As the 2014 season is just beginning it journey toward fall, you can already hear it. In fact, it was heard before the first pitch of opening day, PED usage. Major League Baseball has already implemented rule changes, which if finalized, will increase the number of game suspensions for users, and bar violators from the playoffs. MLB proudly states that it’s taking a strong stand on steroid use of players past and present, but it took 20 years to do so – why? To find that answer, figure out who profited more off of names like McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, or Clemens? MLB did. And they were thankful that these players revitalized baseball after the cancelled 1994 season – then…
A-Rod continues to be the current lightning "rod," if you will, on the subject of PEDs by making headlines as he sits out his suspension for the entire 2014 season. At age 40, it is likely he his already seen his last season in pinstripes, and possibly his last in baseball. So he will most likely be lumped in into the mix McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, and Clemens find themselves in, and will be subject to the "should they or shouldn’t they’ Hall of Fame conversation.
Home run records seem to be what people are most concerned about being tainted. The concerns started in 1961, a few were noted amidst the excitement in 1998, and an all out witch-hunt ensued in 2001. Now, anyone who hits a considerable amount of home runs better be of the correct weight, size, and proportions to do so, or else they are under suspicion of using PEDs.
The witch-hunt has taken place and MLB wants to blame someone; so maybe blame it on Ruth. It all started with Babe Ruth, so it must be his fault right? If Ruth weren’t so damn good, if Ruth weren’t on some of the best teams ever (no, Red Sox fan, neither of your 1916 or 1918 teams), maybe none of this would matter.
The Babe set a record of 29 home runs in 1919, and according to baseball-almanac.com, broke the record of 27 set by Ned Williamson in 1884. Williamson played in 107 games that year, and never again hit double-digit home run figures in his 13-year career. Maybe the steroid era started with him? Can we exhume his body and have him tested?
From 1919, Ruth himself continued to best his own home run record until he hit his 60 in 1927. He broke the career home run record by hitting number 139 in 1921, surpassing Roger Conner. Ruth held both of these records from 1927 to 1960 and from 1927 to 1997, a period of 70 years, Babe Ruth’s mark of 60 single season home runs was beaten once when Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961. Once was enough.
Roger Maris is thought by many to be the last ‘clean’ holder of the single season home run record, but it was not without controversy. As we all know, expansion hit MLB, causing the length of the 1961 season to expand from 154 to 162 games. This resulted in a huge outrage by baseball purists, and was further fueled by Commissioner Ford Frick. The result was the infamous asterisk along side Maris’ name to account for what Frick said was "watered down pitching" due to the expansion, and Maris’ use of the additional eight games of the newly expanded season to hit home runs number 59, 60, and finally 61.
A second year New York Yankee at the time, he was scorned heavily all through the ’61 season by the league offices, by the media, and by fans for three reasons…
1) He was going after Babe Ruth, who was an iconic figure to many. Remember, this is 1961, and many fans over the age of 40 probably saw Ruth play. And they weren’t the only ones in awe of the Babe. Ex-ballplayers, and even then Commissioner Ford Frick, who curiously enough was once a ghostwriter for Babe Ruth, saw him as larger than the game itself.
Eddie Spirito wrote a piece for baseball-almanac.com and STILL sites disparities between Ruth’s records and those who came after him. He wrote:
"If anyone fell victim to Major League Baseball’s failure to aleviate (sp) Performance Enhancing Drugs in a timely manner, it was Babe Ruth. Allowing players to continue using PED’s, the Babe was taken out once by Bonds, twice by McGwire and three times by Sosa in a span of four years before the hammer came down, albiet (sp) too late. After Maris set the record at 61 after hitting it on the last day of the 61 season, the Babe went from second to eighth on the single season home run list. Ruth’s career home run record was first surpassed when it took Aaron over 11,000 at bats, followed by Bonds who needed over 9,000. Ruth needed only 8399 to set it. A combination of extra at bats and PED’s were required to overtake two records that were initally (sp) set by a ballplayer who can out hit anyone today, anytime, and who still holds hitting and pitching records that have yet to be approached." — Eddie Spirito
As a 27 year old from Hayseed, North Dakota, how could Maris be worthy to approach the hallowed ground of Ruth?
2) Not only was he chasing the past Yankee legend, Ruth, he was challenging the current Yankee legend, Mickey Mantle, for the record. According to Mickey himself, he never had an issue with sharing the limelight with Maris, but the average Yankee fan could not stand it. Again, many of these fans in ‘61 actually saw Ruth play, and many felt that only the ’next’ great Yankee legend, ‘The Mick,’ had the right to take his crown.
3) Maris was a farm kid, born in the small town of Hibbing, MN, and raised in Fargo, North Dakota, which, if you’ve ever been there, is a half-day away from anything. Unlike Mantle, who also grew up in a small town, Commerce, Oklahoma, Maris made no effort to endear himself to the New York lifestyle or the New York media. And when he didn’t talk to the media, the media talked for him. They printed what they wanted, painted him as a villain, and the fans read every word of ‘dirt.’
It would have been interesting if Mantle, not Maris, broke Ruth’s record – in 162 games – needing all 162, and we would have been able to see if Mick would have endured the same treatment as Maris did from Frick.
And if the record belonged to Mickey’s in 1998, would there have been any attempt to preserve it, as had been the case with Ruth in 1961? Mickey was a Yankee and a legend, similar to Ruth. Maris, in the eyes of many Yankees fans, wasn’t even a Yankee, and considered to have had a "lucky season," in which he saw mostly fastballs hitting third in the order in front of Mickey most of the season. In fact, Maris never even reached 40 home runs before or after 1961. He retired quietly after the 1968 season without fanfare. If not for the asterisk and the 1998 season, he would have most likely gone on to be a forgotten man. So there was no nostalgic connection to Maris if lost his record.
Although a wide variety of players hit 50 plus home runs in a season from 1961 to 1997, no one had even reached Ruth’s 60 in a 162 game season.
During the 1998 single season home run ‘race’ between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, their summer home run totals soared into the 40s and 50s, and fans could not wait to see if their totals by fall could surpass 61. This was hyped by MLB, and further hyped by the media. Finally, on October 8th, McGwire reached 62 first, in his 144th game, oddly enough playing the Cubs, and Sammy Sosa would join in on the celebration. Sosa would soon follow on October 16th, hitting his number 62 in his 152nd game. Both well within the magical 154 game season of Babe Ruth. McGwire would finish with a record 70 as a season total, and Sosa would finish with 66.
Ruth’s 1927 record would last 34 seasons, Maris’ 1961 record, 37 seasons. McGwire’s 1998 record would fall in only three, as Giants slugger Barry Bonds, also accused at the time of using steroids, clubbed an amazing 73 in 2001.
In fact, Maris’ record has been surpassed six times since 1998 by a total of three men. Bonds who hit 73 in 2001, never reached 50 in any other season, but hit a full quarter of his 762 career home runs in a four-year span between 1998 and 2001. Sosa would surpass Maris a total of three times, hitting 66, 63, and 64 home runs in the years 1998, 1999, and 2001 respectively. Of Sosa’s 609 career home runs, nearly 40% were hit in that four-year span between 1998 and 2001. McGwire passed Maris twice, by setting the record at 70 in 1998, and following that up with 65 in 1999. "Big Mac" hit a third of his 583 home runs in the last four years of his career, which occurred after the age of 35, and between 1998 and 2001.
And let’s not forget Roger Clemens in this. He has become the face of steroid use for pitchers. No wonder. Again, after the age of 35, he had back-to-back 20 win seasons in 1997 and 1998 (21-7 and 20-6 respectively). In 2001, at age 39, he posted an amazing 20-3 record. Yet again in 2004 with the Astros, at age 42, posting an 18-4 record. He would pitch 214.1 innings that year, and 211.1 the next. Over 200 innings pitched at ages 42 and 43?
Yet – NOBODY CARED. MLB didn’t care because they were still trying to revitalize the game in 1998 after an attendance slump following the cancelled 1994 World Series. Afterwards, they were relishing in profits of the early 2000s as people were flooding MLB parks to see the amazing feats that were being accomplished. MLB was promoting these players and their chase of coveted records.
And surprisingly enough, the fans didn’t care either. As long as baseballs were clearing fences at record pace, as long as Cy Young winners were posting 1968-like numbers, it was entertaining to the fans.
So when did morality set in on behalf of MLB? And the bigger question is why? It wasn’t there in 1998. It wasn’t there in 2001. It wasn’t there as recently as 2004 when a 42-year old pitcher posted an 18-4 record and a 2.98 ERA in 214.1 innings pitched. If MLB exploited and use these players during their careers by promoting their accomplishments, despite the strong suspicions at the time that they were using PEDs, they don’t have any right to turn their back on them post career as they face scrutiny by fans and legal action by the courts.
This takes us back to A-Rod. He’s got numbers. Yet, MLB is sending him a strong message that they do not approve of his career – at the VERY END of his career – and AFTER they made plenty of money off of each of his 654 career home runs. They’ve already turned their back on him. He’s condemned and tainted before he even officially retires from the game.
In my opinion, it would be a shame if a guy with numbers weren’t in the HOF. I say let them all in, the whole damn bunch of them. You can start with Joe Jackson. Are you kidding me, lifetime .356, 307 doubles and 168 triples to go along with 54 career home runs in the dead ball era? Let him in! He conspired with gamblers and was kicked out of baseball, but does that erase his career prior to the 1920 ban? No!
Even Pete Rose. How do you ignore 4,256 hits and continue to keep the all-time hits leader out of the Hall?
If you got numbers, you’re in. Guys like McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, Clemens, and A-Rod have the numbers. Let them in, PEDs or not. The fans are smart enough to set their own morals and values to all who are there.