Let the Record Show a Return to Normalcy
The Steroid Era is over in baseball. A period that began almost 20 years ago has quietly receded while few were watching. In part, you can thank Barry Bonds.
If you drop by RFK Stadium this weekend when the Nationals play the Giants, don't bother to boo Bonds. That's old news. Few, except those who still believe in the tooth fairy, think that he holds any major career record, except perhaps for gall. His real contribution to baseball is now clear; the scandals surrounding him, regardless of their exact merits, have accidentally dragged an enormous problem out of the game's dark corners and brought it into the blazing light of scrutiny.
The searing heat from the Balco investigation over the last four years, as well as baseball's belated acceptance of drug testing, have simply changed the culture of the sport before our eyes. With the FBI, drug enforcement agencies, grand juries and even an internal baseball commission looking under every rock, the penalties for getting caught -- or even having your name raised in public -- have skyrocketed until they finally reached a critical preventive mass.
"With everything that's happened the last few years, you'd have to be out of your mind to take something they're actually testing for," one Nationals player said last night as Bonds and his Giants arrived at RFK Stadium for a three-game series.
"When you go around the league, batting practice just isn't as much fun to watch as it used to be," said Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden, smiling cryptically. "The difference is huge."
Just as the depth of the steroid problem became apparent through the sport's grotesquely bloated statistics, the evidence that the issue is rapidly shrinking is also evident in the same numbers. Look at the list of major league home run leaders. Only four men are on pace to hit 40 home runs this season. The last time baseball had only four 40-homer men was '95, the first year back from the strike. After that, the deluge.
In the American League, Alex Rodriguez stands alone this season, pointed toward 53 homers while no one else projects to more than 37. In the NL, all three players on a 40-homer track are classic massive sluggers -- Ryan Howard, Adam Dunn and Prince Fielder. All weigh between 255 and 275 pounds. "Those guys were huge when they were 10," Nats catcher Brian Schneider said.
Once again, most of the power in baseball is being produced the old-fashioned way -- naturally. From a statistical point of view, the game might as well be back in 1957, half-a-century ago. Then, four players also hit 40 homers: Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Sievers and Duke Snider. However, there were only 16 teams producing sluggers then vs. 30 now.
This season's home run numbers would not look abnormal in any baseball decade whether it was '37 (Joe DiMaggio, 46 homers) or '47 (Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize, 51) or '67 (Harmon Killebrew and Carl Yastrzemski, 44), '77 (George Foster 52) or '87 (four players with 44 to 49). If games seem sane again, it's not an illusion. As recently as '01, Shawn Green, Todd Helton and Jim Thome all hit 49 homers -- and nobody even noticed because the leaders in that ridiculous year of muscles hit 73, 64, 57 and 52. To those inside the sport, the change is so apparent that, two weeks ago, Orioles executive Mike Flanagan said: "The Nationals made a good trade to get [245-pound] Wily Mo Pe?a. You know for sure where his power comes from. We're going back to a time -- we may already be there -- when hitting 30 home runs is going to mean what it used to mean. People will regain respect for the records of great players like Eddie Murray, who never had a 40-home run season."
Once, fans and players themselves gawked at mammoth men like Babe Ruth, Frank Howard and Willie McCovey. Since the late '80s, the trend in the sport has been the exact opposite -- for players to point, with a knowing look, at smaller men who suddenly got much bigger and began hitting balls over the fence. Now, finally, it's back to the future.
"I slapped Wily Mo on the chest as I went by the other day and it was like slapping this batting cage," Schneider said.
Now, the Nats speculate on whether Pe?a might hit a batting practice homer entirely out of RFK if he launched a ball directly down the left field line. "He's hit a couple seven or eight rows into the yellow seats," Robert Fick said. "That must be coming pretty close to the roof." Once, in batting practice before an exhibition game, Mark McGwire hit the fa?ade of the roof above the foul pole. But that was then, so does it count?
No sport is ever clean. Some athletes will always cheat, especially if they think they can afford an elite chemist who can beat the testing system. Also, in baseball, there is no blood testing -- the only method to detect human growth hormone. So suspicions, and defenses against performance-enhancing drugs, should not be relaxed.
Nonetheless, a huge tide in the game has turned at last. The realization is crystallizing that, in the same summer when teeth were gnashed from coast-to-coast over Bonds's 756th homer, the steroid epidemic had probably already run its course.
Now, with an appropriate symmetry, the 43-year-old Bonds is fading from center stage just as the issue with which he will always be associated is starting to become irrelevant, too. Before long, as home run totals look "normal" once again, we will regain our sweet suspension of disbelief as a powerful drive leaves the bat and heads toward the upper deck.
The game's most distinctive feat -- the single swing, the gasp of recognition as we sense the ball is going, gone and, finally, the leisurely home run trot -- may not be accomplished as often. But at least our pleasure and, occasionally, even our amazement, will be spontaneous, genuine and complete once more.