April 28, 2011
Some people say heroes define baseball, or rather baseball defines them. Baseball is a game that commonly makes ordinary men extraordinary.
But what happens when heroes deceive and alienate the very people they save?
I know... I grew up in the Steroid Era.
With Barry Bonds's perjury trial now over, and Manny Ramirez's untimely exit from baseball, I thought it'd be an appropriate time to talk about something that none of us want to talk about.Baseball's steroid era is like a rotting sore on a beautiful woman. No matter how much baseball tries to hide its past transgressions, it can't because, as we all know, the thing we love most about baseball is its past.
We all know what happened during the steroid era. But I wanted to write a new article about it with a new point of view. You see because I grew up during the steroid era, I feel like much of my childhood was a sham.
"Thwack" "yea! Go Sammy! Whoo! I love you Sammy." "Slammin Sammy Sosa" my Dad bellowed.I learned to love God's great game of baseball in that magical summer of 1998. I played my second year of tee-ball that year and it is one of the first years that I remember watching baseball games.
Because I was only 6 at the time I don't remember watching many games that summer. And my parents, though not die-hard Cub fans, had been to some games in the past and always dressed me in Cubs gear. But that summer made me a Cub fan for life.
I think I fell in love with the game that summer, and in the following years after that.Seriously, how could you not?
That summer two larger than life figures went toe-to-toe smashing ball after ball and depositing them in the seats like two gods who could not be stopped!
And if grown men thought these guys were true heroes, just imagine how a six-year old felt? Imagine what these guys looked like to little kids, not just in the U.S., but around the world!These guys were big!... except just not in the way I thought.
The next summer the long ball flew wildly again! Once again my favorite player on the planet, "Slammin Sammy Sosa" as my Dad called him, hit an incredible 63 home runs that year, only to be bested once again by the greatest player of all-time, or so I thought, Mark McGuire who hit 65.The experts called it things like "the era of the long ball", "the really live ball era", and the ubiquitous "juiced ball era".
They all said that was just an anomaly or natural cycle in the game's progression. Just like global warming they said that this spike in the game was just a natural up in the game that possibly countered the pitchers' dominated era of the 1960s.
They blamed the increase in home runs on such things as new materials being used to make baseballs, hence the name the "juiced ball era", the fences being moved in by a few feet each decade, and better and different types of bats.
While each point had its validity those factors alone just didn't add up to the sweeping surge in power across baseball.
While baseball had always seemed to place a greater emphasis on power in each of the preceding decades leading up to the 1990s, the game never evolved this rapidly.
The strategy, grace, and beauty of the game that hall-of-famers like Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Roger Maris, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, George Brett, and Ryne Sandberg played with suddenly disappeared. Now sluggers like Jose Conseco, the aforementioned Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, Ken Camaneti, the Giambi brothers, Manny Ramirez, Barry Bonds, and countless others belted each pitch out at a record pace.
A new generation of kids learned the game this way. As early as at age 7 kids were taught on how to hit the ball far. By the time they got to the majors division of little league coaches expected kids to hit home runs.
That's how I learned the game at first. I got frustrated when I found that I just couldn't hit home runs! (Still to this day I haven't hit one in an organized game.) Because I loved looking at film of old games I saw a different style of play. So I hit for contact and focused on fundamentally sound baseball.
I played the game the way it used to be played, and the way I felt it should be played.But I got penalized for it!
My peers bashed my style of play. They mocked my rugged old-school style of play because I always tried to walk, get hit by a pitch, hit for contact and not for power, and try to beat out a ball hit in the infield.
And I seemed to go un-noticed by coaches too. I never made a travel team or all-star team in little league. And I still can't believe that I never made the team in high school.
I guess that's one of the side effects of the steroid era... those players didn't just change the game in the Major Leagues, they changed the game all over the world for throughout all levels of play.
In October of 2000 I remember watching Sportscenter and hearing the anchor routinely point out that my hero "Slammin Sammy Sosa" hit 60+ homers for the third year in a row! The following year, just three years after the summer of Mark and Sammy, Barry Bonds made his historic, or in hindsight not so historic, assault on history. The United States leaned on baseball and Bonds's chase of the "Big Mac" after the 9/11 attacks.And I vividly remember the night Bonds hit magic number 71! That night Gary Thorn of ESPN mentioned Hank Aaron's name several times. At the time I didn't even know who "Hammerin Hank" was. So I uttered, in hindsight, some of the most ironic words of my life. Shortly after Bond's home run I said quietly "God, I hope Barry Bonds breaks Hank Aaron's record one day way in the future."
Just a few years later I learned just how fake most of my childhood had been. I'd leaned on baseball after 9/11. I leaned on the game after my parents got divorced. I leaned on baseball after my grandma died. I leaned on Baseball through God during every tough time of my life because playing baseball is what made me the happiest all throughout my childhood.
But in 2003 when the infamous BALCO case started I realized that I will not get to tell my kids about my heroes.
Previous generations told their kids about the heroes they saw like Shoeless Joe Jackson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Hank Aaron, Carlton Fisk, Pete Rose, Ryne Sandberg, Dennis Eckersley, George Brett, and Cal Ripken Jr. to name a few.
My heart sank with the very thought that my generation would be the first in the nation's history not to practice the tradition of passing down the memories of their childhood baseball heroes.The chance do that was stolen from me!
Instead of telling my kids about the larger than life baseball players of my childhood I will get to tell them about the sins that those men committed...
But maybe that isn't a bad thing.
Maybe this is where some, if any, good can come out of the darkest chapter in baseball's history.Yea, the very reason I learned to love the game turned out to be a fraud. But because of that I found an entirely different game than the one based on power that is now preeminently played today. So for that I can thank the steroid era.
And I guess that's why I love baseball.
The game fell into a dark pit after the steroid era. Most sports would've been ruined by a scandal like the one that hit baseball. Most sports would've been ruined by a scandal that ran as high up as Bud Selig, the commissioner of MLB, to down to the lowest clubhouse attendant.But not baseball! Somehow it survived the controversy and bad publicity that came with a scandal of this magnitude.
So once again baseball progressed as it regressed. And today it remains the same game it has been for the last two and a quarter centuries.And now that the game is somewhat cleaned up, hopefully my generation can keep the game clean of PEDs.
Maybe because of the atypical childhood stories we will be able to tell our children, we will be able to teach them how and why PED use is so bad.
Maybe history will show one day that the steroid era will ultimately prevent the demise of the game. And that is something that all the tainted records in the world cannot measure.
Phil Joens is a contributing columnist to myGameBalls.com and also maintains a Blog.