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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why We Should Forget About Steroids In Baseball

Once again, the hot issue in baseball has been steroids, with Alex Rodriguez' admission that he used them when he played for the Texas Rangers. There was an enormous hue and of course cry from journalists and fans alike, saying that records should be taken away and that baseball was forever tainted. Asterisks have now been added not only to Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, but also to A-Rod, the entire "Steroid Era," and, by extension, Major League Baseball.

It's a great time to be a journalist, as all it takes to win an award is a little bit of outrage, along with a cautionary tale. Just invoke the ghost of Ken Caminiti to talk about why steroids are dangerous, follow it up with "think of the children," and you've won a Pulitzer. Maybe throw in a little something about why the media didn't properly publicize the Steroid Era until it was too late, in order to make it seem that you're offering a mea culpa for the entire fourth estate.

Here's the problem: It's lazy and inaccurate to do so.

It's easy to forget that baseball was dead in the water a little over ten years ago. There was a lockout, talk of contraction and general all-around bad feelings surrounding the sport. Three things pulled baseball up and out of the grave:

1) Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record (1995)
2) Mark McGwire dueling Sammy Sosa for the home run record (1998)
3) Red Sox beat the Yankees in the ALCS (2004)

The first was notable because it reminded the audience that good people still played the sport, punched the clock every day and performed. The second added excitement back into baseball, and the third electrified two of the largest fan bases in the country.

Without McGwire Vs. Sosa, the third isn't nearly as big a deal. During their home run duel, people got talking about baseball again, showing up at the games, and waiting to see the long ball. Baseball still wasn't the number one sport, as football and basketball were still a lot more popular, but people actually cared again in a way that hadn't been seen since guys like DiMaggio and Williams played. It allowed the Red Sox victory in the ALCS to resonate and permanently galvanize the core fan base of baseball in a way that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

Reporters did warn us about steroids during the McGwire/Sosa duel. They talked about how McGwire was more than likely on androstenedione (andro), and opened the door to the steroid discussion. They did their job tracking down leads and revealing the truth behind baseball. They were trying to tell the truth to all the fans that would listen.

The problem is the fans didn't want to hear it. We liked it too much to care. Home runs are exciting. 99-mph fastballs are exciting. Sacrifice bunts and double switches? For most fans, not so much. We idolize the players that hit big. Babe Ruth is a legend. He's not a legend for being a great first baseman or a great pitcher. He's a legend because he hit home runs, end of story. Which player wouldn't want to be a legend? There were a few fans who were angry at suspected 'roiders during their torrid streak through the majors, but by and large we came to the ballparks and cheered them on anyway, even when there was solid evidence that there was something fishy going on.

In other words, during the whole thing, we knew what was going on. We saw helmet sizes increase. We saw muscle on players that didn't have muscle before. There was no way not to know. We heard the reports and we didn't care because it was exciting. We finally were seeing our own legends in a sport with some pretty hefty legends. We asked for it.

Of course, now that these players are no longer playing, we can turn our back on them. We can pretend that we always hated steroids and that it took away the integrity of the game. It's a blatant lie, but we give ourselves this cognitive dissonance because we don't want to feel complicit in an illegal activity, especially one that can permanently hurt an athlete.

Except here's the kicker: We like it when our athletes leave it all on the field. We love bone-crunching hits in football, and we like it when a player plays through pain. We demand that they destroy their bodies for our amusement, like spectators in the stadium at Rome. Then, when they actually go out and do it we turn our heads, whether they need better health care in their old age because of their broken bodies, or when players get cut down in what should be the prime of their lives because we wanted them to push it to the limit.

So let's all give up this hand-wringing over steroids. There are new measures in place to curb steroid use among players, and no amount of feigned outrage against the players of the past decade will get them to retroactively stop using steroids or get their supposedly unearned records erased from the books. They exist, they are what they are, and that's the way it is.

We put ourselves into this mess, and it's up to us to live with the consequences.