During the past three weeks, 14 major league baseball players, including superstar Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees and Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, have been suspended by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig for allegedly obtaining performance-enhancing drugs from Biogenesis, a now-closed anti-aging clinic in Florida. Rodriguez, who is now fifth among the all time home run leaders with 647 home runs, got the biggest punishment – a 211-game suspension, which could keep him away from the playing field through the start of the 2015 season if it’s upheld.
Never mind that Rodriguez is planning to appeal his suspension and can still play for the Yankees while appealing. What just happened with him and several other all-star players among the 14 is the latest blow to the greatest sport in America. The game of baseball, with the feats accomplished by some of its greatest players since the game’s last strike ended in 1995, has been seriously tainted by the phenomenon called steroids. It’s very disappointing to find out that players who set particular records and made the game exciting in the late 1990s and 2000s must have cheated to do so.
Alex Rodriguez, who won three American League Most Valuable Player awards and hit over 50 home runs in a season three times, besides helping the Yankees win the 2009 World Series, had been thought to be the one who could break Barry Bonds’s all time home run record. If and when he does some time in the future, that record would be tainted because he has been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. Rodriguez long ago admitted that he used a steroid while playing for the Texas Rangers from 2001 through 2003, and he probably has used PEDs after that, too. He’s also accused of trying to “obstruct and frustrate the Office of the Commissioner’s investigation”1 into Biogenesis by attempting to buy documents from, and hiding his involvement from, that clinic. It makes no sense that he’s playing after having been suspended; it doesn’t matter that he’s allowed to play while contesting his suspension.
The all time home run record, which is 762 home runs by former Pittsburgh Pirate and San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds, is tarnished because it is evident that Bonds used steroids. Bonds was one of nearly 90 players who were named as having taken steroids or other PEDs in the 2007 Mitchell Commission Report on substance abuse in baseball. He was linked to the BALCO steroid distribution ring, was accused of lying to a federal grand jury about steroid use in a 2003 hearing related to BALCO, and two years ago he was convicted of obstruction of justice for giving evasive testimony during that hearing. In the trial that led to that conviction, some of Bonds’s associates testified that Bonds used PEDs. (An appeal on the conviction is pending.)
It’s really a shame that baseball’s most hallowed record, the all time home run record, is being held by a player who cheated and allegedly lied under oath in court. That record should be indicated with an asterisk in all the sports record books if Bonds gets to keep it. The player whose record he broke, the great Hank Aaron, who hit 755 home runs for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves and also the Brewers, should be the genuine holder of baseball’s home run record because he played the game without relying on substances.
Another baseball record that’s tarnished is the seven Cy Young Awards that were won by Roger Clemens, who pitched for the Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, the Yankees, and also the Houston Astros. Clemens, who won 354 games and struck out 4,672 batters (20 in a game twice) in his career, was named in the Mitchell Report as having taken performance-enhancing drugs and got involved in a perjury trial, like Bonds. He was accused of lying to Congress when he denied allegations of using PEDs and got indicted on felony counts involving perjury, making false statements, and obstruction of Congress. He eventually was acquitted of all those counts, yet it’s unfortunate that an important pitching record is held by someone who cheated and possibly twisted the truth on PED use to the U.S. government.
How about that great 1998 home run chase between Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, which was won by McGwire, who hit 70 home runs to Sosa’s 66 to break Roger Maris’s record of 61 homers in 1961? That has turned out to be an illusion. Mark McGwire first refused to answer questions about steroid use at a Congressional hearing in 2005, then in 2009 he finally admitted using steroids when he broke Maris’s record in 1998. The 70 home runs he hit that year, and the 73 home runs hit by Barry Bonds in 2001 that broke McGwire’s record, are both tainted as well as the aforementioned records. In addition, Sammy Sosa tested positive for a PED in 2003. Could he possibly have used drugs 15 years ago when he challenged McGwire?
It’s very true that there has been a great surge in power as well as a number of great pitching feats that have occurred in baseball since the mid 1990s. Fifteen different position players hit 50 or more home runs in a season between 1995 and 2010, four of them more than once (McGwire, Sosa, Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey Jr.). It just seems wrong that some of what has happened during this period has been propelled by performance-enhancing drugs like steroids. Why could great baseball players have decided to use drugs? Maybe it could have been to earn more money, to stay as fit as possible and avoid or overcome injury, or to become the greatest players of all time, or any mix of the three. Rodriguez admitted in 2009 to using performance-enhancing drugs while playing for the Rangers because he felt enormous pressure to perform at a high level. “I wanted to prove to everyone that I was worth being one of the greatest players of all time,” he said.2 President Barack Obama, in his first prime-time news conference in 2009, called Rodriguez’s admission “depressing” news, and he made a very important point when he said, “and if you’re a fan of Major League Baseball, I think it tarnishes an entire era, to some degree, and it’s unfortunate, because I think there were a lot of ballplayers who played it straight.”3
Actually, steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs are not necessary for athletes to attain greatness. All that are required for players to succeed in baseball and other sports are rigorous training, staying in shape, endless hard work and hard practice, excellent hand-eye coordination and concentration, and great motivation, confidence, and determination. The Yankees have won 13 divisional titles, seven pennants, and five championships during the last 18 years, and they have built and sustained their dynasty without resorting to PEDs. (There are two exceptions to that, though – Andy Pettitte admitted to using human growth hormone twice in 2002 to recover from an elbow injury, and catcher Francisco Cervelli has been suspended for the rest of this season because of his link to Biogenesis.)
Even though performance-enhancing drugs pose short term benefits like stronger muscles, bones, and tendons and helping players work their fast-twitch muscle fibers to perform better, the drugs can lead to serious health consequences in the long term. Such consequences include heart damage, liver damage, and possibly blood clots. As a television public service announcement on steroids some years ago said, “steroids don’t make good athletes, they destroy them.” Ken Caminiti, who played for the Houston Astros and San Diego Padres, admitted to using steroids in 1996 when he won the National League MVP with the Padres, and look what happened to him – he died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 41 in 2004. The drugs must have done it.
Besides the aforementioned records, another hallowed record in baseball – the one for base hits – is tarnished. Pete Rose, who had 4,256 hits for the Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies, and also the Montreal Expos and owns the National League’s longest hitting streak (44 games), was banned from baseball for life for betting on baseball, which included gambling on the team that he managed – the Reds. He also spent five months in jail for tax evasion not too long after that. To this day, he has not been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
This year, there were no recent players who were inducted into baseball’s greatest shrine in Cooperstown, NY, maybe partly because some of the players on the Hall of Fame ballot – Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Sosa, and also Rafael Palmiero – got mixed up with steroids. (Palmiero was suspended for 10 games from the Baltimore Orioles in 2005 for testing positive for steroids, months after he pointed his finger at a House committee and said, “I have never used steroids. Period.”)4 It’s debatable whether those players, plus Rodriguez and Rose, will some day be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It will be unfortunate if any or all of them don’t get in at all because of the mistakes they made, yet it will be ironic if some or all of them get in despite their transgressions. What will future generations think when they learn about the history of baseball and find out that these players cheated and gambled and yet accomplished all the things they did and maybe some of them got into the Hall of Fame?
There are other sports that have been affected by vices. Last year, cycling legend and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong was stripped of all seven Tour de France titles he won from 1999 through 2005 and banned from competitive cycling for life, because according to a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report, he and his teams used drugs to win all those races. It’s too bad that cycling’s greatest race will list no official winners for all those seven years. The Penn State football program last year got severely punished not properly handling a situation where a member of their staff (Jerry Sandusky) was abusing children; their punishment included 111 of the late coach Joe Paterno’s record 409 wins in college football being lost, which is a big shame. Also, the NFL’s New Orleans Saints ran a cash for hits program that targeted, among opponents, some players on the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings, teams the Saints beat to get to the Super Bowl for 2009. The Saints luckily weren’t stripped of their Super Bowl title; coach Sean Payton’s suspension last season and the Saints missing a chance to play in the Super Bowl in their own arena last winter were punishment enough for their mistake.
Back to baseball, it’s good that Major League Baseball has acted during the last decade to reduce, and strive to hopefully one day eliminate, drug use in the sport. Under the current drug agreement between players and owners, first drug offenses result in 50-game bans, second offenses in 100-game bans, and third offenses in lifetime banishments. The two parties also agreed last winter on testing for human growth hormone throughout the regular season. The latest punishments that baseball has doled out to 14 players, the most prominent of those being Rodriguez and Braun, should send a message to all major and minor league players that getting and taking performance-enhancing drugs is unacceptable and would lead to dire consequences that would affect their careers and livelihoods.
If Bonds et al get to hold on to the records they set, maybe sometime in the future there will be great baseball players who will come along and perhaps break some or all of those records, and do that by the rules. That will give baseball and its fans something to be truly proud of. The sport of baseball, without drugs, will again become as honorable as it once was in past decades as well as ever exciting and popular.
1Andy McCullough and Craig Wolff, “Swinging Away,” The Star-Ledger, August 6, 2013.
2”A-Rod admits, regrets use of PEDs,” ESPN.com news services, February 10, 2009.
4Michael S. Schmidt, “Sosa Is Said to Have Tested Positive in 2003,” www.nytimes.com, June 16, 2009.
“A-Rod admits, regrets use of PEDs,” ESPN.com news services, February 10, 2009.
Article on Barry Bonds on www.baseball-reference.com.
“Lance Armstrong stripped of all 7 Tour de France titles, banned for life,” www.foxnews.com, October 22, 2012.
Barry M. Bloom, “Mitchell Report Proposes Solutions: Document cites players for drug use, makes recommendations,” MLB.com, December 13, 2007.
Baseball Almanac statistics on Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa.
Andy McCullough, “Biogenesis Scandal: MLB Suspends (Ryan) Braun for rest of season,” The Star-Ledger, July 23, 2013.
Andy McCullough and Craig Wolff, “Swinging Away: 211 Regular-Season Games – Plus All Postseason Action – Rodriguez Will Miss if his Suspension is Upheld,” The Star-Ledger, August 6, 2013.
“Judge stays Barry Bonds’ sentence,” espn.go.com/Associated Press, December 18, 2011.
“Mark McGwire Admits Using Steroids,” www.cbsnews.com, January 14, 2010.
Ron Matejko, “Bud Selig: Stricter drug penalties,” espn.go.com(Special to ESPNDallas.com), March 2, 2013.
“Players listed in the Mitchell Commission report,” ESPN.com, December 13, 2007.
Eric Prisbell, “NCAA hands out severe punishment for Penn State,” USA Today, July 23, 2012.
Pete Rose Biography on Infoplease.com.
Michael S. Schmidt, “Sosa is Said to Have Tested Positive in 2003,” www.nytimes.com, June 16, 2009.
Timeline on New Orleans Saints Bounty Scandal, www.nola.com (Times-Picayune Greater New Orleans), 2012.
Wikipedia articles on Roger Clemens, History of Baseball in the United States, and New Orleans Saints Bounty Scandal, plus Wikipedia list of 50 Home Run Club.
Del Quentin Wilber and Ann E. Marimow, “Roger Clemens acquitted of all charges,” the Washington Post website, June 18, 2012.
Amanda Woerner, “MLB players’ use of performance enhancing drugs comes with serious health risks,” FoxNews.com, August 6, 2013.
World Book Encyclopedia Article on Baseball by Donald Honig.