The hits just keep coming. Yesterday, a report surfaced in the New York Times that the longtime designated hitter for the Boston Red Sox, David Ortiz, tested positive for steroids in 2003. Ortiz's is only the latest name to be released from that year's round of testing; previously, sluggers Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa were also implicated.
If the news media is to be believed, I should be upset about this. After all, I'm a Red Sox fan. The team's championship in 2004 was one of the high points of my life, and now everywhere I turn people in the newspaper and on TV are telling me that it was tainted. Was it really?
At this point, it seems safe to assume that clean players were the exception during that era, not the rule. The Red Sox had to beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, a team that included suspicious sluggers like Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, and -- oh yeah -- A-Rod. Taking steroids was against the rules, yes, but I have a hard time believing that any team had a significant competitive edge when every player had access to them. The real imbalance is in payroll: that's why the Yanks and Sox have together accounted for all but one AL East title this decade.
Let's be clear about another thing: the players had every incentive in the world to take steroids. Nothing was done to nip this problem in the bud. The obvious path to stardrom for any player was to take performance-enhancing drugs. Juice up and hit a few more dingers, get a bigger contract, become a star. Their entire lives, these guys have been told that succeeding at baseball is the most important thing they can do. You think any of them are going to turn down an injection that will help them do that, with millions of dollars in the balance and no real threat of punishment?
Cheating is a part of baseball. Always has been. We celebrate guys like Gaylord Perry, the Hall of Fame pitcher who was the master of the spitball. It's well established that players in the 80s took amphetamines to get up for games, which players called "greenies." Hell, Dock Ellis famously pitched a no-hitter while tripping on acid. You're telling me Babe Ruth wouldn't have juiced if he thought he might have hit 65 home runs in a season instead of 60?
I think what's needed here is a little perspective. Pro athletes will always be looking for an edge. That's what separates them from the rest of us. If the fans want steroids to be strictly outlawed and rigorously tested for, then that's fine. Let's do that. It seems to be the case today. But let's not retroactively hang these guys because of the culture in which they played.
For a long time, maybe 15 year or so, steroid use was not so subtly encouraged by the league, by the players union, and by the fans. We're the ones who cheered on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in the summer of 1998. We're the ones who attended more games, and drove up the TV ratings, as the players' power numbers increased. All the signs were there, and we all chose to ignore them. We chose to ignore them because we were in awe of the muscular sluggers launching 500-foot homers. If that's all tainted -- all the stats, all the games, all the championships -- then so is the fans' love of the game.
Well, I don't believe that. I still love baseball. Don't you?