Dispatch #6: The gray area
Baseball season is here, and sinkhole has drafted contributor Andrew Forbes to accompany our readers through it. All season long, Forbes will be following the exploits of Seattle Mariners legend Ichiro Suzuki, and using Ichiro as a lens through which to view the game, both in the US and Japan, its history, and the culture surrounding it.
A note, reader, concerning what transpired when last we met: yes, I impugned the home run. Said some pretty nasty things about it, in truth. Suggested, in my way, that the game of baseball was less for it.
Understand, please, that I do not hate the home run.
I rattle around this house, often alone, often talking to myself, and usually, when in season, with a ballgame on. On a TV or a tablet or a laptop, whether the radio broadcast or the TV feed. I go from room to room and at times my attention is only loosely or partially on the action of the game. But then comes the telltale rise in the announcer’s voice which presages a ball landing somewhere beyond the fence, and depending on who hit the ball, or which jersey they’re wearing, I will celebrate.
But I come from a long line of people who, when confronted with joy, tend to look it dead in the eye and say, “But what is it you really want?” It’s worth keeping that in mind if you choose to continue reading.
Understand, too, that I am not, in the ensuing words, suggesting that the urge to gain competitive advantage via the use of salves, unguents, creams, pills, powders, or injected solutions is a new one, in baseball or in any other sporting pursuit. I’m aware that ballplayers have been dabbling in testosterone, amphetamines, and various snake oils since there was any money to be made from winning ballgames.
But when science caught up with desire, it began to change baseball in pretty dramatic ways. Let’s call José Canseco the nexus of those two converging lines, not in the interest of assigning blame, but because he seems perfectly comfortable occupying that spot. He and his Oakland A’s teammate, Mark McGwire, were named Rookie of the Year consecutively, in 1986 (Canseco) and ’87 and, for their combined slugging power, saddled with the goofily era-appropriate “Bash Brothers” sobriquet. They bashed a lot of home runs, and the A’s made a habit of appearing in the World Series.
Canseco, as it happened, was as brittle as he was bombastic, so the duo dissolved in ’92 when he was traded to the Rangers. McGwire kept hitting homers at a decent pace right up until he was traded to the Cardinals during the ’97 season.
The following season, of course, McGwire and the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa went on an historic tear, and by the end of the season McGwire had racked up a Maris-besting 70 round-trippers. By then, however, it was common knowledge that at least part of McGwire’s success was thanks to his admitted use of the steroid Androstenedione. Sosa, too, became the subject of suspicion, though it should be noted that, unlike McGwire, no smoking gun was spied in his locker.
In 1998, Androstenedione was not on Major League Baseball’s list of banned substances (though it was banned by the International Olympic Committee), an important distinction, albeit a pretty fine one to make. So while not technically illegal at the time, it was at best a little off, like a ringing double smudging the foul line, and at worst an act of bad faith. It was also increasingly commonplace. The use of supplements and performance enhancers was, in the estimation of 1996 National League MVP and admitted user Ken Caminiti, practiced by half of all major leaguers.
The effects were stark: big hitters, like McGwire and Sosa, went from thirty or forty homers a year to sixty-plus, while fringe major leaguers with spotty or varied employment histories suddenly became thirty home run guys, or even All-Stars. I grew up cheering for the Blue Jays, and I recall with great relish the happiness in knowing that Jesse Barfield’s 40 homers led all hitters in 1986, and that the following season, George Bell was named American League MVP when he hit 47.
Fast forward just a decade and those numbers would’ve looked shockingly pedestrian.
This is where I revisit and further clarify my earlier comments about home runs, because while they’re fine in isolation, or even in modest abundance, in superabundance they tend to lose a bit of their appeal, to induce the roiling stomach I associate with the consumption of empty calories. The game’s inherent balance, like my middle age gut’s precarious bacterial equilibrium, is thrown uncomfortably out of whack by too much of even the most delicious confection.
It seems a bit simplistic to me, though, to suggest that The Steroid Era comprises a stain on the game’s history. It is, to be sure, a reminder that in a collision of faith and capitalism, capitalism almost inevitably triumphs. But labelling it an aberration feels uncomfortably close to laying all the blame at the feet of players, when the truth is that the history of baseball is characterized by efforts to streamline the flow of money toward those in control; rest assured that, during the period in question, all concerned were reaping the windfall of increased gates and greater viewership. Baseball had succeeded in re-entering the zeitgeist just a few short years after the labor stoppage which had alienated a huge number of its paying customers, and it did so thanks to the record number of balls leaving big league yards all over America. Tellingly, even though everybody seemed quite aware of the manner in which performance-enhancing substances were changing the game, nobody seemed terrifically interested in doing anything about it.
Listen to Andrew discuss the essay in the sixth episode of our limited-run podcast, Caught Looking.
Not until Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, a man driven in large measure by anger, surpassed McGwire and hit 73 home runs in 2001, at the age of 37, was the issue forced, arguably because things were threatening to verge on the utterly absurd. Major League Baseball and its players union eventually agreed to a drug testing regime, and after the Mitchell Report, which implicated dozens of current and former players when it was released in 2007, it appeared that baseball had engaged in a process of rigorous self-examination, a holding-to-account, and that the question of the legitimacy of players’ accomplishments – and the faith therein – could be restored going forward.
It would, however, be premature to suggest that the era has been tied off tidily. Indeed, though the footage of McGwire and Sosa, and Caminiti, and Rafael Palmeiro, and so on, has taken on the washed and grainy patina of deteriorating video tape, and though the most egregious flaunters have retired, none of it has really gone away.
On May 15th of this year, Seattle Mariners All-Star second baseman Robinson Canó became the 56th player suspended since PED testing began in 2003. (Canó was technically suspended for the use of a diuretic, but the terms of the agreement between MLB and the players union stipulates that a player can’t be suspended for the use of such a substance unless it can be established that the player in question intended to use it as a masking agent for banned substances.)
Canó has been a remarkably durable player for fourteen seasons with the Yankees and Mariners, an offensive threat who’s averaged 24 home runs a season (with a high of 39 in 2016), but he’s 35 years old now, an age when even the most resilient players have to be aware of the impending end. It might be that his intent, when taking whatever it was he took, was to prolong his window, or to speed recovery from injury.
His is a representative case, I’d argue. I suspect, where most players are concerned, there’s a lot of gray shading, a lot of ambiguity to be negotiated. Most of the players caught up in the Mitchell Report’s net were not world-beaters or record-setters, but middle-of-the-pack guys looking to hold on, or desperate to extend their careers in the face of injury or physical degradation. The dream of baseball stardom is, like all dreams, one that changes incrementally. First you dream of being Babe Ruth. Then you dream of making a roster. Then you dream of not being jobless.
Robinson Canó, though, is a Hall of Fame candidate who now joins the holding pattern of would-be Hall of Famers implicated in the steroid conundrum. There are several, and we don’t yet know what to do with them. As easy as it has become to wish away Bonds and Roger Clemens, who’ve acted their parts as villains, we’re still left with their accomplishments, and a nullity in the rulebook. Our desire to condemn and assign blame is complicated, too, by our implicit understanding that what occurred (and is still occurring), while apparently easily classified as a moral failing, is certainly also a bowing to the cold exigencies of the baseball economy to which we all contribute.
It’s generally our hope that some exceptional expression of character accompanies our ballplayers’ GIF-able highlights, but in most cases we must remain content that they perform their duty to its strict letter; that they show up, don the uniform, move the runners over, throw strikes, hit the cut-off man. And maybe that is enough. Maybe we don’t want to know how the sausage is made. But it’s worth remembering, even as we continue to suffer the disappointment upon receipt of news of failed drug tests, that the players alone did not concoct the recipe.
In this, as in so many other things, it occurs to me again how like our lives baseball can be; how complicated, how ambiguous, how unsure it can make us even of our own judgment. And that joy, when found, is frequently multilayered, slippery, and that sometimes, as my forebears suggested, it should be interrogated.
Baseball is a reflection of our desires, a frequently sorrowful and occasionally joyful exercise which feels endless in the moment but short and ephemeral when we look back at it. And sometimes, as in our lives, we move toward something to which we are attracted, believing that more of that thing will make us happier, or fuller, or better. And in rare moments, in that pursuit, we catch sight of our own reflection, not believing that the unflattering sight is us. But it is.
header image: "steroids & baseball," ricky rhodes / flickr