Cheaters at the Ball Yard
Published April 3, 2007
Originally published in the Boston Globe
Cheaters At the Ball Yard
PRESUMING Barry Bonds is relatively healthy this season, we can expect he will break Hank Aaron's record of 755 lifetime home runs. This will present Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig with a compelling problem, because Barry Bonds is suspected of "cutting a few corners" on his way home. Baseball has a history of cheating. Pitchers have scuffed, scratched, and spit on the ball in an attempt to have it behave just errant enough to fool the batter .
Hitters have hardened the wood and lightened the weight of bats in an attempt to drive the ball harder. Grounds crews and fielders have watered near home plate or first base to make it more difficult to bunt or steal a base. Cheating or competitive advantage? Recently in addition to tinkering on field, players started tinkering with themselves.
Not that this was the first time. Players were popping amphetamines in the mid-20th century to give them a boost. No one seemed to mind. If nothing else, it gave them extra energy to counter the effects of long bus and train rides and regular alcohol consumption. Later, when it came to light that cocaine use was widespread if not rampant in major league baseball, there were a few rumblings in Congress about the integrity of the game and the requisite hearings about taking away the hallowed anti trust exemption that lets baseball's monopoly continue unabated and unchallenged, and then all went back to normal.
So this too shall pass?
Maybe not. Players "juicing" not the balls or bats but themselves have presented baseball with a more serious dilemma. On one hand, the increased offense that was a by product of performance enhancing substances certainly attracted the public's interest. After the cancellation of the 1994 World Series the owners and fans were only too delighted four years later to have the McGwire-Sosa homerun rampage to capture the nation's attention. It brought back most disaffected fans and boosted attendance. As far as the owners are concerned, that's in the best interest of the game.
On the other hand, the one-year wonders with their striking power numbers and the veteran ball players whose home run totals escalated exponentially cast a pallor over the game. As much as they may have hated to spoil the party, the owners, once again only under threat of Congress and pressure from the press, had to act. After much ballyhooing and posturing, the owners and players struck an agreement banning certain substances with a whole slew of penalties associated with various levels and frequency of infraction.
The compelling problem is that at the time of Bonds' and others' prodigious offensive feats (forever now known as the "steroid era") there were no rules in baseball specifically outlawing performance-enhancing drugs like steroids or human growth hormones. And in the days since regular testing of the players has been agreed to, only a handful of players have tested positive and of those only one (Rafael Palmeiro) has been a potential Hall of Famer.
What to do? As this new season gets underway, there are rumblings that Bonds and others may be indicted for perjury stemming from grand jury testimony, which is like convicting Al Capone on tax evasion. Fans debate whether or not off icial baseball should apply an asterisk to certain records of this era denoting unusual or clarifying information. That would set the sport on a very slippery slope. What about the player in his prime who has laser eye surgery and suddenly finds himself in the rarified air of Ted Williams' 20-15 fighter pilot's vision. Not everyone can get the same result so the playing field is not level.
A moral dilemma? Hardly. For good or bad, baseball has a way of shedding light on who we are as a people, the choices we make, and the consequences of making those choices. And as far as the hallowed statistics are concerned, I say let the asterisk be in the minds of the fans. In fact it already is.