March 08, 2006

Steroids: I Wish I Didn't Believe

Growing up in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I started my sports fan experience as a dedicated follower of the Oakland A's, led primarily by Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. From 1988 through 1990, the A's reached the World Series every year, and followed up in 1992 by winning the American League Western Division title. Throughout this time, Jose Canseco was my favorite player - nobody could hit the ball as far as he could, or walked with such a swagger. While at times the talk of steroids came up, or fans at opposing cities chanted "Steroids, Steroids!" at him, it was largely dismissed as rumor.

Soon, Canseco wore out his welcome in Oakland, and McGwire rose up to eclipse Canseco's place in the power echelon, overcoming injuries to post multiple seasons of more than 50 home runs, something Canseco had never accomplished, and topping it all with a record 70 home runs as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in the epic 1998 race against Sammy Sosa. During these years, McGwire's body took on dramatic changes, as he grew thicker, broader, and talk of steroids again rose up - highlighted by the charges of his using androstenedione after a bottle of the drug was found in his locker. But as baseball had no testing program in place, neither he nor Canseco or others of their era were ever charged with breaking the rules. There were no rules - unless you were known to use cocaine or other illegal drugs - and even then, it would mean a short-term suspension. Yankees reliever Steve Howe, after all, had been suspended seven times altogether and kept getting another chance.

All this leads us to today's topic du jour - San Francisco Giants outfielder and home run champion Barry Bonds. Barry, like McGwire, started out a lanky player with home run power, who saw his offensive output explode after hitting his prime. In fact, after age 35, Barry had by far his best ever season, when in 2001, he broke McGwire's single season home run record, knocking out 73. But after federal agents raided a Burlingame lab and uncovered the BALCO case, linking Barry, Jason Giambi and other stars to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, Barry has been unable to shake allegations he knowingly used steroids, despite multiple denials on his part - in court and on the field. With the announcement yesterday that two San Francisco Chronicle reporters have issued a book called Game of Shadows, dedicated to Barry's steroid use, with more details than ever before, any doubts that Barry is dirty are now gone.

As a fan, I wanted badly to believe that Barry was clean. He may play for the Giants, but he is a phenomenal athlete to watch, and has done things that nobody has been able to do - things based on a talent he was born with beyond other players, even the greatest of stars. Similarly, I wanted to also believe that McGwire and Canseco were clean, and as an A's fan, I saw Jason Giambi join the ranks of the tainted, as the entire steroids scandal seemed to rotate around the Bay Area. That's part of being a fan - believing in the unbelievable, and hoping that these humans can be without fault or error. It's part of hoping that the sport (and other sports) is untarnished, clean itself, and that you can believe in the product you've paid good money to see and that the statistics being hit are true - without enhancements. I have been in significant denial, even when showered with mountains of evidence. I want to believe that those who are cheaters are found and eliminated. I wanted to believe Barry was not one of them, because his name, at the end of his career, will be all over the record books and I want to believe in those records. I want to revere those statistics the way we always have those of the past. 714, 373, 61, 755, 511, 660, and 586 all mean something to me. I only wish the new numbers could be remembered with the same fondness.