Rethinking the Experience of the “Steroids Era” of Baseball

When Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s career home run record, the wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued. Baseball records hold, for many, a hallowed position in the country’s history. The game, somehow, held an innocence for many, a “purity” that was suddenly tainted. Suspicions of steroid use contributing to the home run chase that “saved baseball” in 1998 tainted that moment for many. Now, after the look to the future in which Alex Rodriguez was supposed to return the sanctity of the home run record by eventually and cleanly beating Bonds’ career total has fizzled, another round of moaning has erupted from the baseball purists.

Baseball is, indeed, steeped in tradition. When Curt Flood fought against his trade to the Phillies in 1969, the Supreme Court said, in essence, that while the situation smacked of antitrust concerns, this was baseball, and it should be left alone. When Roger Maris took more games to reach 61 home runs than Babe Ruth had to reach 60, his record received an asterisk – a notation that many people now assert should be applied to every record broken in this era.

The truth is, change does happen, even to baseball. Free agency exists in a way Curt Flood could only yearn for when he played. Black players, non-existent in the major leagues before Jackie Robinson, now play for every team – and are surrounded by Hispanic and Japanese players as well. And, at some point in the development of the sport, performance-enhancing drugs entered the scene.

We do not, of course, know when this happened. In football, steroid use was rampant by the 1970s. It seems odd to assume that it was a 90’s phenomenon in baseball, though this seems to be a common understanding. At any rate, they were there, and despite the current backlash, are undoubtedly still around.

The interesting question, though, is what this means with regard to our memories of the last fifteen years or so. Was the 1998 home run race only interesting because McGwire and Sosa were on the juice? Near the end of the season, almost every television network was cutting into its programming for each McGwire or Sosa at bat. People watched baseball who otherwise might never do so. Yes, Mark McGwire was a behemoth, huge in a way that being corn-fed never quite explained. Plenty of huge guys are less compelling to watch. A nation of baseball fans, old and new, watched with joy, suspense, excitement.

The point of this is that those emotions were real. Whether we continue to respect the players who provided them or not, our emotions now should not take away from what we have felt in watching. A spectator sport, after all, is not really about the players. When you pay exorbitant money to watch a sporting event, it is not to celebrate the virtues of a player. We might do so, but this is merely ancillary to the event of watching, to the experience of the fan as a fan. That experience may be fleeting, but it is no less real for its ephemerality.

Bemoaning loss of innocence is as much a part of that experience as anything else. Before the loss, though, it was real. Whether it came as hero-worship or as a simple enjoyment of the spectacle of sport, the experience is part of each fan. In feeling the loss, then, take some time to enjoy what you felt along the way.