The 1990's brought tough times for Major League Baseball; competing for new fans to grow the game against the Michael Jordan era National Basketball Association proved to be a rough road to hoe. As far as America's pastime went, baseball's future, it seemed, was behind it. The slow pace and methodical nature of baseball was losing out to X-games and their X-treme sports which were ushered in by a fast-paced generation of youth quickly bored and demanding constant action now. These new games reflected their character and spelled doom for the future of a deliberate game like baseball…or so it seemed.
Introduce the summer of 98', Mark ‘Big Mac' McGwire, ‘Slammin' Sammy Sosa took on the ghosts of baseball greats, and their hallowed records, and Americans were once again infatuated and in love with Major League Baseball. "Chicks dig the long ball," became the sexy catch phrase that summed it up nicely for marketing purposes and it seemed like ages since the box score in the morning paper had been so relevant to the national psyche. As the single season Granddaddy record of them all became threatened, in reverence to hero's past, the big question pondered by pundits and conspiracy theorists alike became, "Are the balls juiced?" Time has taught us it wasn't the balls that were juiced, but perhaps, some of the players.
A split screen comparison exposing a sinewy Sosa beside the bulked up new and improved Sammy awakens the senses and in our mind, we know something just isn't right. The thought of steroids or any other unfair advantage gained from performance enhancing drugs in baseball should make every fan uncomfortable. The fallout could destroy, for the foreseeable future, any modicum of legitimacy in the game and consequently, new records established in this era. A scandal could mean baseball's grand renaissance fading away and viewed as no more than an apparition.
This fact did not escape congress. The not so cryptic message from Congressional Leaders like Arizona Senator John McCain to Major League Baseball was clearly to ‘clean up the game…now, the right way, or the action we take may be an action you'd rather not have taken!' Buoyed by the bad press and negative fan reaction from leaked Grand Jury testimony in the BALCO investigation, the stage was set for the recent draft agreement in principle between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association banning steroids, human growth hormones, masking agents and other federally regulated drugs.
Post agreement, the 2005 season is shaping up to be quite contentious. How will Jason Giambi be received while stepping in the batters box for an at-bat? Will, "You use steroids!" become the mantra select players are greeted with from fans? Will Barry Bonds be ferociously booed as he creeps increasingly closer to the Babe? Has the issue of steroid use tainted enough fans that when THE record is surely broken, discussion becomes dangerously divisive? Hank Aaron faced the ugliness of racism; his sin was being a black man in what was then, still, a white man's world. Unlike Hammering Hank, Barry faces problems of his own choosing brought about by poor decision making and bad judgment.
The integrity of the game is greater than any single player's accomplishments and come the 2005 season, it will not be the players, owners, baseball writers nor the Congress who speak loudest; it will be the paying fans in stadiums across America. When they vote by deciding whether to cheer or boo suspect players, whose opinion matters most? This season, I will be paying particularly close attention when Barry, Gary, Jason and Sammy, our 21st century versions of Mighty Casey, come to bat. Are there bad days ahead in Mudsville or will the new agreement put an end, once and for all, to suspected steroid use and the malodorous atmosphere it creates in Major League Baseball?
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