The fans enter the stadium, their eyes wide with awe as they absorb the sensations around them. The baseball field spreads before them, the lush green grass holding memories of seasons passed. The air is heavy with the smells of hot dogs and popcorn. As the players warm up, cheers cascade in from everywhere, as if riding the white crests of waves breaking on the shoreline.
America's pastime has returned for another season.
But soon after the umpire yells "Play Ball!" the serene atmosphere becomes intense with the taunts of spectators. So much emphasis is put on one game that the batter thinks one swing (or lack thereof) will seal his fate for the rest of the season.
Six months, 50 home runs, and 120 RBIs later, his team wins the World Series. He signs a record-breaking multiyear contract with the franchise and is the league MVP. He can't believe his luck, considering what a no-name he was going into Spring Training.
But a few seasons later, this same player is becoming old news. His last two years have been mediocre at best, and he spends most of his time as a benchwarmer. The only thing keeping him around is lack of a decent trade deal.
So one day, he returns to the clubhouse after making out and quickly observes his surroundings. Sure that he is alone, he pops a pill, injects himself, or applies a topical ointment. It seems to invigorate him; he proceeds to homer in two consecutive at-bats. And that is just the beginning of his re-emergence as an All-Star.
This story describes a figment of my imagination. But it may ring true for many professional baseball players. The downside of steroids seems to get lost in the potential for outdoing everyone, winning awards, and gaining publicity. And as long as money talks louder than a player's conscience, efforts to win a large contract also come before staying healthy.
Pete Rose was banned from baseball for gambling. A big fuss was made about George Brett and the Pine Tar Incident. And when it was revealed that Sammy Sosa's success may be due to a cork-filled bat (and not Flintstones vitamins, as he claimed for a long time), the uproar echoed throughout the MLB.
But if actions really speak louder than words, it appears safe to say that Major-League officials aren't exactly discouraging steroid use. Barry Bonds' trainer, Greg Anderson, has repeatedly been cited as a source for steroids, most recently by Jason Giambi. Yet he seems to continue avoiding justice, and Bonds maintains his innocence, insisting that he was ignorant as to the real purpose of medications supplied by Anderson.
What has happened to America's pastime? Major-League games have avoided being characterized by time limits, cheerleaders, and extravagant halftime shows, the lack of these things contributing to baseball's popularity. But as long as steroid use continues to tarnish records and prompt ever-increasing salaries, baseball will continue to lose fans to sports that take substance abuse seriously. And the people that suffer the most are not athletes or MLB officials, but the fans that support them.
Steroids have been batting 1.000 for too long. If Major-League officials really care about fans, it's time to learn a new pitch. Players must know that they will be held responsible for their actions. Because as long as the MLB continues running out of the baseline, the chalk will soon be so smeared that all sense of direction will be lost forever. And that may be one mistake that no amount of money can fix.