Whether or not the steroid era in Major League Baseball is over is certainly debatable. Even if it is however, the shadow of the “steroid era” still looms large over the game. Roger Clemens is back on trial and Barry Bonds soon will be again. The reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun is generally considered to have used PEDs and to have escaped punishment on nothing more than a technicality. And if the “steroid era” taught us anything at all, it was that the cheaters are always one step ahead of those trying to stop them.
We were all made to look like fools once before and as a result we seem reluctant to celebrate anyone’s assault on the MLB record books. Having to acknowledge that Jose Canseco, of all people, tried unsuccessfully to warn us of the depth of the impact of steroids on the game, it’s understandable that we’d rather not revisit that particular brand of humility ever again. But to what end?
The ascendance of Jose Bautista has been met with its fair share of skepticism and cynicism, and in a week in which Josh Hamilton should have been carving out his place not only in the annals of baseball history, but in the romantic parts of our baseball memory banks as well, we’re again compelled to pause and reserve our celebration until we can be sure it has been earned.
Type Hamilton’s name into your Twitter search and you’ll find as many empty steroid accusations as you will congratulatory praise. What has Hamilton done to merit such accusations? Nothing other than hit homeruns at a rate like we’ve never seen before.
It’s not just Hamilton stirring up memories of an era not so far from our memories to remove the stench. A quick glance at the HR stats this season suggests that quite a few players could be in for seasons of 50+ homeruns…and the weather hasn’t even begun to get warm just yet.
For nearly 30 years after Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris topped 50 in the magical 1961 season no one in the AL matched the feat, and only 2 players in the NL (Willie Mays in 1965 and George Foster in 1977) managed it. Then came Cecil Fielder and shortly thereafter a barrage of juice induced super sluggers made the accomplishment common place.
Recent events have suddenly made the feat rare again, but still not completely uncommon. Still, only 6 players have gone over 50 HR since 2002. This year however, all bets may be off.
The degree to which the record books were rewritten during the steroid era has been especially troubling, as many of those records had stood for decades before being obliterated by PED induced sluggers. It therefore stood to reason that no one would be able to write them out of the books without some other type of assistance or historic shift in the game. So as Hamilton unleashes his assault, of course we’re prone to question it. I’m sure I’m not the only one this year who’s looking at Albert Pujols forearms as he begins this season in a prolific funk, and wondering if they look smaller or frailer then before.
The funny thing about homeruns though, is that anyone in MLB is capable of hitting one, at any time. We don’t point glaring fingers when pitchers or light hitting utility men hit 3 or 4 per season, but when the guys who we expect to hit 30 or 40 suddenly find themselves raising their frequency and challenging 50 or more…eyebrows (and suspicions) go up.
At a time when we’d like to believe that we should be celebrating the potential to have Bonds’ single season HR record erased by a “clean” slugger, we find ourselves instead questioning just how clean he is.
Indeed the steroid era is still taking its toll on MLB and our infatuation with its record book…and that’s before we start really debating the merits of the era’s achievers for the Hall of Fame.