtly suspected. And even as these juiced up monsters destroyed the single season record books, we seemed to rejoice in the chase and turn a blind eye to the obvious.
Then along came Barry Bonds. If Jose Canseco will be remembered as the one who ushered in the steroid era, Bonds may be remembered as the one who caused its demise. While Canseco was destroying the AL in his prime, Bonds was equally dominant in the NL, racking up MVP’s and division titles with the Pirates.
Bonds was around for the whole steroid era, and was arguably clean for the better part of it. Barry Bonds was quietly having a hall of fame career, doing things that would have made him peerless in any other era, yet he was consistently overshadowed by marginal superstars artificially pushed beyond their bodies’ natural capabilities. When peer pressure finally got the best of him, Bonds again proved how much better he really was than everyone else all along, and forced the baseball world to put a disclaimer on not only his accomplishments, but those of the entire era.
Bonds physique blew up to a cartoonish form, rivaled only by the inflated numbers he put up during that time. In his prime, Bonds was getting arguably 7-10 hittable pitches per week, and was hitting 3 or 4 of them into the bay. What’s more is that his prime came in his late 30’s. Bonds may have finally caved to the pressure of Canseco, McGwire, Sosa, Giambi and the rest, but he likely resisted for a long time. Imagine the assault that Bonds would have unleashed on the record books if he had started juicing back in his Pirate days.
Now here’s the hard part for most of us to admit; we probably would have done it too. When I was a loan officer, if someone came around with a needle that would make me sell more deals than I would have certainly been tempted, and I can’t stand needles. But more deals means more money, advancement, recognition etc. As someone who manages loan officers today, I’d like to give a few of my guys a shot like that. Now if I were already the best in the business, or maybe the best of all time, I might pass. That is, until those who do decide to take the shot start outperforming me, and I begin losing my status in the company. Then I might have to reevaluate my priorities.
I think that if an athlete came out and confessed in those terms, we’d buy it. I’d much rather hear that, than the garbage that I’ve been hearing so far, from “I tried it once”, to “I used it to rehab an injury”, to “I thought it was a B-12 shot”. The outright denials seem even worse, and as evidence to the contrary seems to mount against Roger Clemens, we’ll see how much more interesting this whole thing can get.
Steroids turned marginal players into major leaguers, major leaguers into stars and stars into legends. And it wasn’t until those who would have been legends otherwise got involved that we started to realize the competitive advantage that steroids provided. Now the public stands in judgment and the accused are mostly denying. And America sits back and chooses who will be held accountable and who will be given a pass. In some cases Congress may make that decision too.
If those who stood accused came forward humble, and explained their reasoning without offering excuses, we couldn’t help but accept that. When it comes to the big picture, most aren’t appalled by steroids (look around at the number of juicers you see at the local mall or restaurant, much less the gym), and wanting to gain a competitive professional advantage is understandable. In fact, if the lax rules were permitting everyone else to get away with it, than using wasn’t an advantage at all, actually not using would have been a disadvantage.
The only ones who got hurt after all are the ones who hurt their own bodies, and those who live and die with the integrity of baseball. Frankly those concerned with baseball’s integrity should have checked out a long time ago.
I wonder if historians would be more forgiving if Bonds or Clemens volunteered to have an * as the first character in their legal names. It would be tough to argue to keep *Barry Bonds or *Roger Clemens out of the record books.