The Home Run -- and How Steroids Affect It -- Remains the Core Baseball Concern

Junior Griffey might have been one of the few people in baseball who cared to notice something wrong in 1998, when he, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa went through the All-Star break chasing baseball

Dec 22, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

Junior Griffey might have been one of the few people in baseball who cared to notice something wrong in 1998, when he, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa went through the All-Star break chasing baseball's most cherished record.

Griffey didn't especially embrace the battle for 62 homers and fell off the pace as if to disassociate himself from it. He's been known to be upset with steroids in baseball for quite a long time, because he wants to play with his grandkids and the highest achievements in the game would involve putting that at risk.

Steroids are unfair to players with enough foresight to anticipate life after baseball.

That's one moral position, anyway. Here's another.

Baseball players are passionate, highly committed people, artists in their way, edifying us by their expression of the game and their achievements therein. As athletes, professional athletes, they're human performance machines; it would be perverse if they didn't seek every advantage, all the better to bless the game with ever-higher levels of achievement.

Some players might not want to take steroids to remain among the game's elite, but that's a personal decision, just like it's a personal decision to take steroids knowing the risks. After all, who's to discourage a baseball player's commitment to his baseball performance?

If anything, these men are to be commended for the sacrifices they've made to move the game forward and put fannies in the seats. Should these men meet health problems from steroids, well, they willingly gave themselves for the glory of the game. It's sad, but that's freedom.

So we're presented two moral positions concerning steroids in baseball. The first, in the mouth of an ethicist, is paternalistic. But in the mouths of a reported majority of baseball players it's a call to action, as they're finally pressuring their union leadership to take steroid use seriously.

The second position is libertarian, which along with the paternalistic position comes down against steroid use in baseball for the same reason — because players shouldn't be left behind for refusing that risk. But many players have been left behind, including perhaps the Bambino and Henry Aaron.

The man in the center of baseball at the moment is Barry Bonds, a storied athlete pursuing baseball's most storied record, Aaron's career home run total of 755. The story of this record is very much the story of baseball.

According to reported leaked grand jury testimony in the federal case against the BALCO laboratories, Bonds has an interesting story to tell. His trainer, who's been indicted in a steroid distribution ring, gave him creams that he rubbed on his body to assuage fatigue and nagging injuries so he could work out more easily. That was 2003. Bonds said the stuff didn't help him, so he quit using it.

No one else around that case seems to doubt they were steroids, so Bonds is sitting on 703 career homers with a giant credibility problem. Suspicions about him run so high that this little bit of testimony has opened the gates.

Bonds hooked up with his trainer, Greg Anderson, a childhood friend, in 1998. Soon Bonds was able to intensify workouts, his body grew to nearly twice his former size in proportions unusual for male maturation and he started hitting home runs as never before.

Barry Bonds is the godson of the great Willie Mays and the son of Bobby Bonds, who was once the next Willie Mays. Younger readers won't be familiar with Mays, who declined by the late 1960s. By then, if you knew the names of only two baseball players, they were the names of Mays and Mickey Mantle.

Through the 1969 season, Mays stood second on the all-time home run list with 587, but he was 38 years old and needed three years he'd already left far behind if he were going to catch Ruth at 714.

At 35 years old after the 1969 season, Aaron stood third on the list with 554 career home runs. He went on to blast 201 more homers during his career, passing Ruth through storms of racist hate mail.

Ruth played, of course, when blacks were prohibited from the major leagues, though some thought he was black. As Bonds approaches and passes Ruth and Aaron, the debate will intensify as to who really was the best home run hitter among them. Data that relativizes performance to the era in which he played will always favor Ruth, since no other power hitter of approximately his stature played during his times, with the possible exception of teammate Lou Gehrig.

Through 1999, Bonds was not the clear favorite to catch Aaron. He was 35 with 445 career homers, more than 100 fewer than Aaron at the same age. Griffey, with 398 homers through 1999, was only 29. He could have passed Aaron with 36 homers per year for 10 years. Griffey's place in the home run chase largely motivated the Reds to bring him back to Cincinnati in a move that made so much sense.

But the past five seasons have changed home run history. Griffey stayed clean, injuries have consistently derailed him and he finally passed 500 home runs last season, which he left with 501. Griffey just turned 35 in November. Say he comes back this year with 40 homers — he'd be close to Aaron's total at 35 and is well ahead of Bonds at that age.

But Bonds has hit 258 homers in the past five years. And he's not alone among the freakishly prolific home run hitters beginning with the home run chase of 1998. McGwire used androstenedione, which acts like a steroid. He obliterated the single-season home run record with 72 in 1998 and soon dropped out of sight. Sammy Sosa passed 60 homers in 1998 and 1999, bulked up and later was busted with a corked bat.

Back in 1998, of course, silence greeted questions about the legitimacy of that single-season home run chase. A home run standard was not merely challenged but obliterated, and not by just one player but two in the same year.

Hardly anyone said a word. Baseball needed its home run chase, and the baseball media needs baseball.

Finally, we're having the conversation we should have started six years ago. That's a little too easy to say, of course. If the issue had really been pressed in 1998, just when home runs were bringing the game back from the 1994 strike, baseball would have been set even further back. No wonder everyone looked the other way.

If not for the BALCO case, the steroid issue in baseball might still be under the radar.

Bonds and other players have evidently pushed the envelope way past time-honored cocktails of uppers and pain pills. They've forced others to risk diabetes, easy formation of cancers and the loss of calcium from their bones to compete as ball players.

More than other sports, baseball is carried by speed and power. That was the revulsion with the 1998 home run chase. Taking Ruth's 60 homers in 1927 and Maris' 61 in 1961 as roughly equivalent, a human standard seldom challenged for 60 years was crushed all at once by two guys.

It was grotesque. Subsequently, Bonds hit 73. The single-season home run record already had lost its luster.

Now it's going to happen with the career home run record. As always, the story of the home run record is very much the story of baseball.