“They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something. Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing.” Roger Maris at a 1980 All-Star Game event
What irony it is that the same 61 home run record would be in the middle of more controversy as the man who holds the record today with 73 home runs is now eligible for election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Decades later, folks remember the 61 as a holy thing now tainted by Balco.
Barry Bonds, along with other controversial names, will be left off the ballot of many baseball writers today. I can understand and respect their choice; however, I don’t agree. Bonds, along with Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens and holdover Mark McGwire kept the sports pages interesting for many years. If the writers are now looking to spit shine Cooperstown and keep away the bad stories, then they’ll have to remove the already enshrined players who include cheaters, racists, philanderers, drunks and other not-so-noble characters. [Check out this NY Times article on HOF history.]
No, I’m by no means saying that the steroid use should be ignored or forgiven. The years B.B. (Before Balco) saw baseball on the decline and the fan base dwindling. The 1998 summer of Sosa and McGwire thrilled the league. The stands were full while sports and traditional media followed every single pitch. McGwire’s record-breaking 62nd home run happened like a scene from Hollywood with the Maris family on hand to watch a game against Sosa’s Cubs. Baseball celebrated joyfully.
If you believed that those newly muscular, pumped up home run hitters weren’t suspected of drug use at that point, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Everybody knew. The all-knowing baseball writers who have watched pitch after pitch, hit after hit and traveled lonely roads over the long seasons looking for the slightest twist to make a story could tell that something was different. But they wrote about the splendor of the race; they wrote about the “Andro” that McGwire freely admitted taking and they wrote about the record chase. In a 1999 Sports Illustrated article by L. Jon Wertheim he quoted Howard Smith, baseball’s vice president of licensing:”Mark and Sammy’s race might be the best thing that’s ever happened to baseball.”
While it may not have been the best, it was damned good. Baseball squeezed every bit of glamour – don’t you remember the at-bat closeups which then showed the follow through captured by the thousands of cameras flashing in the stands? Recall the TV crawls each time one of the two moved closer? You can’t erase that.
What I feel that the baseball world is doing right now is rewriting history from a cleaner-than-thou perspective. You can’t take all of the good from the fellas, use it to grow your sport again selling tickets and merchandise for years and then decide to thumb your nose at them. You’re too good for them now? I’d say the same to a fan or writer who watched enthusiastically then that a granny would say to any of us girls when dating someone took a turn: you knew who he was when you met him, why are you crying now?