Steroids in Baseball
The recent drastic change in baseball- the ban of sticky substances has caused quite the stir among players and fans. However this isn’t the first such change. The crackdown on performance enhancing substances was enough to define an entire decade of baseball; the 90s are often referred to as “The steroids Era” in baseball.
This particular chapter came to a head in the 1998 season, and it hit particularly hard (no pun intended) right here in St. Louis. I came in about halfway through the season…. I had just got here. I was born in 1998, but, this is what I heard the crackdown on sticky substances being compared to, so I decided to take a closer look.
To understand the situation better, I had to understand the state of baseball in the 90s, which was, well, abysmal. In 1994, baseball players went on strike (again, no pun intended). This strike, in and of itself, is a rabbit hole, so to keep it brief, baseball players did not see eye to eye with the executives behind them which led to a stalemate resulting in a strike that cancelled the rest of the 94 season. It left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. The players, who felt overworked and underpaid, felt disdain when the league simply swapped them out with replacement players. The spectators didn't understand why billionaires needed more money and blamed the players’ greed for the lack of baseball. They also didn’t want to pay to see nameless replacement players instead of their favorite athletes. The strike lasted for 232 days- 232 days of empty stands. As someone who lived through losing half the 2020 season, I can at least understand how disheartening to fans it is to see empty stadiums for so long. Whatever the reason behind the strike, it led to a serious image problem for the MLB, and since this sport relies heavily on marketable players it needed to be fixed.
1998 rolls around and baseball needs a shot in the arm (ok that pun was intended) to get people interested again. Enter Mark Ma McGwire. He started his career with the Oakland A’s, but for this time frame we’ll look at his time with the St. Louis Cardinals. Like I mentioned earlier, I was technically here but too young to even walk, let alone understand the politics of drug use in popular sports. Knowing what I know now, it is absolutely insane what McGwire was doing at this point in time.
McGwire was a machine. He was hitting balls out of the park- -literally. During batting practices, groups of people were gathered in the lot right outside Busch stadium hoping to catch a ball because that’s where they were landing. Home runs now usually hang roughly around 420-450 feet from the bat; these were averaging 550-600 feet. I can’t mention Mark McGwire without mentioning Sammy Sosa-- a player for the Chicago Cubs who had mirrored Mark’s very unnatural skill that season. He also might have been the only Cub St. Louis ever liked (seeing old footage of Busch Stadium applauding Sosa’s at bat was surreal).
Together these two put on a show unlike anything baseball had ever seen. The home runs were insane. Almost every at bat these two had resulted in balls flying out of the park. Now, you might see two or three home runs in a game, all hit by different players. Sosa and McGwire were hitting four or five a night- by themselves. In the 1998 season, on September 8th McGwire broke the record for most home runs hit in a single season- 62. The record was previously held by Roger Maris in 1961.
Of course, suspicions arose. While a lot of fans loved seeing balls being hit quite literally out of parks, others felt uneasy about the suspiciously supernatural abilities McGwire and other players had and began to ask questions about how exactly the ball was going so far. Journalists began probing various components of the game, trying to make sense of the sudden spur in home runs.
People studied the ball that they used in 1998. It should be noted that the MLB makes small tweaks to the ball several times over the years. By changing miniscule things- like how close together the stitches are- can drastically affect how they bounce around or how far they fly. So, changes in the ball itself is nothing new. They also studied the stadiums themselves. Smaller stadiums could have meant the ball technically went farther. However, journalists eventually landed on the players themselves as the X-factor of baseballs nearly going into orbit. More specifically, what the players were putting into their bodies.
Steve Wilstein was the journalist that originally broke the story on August 21, 1998. It came about because he saw a brown bottle labeled “androstenedione”in McGwire's locker after a game. Wilstein phoned a friend who was a doctor who informed him on what it was, and from there it snowballed into one of the biggest scandals in Baseball history. And everyone hated him for it. Tony Larussa and McGwire accused him of “snooping”. Fans wanted to believe that their favorite players weren’t cheating. The MLB wanted to keep the revenue rolling after the abysmal 1994 season. But the damage was done. In 2003, in the mist of celebration and staunch protest, the MLB introduced drug tests. The superhuman numbers returned to normal. Twelve years later, Mark McGwire even admitted to using them in 2010, and regrets it.
However, I feel like while people debate whether or not you should allow steroids or how the MLB cracked down on it miss the human component of it all. Steroids are not good for your body, not in the long run. In Wilstein’s original story he mentions the deadly side effects of andro, “heart attacks, cancers, liver dysfunctions, and disorders of mood and mental dysfunction. Human hearts simply aren’t meant to support the extra muscle mass. Athletes may use them the speed the recovery process, but tinkering with the body’s way of healing and functioning can have terrible repercussions. Not to mention, bodies have limits. Steroids allow you to push farther than you normally would, but at the expense of your physical components- your muscles and bones. You end up doing far more damage in the long run for fifteen minutes of fame- or infamy.
The 90s was dubbed the steroid era of baseball, but the 98 season is also credited with saving baseball. It was a complex problem, and it had many solutions depending on who you asked. I for one, am glad for the crackdown, if nothing else to spare players from the abuse on their bodies and to level the playing field once again.