Monday, February 15, 2010

Pumped Up Pastime: A Disquisition in Three Parts (Part One)

As much as Major League Baseball wants to drive a silver stake through the steroid issue and finally bury its pumped up past for good, it continually finds Rasputin rising up to lay hands around its neck and whisper "You bad boy." With Mark McGwire joining the Cardinals as a hitting coach this year, and the likes of Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds soon to join him on future Hall of Fame ballots, the steroid issue isn't going anywhere.

And so the New York Game, ever mindful of your psychic health, brings you a three-part therapy session on baseball's Faustian bargain. Go right ahead, it's ok to lie back and put your shoes up on the leather coach. Sorry, no smoking. (We're trying to cut down stimulants and addictive substances, remember?) Oh ok, what the hell. We both know this is going to get ugly.

Relax your mind and go back in time to those heady, carefree days -- the late 90s. 1998 in particular.

1998 was an extraordinary year for Major League Baseball. Four years after the strike-shortened season of 1994, which saw the World Series cancelled for the first time in 90 years, fans returned to the game in droves, riveted by the record-breaking home run chase between the St. Louis Cardinals’ Mark McGwire and the Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa. McGwire and Sosa were chasing a record that had stood for 37 years, and one of the most venerated in professional sports – the New York Yankees’ Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961, surpassing by one home run the record set by Babe Ruth in 1927. Many sports commentators considered it among the most difficult records to shatter. Maris, under pressure and scrutiny from a media that by any measure was infinitesimal to today’s twenty four-seven cable and Internet behemoth, famously began losing his hair in clumps as the season wore on. For today’s players, the chase would too heavy a burden to bear, these commentators reasoned. For 37 years they were right. McGwire and Sosa, however, did not wither under pressure. Both players, in fact, sped past the record as if were a Model-T on the autobahn. McGwire finished the season with a staggering 70 home runs, Sosa with 66.

Seventy home runs. The figure was mind-blowing. “Babe Ruth and Roger Maris are no longer the landmarks. Now, the names that home run hitters will aspire to are Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire,” read a New York Times feature. The electrifying chase, as expected, commanded wall-to-wall media coverage, and nearly all of it was positively glowing. To the fans, many of whom remained bitter about 1994 and demonstrated those feelings by tightening their wallets, it seemed as if all was finally forgiven. According to Sports Illustrated senior baseball writer Tom Verducci:

It was an expansion year, with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks adding two more television markets, $260 million in expansion fees, and another 324 games to the inventory of moneymaking possibilities. Attendance jumped 12 percent, with almost seven and a half million more people paying their way into ballparks. The per-game major league average improved by 4 percent to 29,054, the best it had been since before the strike hit. The ratings for games televised by Fox improved 11 percent.

The previously inconceivable benchmark of 70 home runs in a single season – the new standard that will stand for decades, if not all-time, many commentators then asserted – was shattered only three years later, when Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants smashed 73 in 2001. These record-shattering superstars weren’t the only ones hitting baseballs a further, and at a more furious pace. Home runs and scoring totals were up across the league, in numbers that were statistically striking when compared to previous eras. The 1993-2004 era had the highest home runs per game average in baseball history: 1.03 in the National League and 1.11 in the American League. Contrast that to 0.74 and 0.89 respectively in 1983-1992 and 0.68 and 0.79 respectively in 1973-1982.

There are many factors accounting for this shift, among them the shrinking size of ballparks, the dilution of quality pitching owing to a higher number of teams in the league, an evolving strike zone, and advancements in sports training and nutrition. No single factor, however, is as significant as the proliferation of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. I seek to examine the use of those drugs, particularly anabolic steroids, in Major League Baseball through the lens of business ethics and public relations. Further, I will argue that Major League Baseball – from the owners and managers to the players and coaches, as well as their agents and union representatives – were complicit in enabling the widespread use of illicit drugs whose usage has considerably damaged the integrity of America’s pastime. All affiliated with the game now have an ethical obligation to make meaningful contributions to its moral convalescence.

Baseball’s steroid era begins with Jose Canseco, the self-proclaimed “godfather of steroids.” Canseco played for a variety of teams in the big leagues from 1985-2001, finishing his career with 462 home runs (then 22nd on the all-time list). A six-time All-Star and winner of the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in 1988, he was also the first player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season. And only eight other players in the history of the game can boast of having hit at least 400 home runs while stealing at least 200 bases over the course of their career. On these numbers alone, a good argument can be made for Canseco meriting election into the Baseball Hall of Fame; that however, is unlikely to happen, as Canseco was also an avid user and promoter of anabolic steroids.

His 2005 book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ’Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big is a tell-all chronicle of chemical self-enhancement. Initially met with skepticism and questions about the author’s credibility – Canseco has been arrested for nightclub brawls, has few friends in game, and was said to be strapped for cash – his book nonetheless spurred the media to begin serious investigation of his claims. Canseco asserts that he had improved his performance through steroid use as early as 1984, and soon began informing teammates and players throughout the league about the benefits. He claims to have personally injected former teammates Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzales, and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. He also claimed to have knowledge that several stars were users, including Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Bret Boone, Miguel Tejada, and Jason Giambi. Giambi, a onetime Oakland Athletics teammate “went overboard with steroids,” Canseco wrote, and became “the most outright juicer in the game.” Giambi, according to Canseco, “had the most obvious steroid physique I've ever seen in my life. There was no definition to his body at all. You could see the retention of liquids, especially in his neck and face; to those in the know, that was a sure sign of steroid overload.”

Giambi "before":

Giambi "after":

Canseco’s book echoed the whistle-blowing of the longtime third baseman Ken Caminiti, who in 2002, one year after concluding a successful 15-year career that included a National League Most Valuable Player award in 1996, asserted that he had used steroids throughout his career, and that steroid use was widespread throughout baseball. “Look at the money in the game,” Caminiti said. “The salaries are through the roof. So I can’t say ‘don’t do it’ when the guy sitting next to you is big as a house and he’s going to take your job and make the money.” In 2004, Caminiti died of a heart attack at age 41. He had tested positive for cocaine a month earlier, while on probation for cocaine possession.

Is the catharsis kicking in yet? Look for part II later this week.

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