Like millions of other baseball fans around the world, I had mixed emotions when the Mitchell Report went public last week. On one hand, I was glad that Major League Baseball finally and formally admitted that steroids, human growth hormone, and performance enhancing drugs have plagued the sports industry. However, I was disappointed to see that some of my favorite athletes are cheaters. Although I suspected (as did many fans) that it was somehow unnatural for big leaguers like Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa to become bigger and physically stronger at the end of their careers, it would be un-American of me to blame them without sufficient proof. Now, with the release of the Mitchell Report, the problem has finally come to light, allowing Commissioner Bud Selig’s, players, owners, and agents to take real action towards cleaning up the mess.
Baseball, the National Pastime, has entertained Americans since the 1800’s, and, for perhaps just as long, been the center of controversy. From the Black Sox scandal in 1919, in which eight players were accused of throwing the World Series, to the Pete Rose betting scandal, to the Pittsburg Drug Trials in 1985, to the steroid era, Baseball and controversy have gone together for over 100 years. The debate shouldn’t be whether bad things happen in the game — because we know they have and will continue to happen — the debate should be how we handle the problem.
Major League Baseball and the players Association botched the steroid era from the beginning. Years ago, when the first inkling of performance enhancing drugs hit the world of sports, the owners and players could have and should have worked out a blameless truce that would serve all interested parties and eliminated that form of cheating going forward.
A clean game, on the surface, may not seem to serve team owners who clearly benefit at the ticket office from higher scoring games with lots of homeruns. However, as we’ve learned from the Mitchell Report, there were numerous pitchers (including potential Hall of Famer Roger Clemens) who were also using these illegal enhancers. So, although teams during the steroid era were producing more runs per game than ever, the higher run production cannot be attributed to stronger hitters alone. Factors like the tighter wound ball, smaller ballparks, the expansion of the league, uniformed strike zones, and state of the art weight training all contributed to the rise in runs per game. Thus, though many owners, said for example Peter McGowan of the San Francisco Giants, reaped the rewards of their juiced hitters scoring more runs, the fact remains that the increased attendance during the steroid era could have occurred without the players breaking the law.
Owners should have seen that their investments — their players — were hurting themselves both literally (performance enhancing drugs have been shown to cause long term physical and emotional damage) and figuratively (nobody likes a cheater), and forced the player’s union to accept some sort of drug testing, monitoring, and educational program.
More so than the owners, the players themselves bungled the steroid issue. The players who used were cheaters. And the players who didn’t were enablers. The players could have gone to their union representatives and argued that all suffer when a few use drugs. When a few bad apples appear, the whole tree looks bad. Those honorable players who avoided performance enhancers should have united and demanded that the playing field be leveled by comprehensive drug testing.
So here we are, ten years or so into this mess, and still no real resolution. The damning Mitchell Report named names, and the whole world now doubts just about every run that was scored since the Bash Brothers (noted users Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco of the Oakland Athletics) came onto the national scene in the late 1980’s. The answer to the problem is simple: learn from the past to make the future better.
We cannot fix our past mistakes, but we can certainly use them to better ourselves. Major League Baseball must do the same. They must hire an independent outside organization to develop and enforce the strictest drug policy in sports. Year-around random testing is only the beginning. New technology, better research, improved education, transparent testing, harsh consequences, and mandatory meetings with everyone involved will make the program more reliable and valid. Just like they recovered from the Black Sox scandal or the strike of 1994, baseball will recover from the steroid issue. The question remains though — how quickly and how well.