Juicing dilutes legacy of baseball

August 09, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

I probably shouldn't admit this, but I went through the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., for the first time on a recent vacation. Not surprisingly, I left wondering how I could have waited so long.

Touring the Hall (FYI, it took me two days) only strengthened my respect for the remarkable chronicle of baseball history. And there were some surprises. I never expected to find, of all people, Armando Benitez within 100 miles of the place, but he is among the top 10 active saves leaders, and the top 10 active and all-time leaders in the major statistical categories are posted on a wall. Armando goes to Cooperstown. Who knew?

It so happened my visit coincided with the latest steroids revelations about cycling star Floyd Landis and sprinter Justin Gatlin, who have been popped for alleged juicing. The effect was interesting.

Landis and Gatlin participate in sports that have been all but ruined by steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Cycling and track have proud histories and loyal constituencies, but years of controversy have taught fans not to trust what happens, to always be skeptical. Those are the first steps toward oblivion.

To see Landis and Gatlin headlines in the morning and then tour the Hall in the afternoon and see names such as Bonds, Palmeiro, McGwire and Sosa crawling all over the various top 10 statistical lists was to realize the tenuous position baseball is in after ignoring steroids and performance-enhancing drugs for so long.

Juicing can ruin a sport. It can shred a century of history into so much confetti. It can wreak havoc with the natural evolution of performance. Look at track. Look at cycling.

No sport, not even baseball, can withstand an assault by such influences if it is long and sustained enough.

After touring the Hall, I was convinced I had grasped one of the best reasons for baseball to remain vigilant, however belatedly, in its opposition to steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.

A sport is, in the end, only as legitimate as its history, and with the sluggers from the juiced ballplayer era about to become eligible for Cooperstown, the legitimacy of baseball's history is going to face its most withering test since the Black Sox scandal almost 90 years ago.

Oh, the sport will survive, but to minimize damage and maintain its self-respect, it needs to demonstrate that the juiced ballplayer era was just an interlude, not a new reality -- an insidious uprising that had its time and place and then ended.

That's easier said than done, of course. But baseball needs to resolve to put forth a legitimate, enduring effort.

I hear some fans wondering -- no doubt beleaguered by the storm of doping scandals from various sports now raining down -- whether such an effort is worth it. Why not just give up and let athletes do what they want to themselves? The juicing tradition goes all the way back to ancient Greece where the extract of sheep's testicles supposedly enhanced performance. And with the robbers seemingly always one step ahead of the cop these days, it could be the war isn't winnable.

But while that argument makes for an interesting intellectual exercise, the reality is there are many reasons to remain vigilantly opposed.

The most important, far and away, is the potential impact on youngsters tempted to copycat their heroes and use drugs to get bigger and stronger. The long-range impact of such a habit on an adult isn't as clear, but the impact on teenagers is known to be devastating. When you pump up your testosterone level unnaturally, your body stops producing it naturally. That can lead to stunted growth and everything from oily skin to coronary artery disease.

Studies have indicated that thousands of young ballplayers are either using steroids or considering it, and for that reason alone, baseball needs to crack down -- hard.

And it also needs to do so to preserve the authenticity of a fan's trip to Cooperstown.

When I toured the Hall, I started by going though the plaques containing the names and accomplishments of the greatest players ever. They're on the ground floor. The second floor featured a chronicle of the game's history from the 1860s through today. The third floor had a World Series exhibit and, finally, that wall of top 10 all-time and active statistical leaders. Which stopped me cold.

It was sad to come to the end and see the names and pictures of players suspected of juicing, their accomplishments potentially as tainted as those of Landis or Gatlin.

It didn't ruin the trip; nothing could. But it left no doubt that the fight against juiced ballplayers, and juice itself, is well worth the trouble.


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