Since it “flew under the radar” over the weekend, I just wanted to start off by letting you know that Alex Rodriguez failed a drug test in 2003. Kidding, of course, but I applaud those of you who were able to stay sane in spite of ESPN’s obsessive-compulsive coverage. It wasn’t easy.
A-Rod has been a lighting rod for criticism ever since he signed a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Rangers in 2001 so it’s no wonder ESPN felt compelled to go overboard to the point that even the good people of Tanzania are now fully aware of his transgressions. I didn’t expect that A-Rod had taken steroids but I wasn’t shocked by the news, either. My first two thoughts were 1). people who leak things they aren’t supposed to should go to jail and 2). the odds of Albert Pujols being clean keep going down with every new revelation. I don’t mean to sound cynical but when Neifi Perez and Alex Sanchez get busted for steroids, you kind of lose the ability to “be surprised” on this front.
I don’t share the mass scale of hatred that the sports world seems to have for A-Rod. He’s not my favorite player by any means but few things irritate me more than seeing someone get abused far beyond what they deserve. A-Rod has unquestionably been one of those people. This revelation clearly changes my perception of him as a baseball player. His statistical-prowess immediately loses credibility. So, while other people are busy piling onto the already gargantuan A-Rod hate-mountain, my thoughts have been on “saving” baseball. If MLB doesn’t intervene—not just to deter drug-use in the future but to tangibly fix the mess it has caused in the record books—the steroid-era could destroy the statistical aspect of baseball. Most of you know that the majority of baseball’s attractiveness involves “statistics.” That’s what gives baseball the advantage over other sports and that’s, in large part, the reason it developed into “America’s Pastime”.
Do you remember what baseball was like before the steroid-era? Remember when Cecil Fielder hit 51 home runs in 1990? That story was bigger than Barry Bonds’s ego. Fielder was the first player to hit 50+ home runs since George Foster did it in 1977. Over 12 seasons, from 1977-1989, MLB saw one 50-HR season. In the steroid-era, Roger Maris’s record—one that he held for 37 years—was bested six times. Mark McGwire hit 70 in ’98 and Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001. Without steroids, all of that record breaking will be paralyzed—maybe forever. Fielder’s quest for 50 was huge in 1991 before the steroid-era. As drugs make their way out of baseball, "50" home runs will once again become a notable accomplishment but nobody will care. Cecil’s son—Prince—hit 50 in 2007 and it was barely newsworthy. Fans have gotten so used to seeing inflated numbers that a return to pre-steroid era production could end up being a buzzkill.
The idea that baseball will be plagued by unbreakable records is a legitimate one. Take a look at the all-time single-season home run leaders. The top six occurred between 1998-2001. Without drugs, the astronomical numbers that have been put up over the last ten years will never be approached again. A-Rod will likely break a number of records but now that he has been “outed”, those records will be tainted as well. MLB needs to take drastic action to keep “statistics” an intriguing part of the game. Right now, the “500” home run mark has become watered-down as have many other notable milestones. The next generation of hitters—a generation presumably without steroids—will undoubtedly be held to the steroid standards. When they predictably fail to live up to those numbers, baseball is going to have a problem keeping fans interested. Of course, there is a subsection of fans who love the game no matter what. The group that MLB needs to be concerned about is the one that showed interest when steroids entered the fray. Those fans aren’t going to enjoy watered-down numbers. Fans across the board aren’t going to enjoy a sport plagued by unbreakable records.
There are a few ways MLB can go about avoiding this fate. I don’t believe it’s enough to simply increase the punishment for drug-offenses. Severe consequences are necessary to deter future use but they do nothing to alleviate the statistical problem the steroid-era has created. MLB needs to protect its statistics by somehow labeling or altering the validity of steroid stats. One way is to simply remove statistics attained in the steroid-era from the record books. Pretend it never happened. I’m not a big fan of that approach because most people can agree that Ken Griffey Jr. probably did not take steroids. It’s not a certainty but he is the one power-hitter of his generation that most can agree did his damage cleanly. Griffey—and players like him—should not be punished because “most” were doing it. Additionally, most can also agree that Roger Clemens was already a HOF pitcher before he began taking steroids. This course of action probably goes a bit overboard and I doubt MLB would ever consider such a drastic action.
Another option is to remove statistics accumulated by players who took steroids. This is better than the first option. It’s not a blanket punishment handed out to offenders and non-offenders alike. The problem is deciding whose statistics to remove and what years to remove them from. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were two of the greatest baseball players of all-time before they ever laid a finger on steroids (assuming both did, of course). I doubt that players will cooperate enough—with the exception of A-Rod who deserves credit for doing what others haven’t—to admit the specific timeframes in which they used steroids. So, it becomes a guessing game. The other question is what to do with players who haven’t failed drug tests (i.e. Sammy Sosa) but are suspected to have used steroids. This option would require a lot of guessing and players like Sosa could certainly fall through the cracks.
The last option that I’ll discuss is the asterisk. Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, and Rafael Palmeiro have all likely taken steroids. In the event that any of them hold a record, MLB could recognize multiple records. For instance, since only suspected steroid-users have broken Roger Maris’s single-season record, MLB could reinstate Maris’s single-season record as the non-steroid era record. Bonds could then have the distinction of being the single-season home run holder in the steroid-era. The problem here again involves Sosa. Since he has not failed a drug test, he cannot officially be lumped in with Bonds, Rodriguez, and Palmeiro. Where does MLB draw the line?
Some people don’t like the asterisk. I understand the arguments against it. Pitchers have been “scuffing” the ball for years to get an unfair advantage. Players have been taking methamphetamines or “greenies” for years to ward off fatigue. Cheating has been a part of baseball for years and it probably will always be in some form or another. Some suggest that it’s hypocritical to punish steroid-users and not do the same to ball-scuffers or methamphetamine-users. That’s the easy way out, in my opinion. Just because people cheated in the past doesn’t mean that people cheating now or in the future should be treated the same way. Plus, “greenies” and “ball-scuffing” never had anything close to the impact on baseball as steroids. The asterisk is not a popular notion. The one given to Roger Maris after breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record was incredibly controversial to the point that it was eventually removed. Despite the controversy, I think MLB had the right idea. Ruth’s home run record shouldn’t have been tossed aside because eight games were added to the schedule. That’s ridiculous. Ruth almost certainly would’ve hit more than 61 home runs had he been privy to the 162-game schedule. An asterisk was a reasonable thing to consider. Either that, or separate records should’ve been given. Maris should be the all-time single season record holder in the 162-game schedule and Ruth should be for the 154-game schedule. Neither should be considered the unequivocal single-season record holder. What if MLB reduced its schedule to 130 games? It’s unlikely that any record would ever be broken again. That’s a silly concept. Record books would be forced to adjust for the new schedule so that "new" records could be achieved. The asterisk gives baseball the opportunity to acknowledge the feats that were accomplished in an “apples to oranges” situation. MLB could just as easily opt for “multiple record holders” in lieu of the asterisk.
I don’t believe that any of the options that I’ve discussed are perfect. However, I don’t think that should stop MLB from doing something. Breaking records is what baseball is about. With steroid stats officially on the books combined with MLB’s big crackdown on drug-use, “breaking records” could be on the brink of extinction. No sport provides more statistical intrigue than baseball. Without that intrigue, baseball becomes just another sport.