Faded glory

Baseball: The cloud of steroid suspicion that hangs over the game might dim the home run feats of the past decade, but the sport has always shown the ability to overcome scandal.

Steroids And Baseball

Baseball

February 10, 2005|By Candus Thomson and Mike Klingaman | Candus Thomson and Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

The chest thumps. The fingers sweeping from heart to sky. The little boy enveloped in his father's Popeye arms at home plate. The tearful moment between the record holder and the family of the 1960s home run hero.

Were those moments just seven years ago part of baseball's greatest times or the biggest fraud since the Chicago Black Sox scandal of 1919?

Jose Canseco's "tell-all" book on steroid abuse won't win prizes or shake baseball's foundation, but it could skew the way future generations view the long-ball era of the 1990s. Though unproved, Canseco's tales are just the latest in a string of allegations that range from Mark McGwire's admission that he used then-legal "andro" to the late Ken Caminiti's reliance on performance-enhancing drugs during his 15-year career to the continuing BALCO probe.

Now this? Say it ain't so, Jose.

Whether or not Canseco is coming clean - that he injected some of the game's greatest hitters and instructed others in the dark ways of steroids - baseball will play on, said those who know it well.

"Baseball survived the Black Sox scandal, and it survived Pete Rose," said Roger Kahn, author of The Boys of Summer. "To quote Red Smith, `Baseball is such a great game, it can survive even the fatheads who run it.' "

Or those who play it.

"We are a little disillusioned by [these accusations], but I can't see it damaging baseball," said Frank Deford, author and commentator for National Public Radio.

The game stumbled but did not fall in 1919, the year White Sox players threw the World Series.

"Baseball moved right on and even had its greatest years in the 1920s," Deford said.

John McGraw's New York Giants and Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics thrilled fans. Ty Cobb remained a one-man hit machine. But, perhaps more importantly, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig combined for a then-unheard of 107 home runs in 1927.

So it should not seem unusual that a power surge helped the game reconnect with fans after the strike in 1994, which caused the cancellation of the World Series.

Cal Ripken and his consecutive games streak primed the pump and kept the baseball faithful going in 1995. Then McGwire brought back throngs as he hit 110 home runs in the next two seasons. In 1996, 22 players hit 30 or more home runs, with eight players hitting 40 or more. Batting lead-off, the Orioles' Brady Anderson hit a staggering 50 homers, easily his career best.

In 1998, McGwire and Sammy Sosa captured headlines as they raced to break Roger Maris' record 61 home runs, set in 1961 - a battle McGwire won with 70, to Sosa's 66. The next year, they were back at it, and McGwire won again, 65-63.

The steroids scandal may seem irrelevant to fans who get caught up in the fortunes of their teams.

Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who spends his winters, as do the Los Angeles Dodgers, in Vero Beach, Fla., said spring training sites are already abuzz with excitement.

"I think that in the offseason, people focus on the negative things. Once the games start, the fans are going again," he said. "I don't think [fans] are troubled by Mark McGwire. I think they're troubled by Barry Bonds."

Kahn, the author, agrees. "If you walked into a bar in Boston today and asked people, `Is your enthusiasm for baseball destroyed by Canseco's charges?' Red Sox fans would beat you to death."

But Michael Mandelbaum, author of The Meaning of Sports, said the steroids scandal is an insidious attack on baseball's fiber - the authenticity of the accomplishments we have applauded. Athletes who cheat with illegal substances, he said, are no more real than the actors whose stunts are performed by doubles and computer graphics.

"It does undercut the basic appeal to the point where competition becomes a contest not of athletes but of pharmacologists," said Mandelbaum, a foreign policy expert at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

If investigations find a majority of those homers were a sham, history must take note, archivists say.

"When baseball sings to its fans, as it did through the efforts of Ripken and the long-ball hitters, we felt good as a nation," said Mike Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. "We were riveted to our TVs. We thrilled to the crack of the homers.

"If we find drug use predominant among the hitters Canseco is alluding to, their records would be worthy of an asterisk. Baseball, more than any sport, relies on statistics as a direct link to its past - and we need to let people know 100 years from now if the records achieved at this time were tainted or not."

Sportscaster Bob Costas said the scandal prevents fans and historians from performing generational comparisons.

"This [era] just kind of stands on its own as a weird time frame that no one knows what to make of or how to evaluate it or how much to discount. Is 55 home runs in this era the same as 42 in another? No one knows.

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