— The janitors hadn’t even had time to swab up the saline slick Mark McGwire spilled while confessing his steroid use before Bud Selig was delivering one of those statements that only the terminally clueless are capable of.
“The use of steroids and amphetamines amongst today’s players has greatly subsided and is virtually nonexistent, as our testing results have shown,” the baseball commissoiner said in a statement. “The so-called steroid era — a reference that is resented by the many players who played in that era and never touched the substances — is clearly a thing of the past, and Mark’s admission today is another step in the right direction.”
I’m sorry, Bud, but you’re as wrong as mayonnaise on vanilla ice cream. The so-called steroid era isn’t going to become a thing of the past until every player who put on a uniform during that era has come clean. As long as Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are still infesting baseball’s landscape, the steroid era will persist.
The steroid era will remain as long as there are sportswriters who are still boiling with outrage that their precious game — the one that made heroes of cheaters for so many years — could harbor cheaters. When Bonds and Sosa and Clemens show up on the Hall of Fame ballots, we’ll hear about it.
The other problem with Selig's statement is its monumental naiveté. The issue isn’t steroids, but cheating. That’s what we’re talking about here: breaking rules to get an edge. And there’s no way that era is close to ending.
Baseball does not do blood tests and does not detect human growth hormone. No one can test for gene doping, which will someday infest all sports. Baseball might have slowed the use of drugs, but it will never stop cheating.
No sport can do that, not a long as there is fame and fortune to be won. For Selig to suggest otherwise is like a politician saying that the recession is over just because the stock market is up and Wall Street is doling out bonuses. Ask somebody on an unemployment line about that assessment.
Cheating in baseball dates back to the first batter in the first game ever played. The reason there are umpires on every base isn’t to get the safe and out calls right — you can call a play at first from the upper deck as easily as you can from 10 feet away on the baseline — but to keep players from cheating.
In the good old days, players hooked opponents by the belt to keep them from running. They cut corners running the bases if they knew the ump wasn’t looking. They’d cut across the diamond to return to a base. They did whatever they could get away with.
The game celebrates pitchers who cut, scuffed and drooled on baseballs. It laughs at corked bats. It was fueled for 50 years by amphetamines — performance enhancing drugs every bit as illicit as steroids. Mickey Mantle took them and Willie Mays took them and Hank Aaron, too. Lots of players did.
What makes the steroid thing so singular is that it is one of the few things players did to cheat that wasn’t cheating by the rules of the game. Even though steroids are illegal without a prescription, baseball didn’t test for the drugs until 2003. McGwire was done playing by then. When he was playing, the game didn’t care what players took, and that went for steroids and amphetamines. It had strict rules for cocaine, a social drug. It had no rules for steroids, a performance-enhancing drug.
Selig has taken a dollop of blame for not getting on the steroids issue earlier, but not nearly as much as he should. The biggest culprits remain the owners and league executives who ignored blatant signs of steroid use because the explosion in home runs brought huge numbers of fans into the ballparks. Selig and the others became concerned with steroids only when they threatened to hurt the bottom line. It took even longer to ban amphetamines, not because the drugs were any less illegal, but because the public simply never cared about them.
So now we’re on to another era and other drugs. Yes, the game is cleaner than it was. Pitchers don’t cheat as they used to because the game has moved to stop attempts to doctor the balls. Fewer players are taking PEDs because the game does have testing.
But to suggest that cheating is a thing of the past is either incredibly ignorant and naïve or just another cynical attempt to gull the public. The chemists are hard at work developing new ways to build bigger muscles. The players are eager for the fame and fortune that come with the job. The games reward winners, not losers.
Steroids are still with us, Bud. They always will be. That’s the way it is.