Why I Don’t Worry About Baseball’s Steroid Era

We’re at the mid-point of another season in baseball’s Post-Steroid Era.  After turning a blind eye to obvious corruptions, Major League Baseball has acted commendably to rid the national pastime of PEDs.  Strengthened policy bore obvious fruit the last few years with the return of strategy and speed, greatly diminished home run totals, and a shocking number of great pitching performances.

The remaining problem, however, is how to regard players, in addition to Clemens, such as Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire.  These players stand apart because their big muscles have yielded them big moments in addition to big numbers.  That is, they have entered the rarified air of achievement occupied by legendary figures from baseball’s mythic past.  And baseball, more than any other American sport, is a game of mythic memory.

Dramatic moments define our love of baseball and constitute its mythic character.  Mention them and we’re transported to the glorious past.  Kirk Gibson’s gimpy-legged home run in the 1988 World Series.  Bill Mazeroski’s home run in 1960.  Don Larsen’s World Series perfect game in 1956.  And certain numbers, until the last decade, were immortal.  The single-season home run totals of Babe Ruth and then Roger Maris, the consecutive game hit streak of Joe DiMaggio, and Hank Aaron’s career home run total.

Baseball’s mythic character is both a blessing and a curse.  It’s a curse for former players like Bert Blyleven and Tony Oliva.  As my friend Bob Milliman argues, they had impressive careers and their lifetime statistics exceed many who are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

But they lack big moments.  They had workmanlike careers, and they were reliable teammates.  This is surely commendable, but it isn’t mythic.

Sandy Koufax is quite different.  He pitched in the major leagues for only twelve years, but he’s a legend.  An intensely serious Jewish boy rises meteorically and pitches with power and precision—and for the Dodgers—and then retires at the age of 30 because of arthritis.  His story is mythic.

The anxiety over Bonds, Clemens, and McGwire getting into the Hall of Fame stems from a deeper fear that the legendary character of baseball is under threat.  What is sacred may be profaned by a bunch of cheats.  Numbers that formerly invoked awe are now easily surpassed.

This very dynamic, however, is baseball’s salvation.  Memory is the gate that guards the mythic heavens of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, and players pass through for achievements that are more than the sum of their statistics.  Our awareness of missteps preserves the myth.  If they didn’t do it the right way, we will know.  We don’t call it the Hall of Numbers.

We fear that somehow Bonds and Clemens, Hall of Fame caliber players before we ever suspected them of wrongdoing, will get voted in and something pure will have been violated.  But even if they enter the Hall, we’ll still know.  The satisfaction of a career’s validation will be withheld, and that’s enough to preserve and protect the game. 

There may not be an asterisk next to Roger Maris’s name in the record book, but his children still feel that he has never been given his due.  Only because everyone knows he broke Ruth’s home run record in 162 games, whereas Ruth hit his 60 in 154.

No one will ever think of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson without thinking of scandal.  Sadly, the same is true of great players like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Mark McGwire.  They are tragic figures, and they will be kept from the pantheon of the greats because we know.  Our collective suspicions have scrubbed our memories of their mythic character.

That’s why I don’t worry about players from the Steroid Era.  I’m confident that we’ll never think of them without suspecting that they didn’t do it the right way.  Baseball’s mythic memory is its own protection.

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