Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Performance-Enhancers in Baseball: Are People Upset for the Wrong Reasons?

ESPN's Jayson Stark writes the following in response to the A-Rod debacle:

So if that's true, think of where this sport almost certainly will find itself 15 years from now:

The all-time hits leader (Mr. Peter E. Rose) won't be in the Hall of Fame.

The all-time home run leader (assuming that's where A-Rod's highway leads him) won't be in the Hall of Fame.

The man who broke Hank Aaron's career record (Barry Bonds) won't be in the Hall.

The man who broke Roger Maris' single-season record (Mark McGwire) won't be in the Hall.

The man who was once the winningest right-handed pitcher of the live-ball era (Roger Clemens) won't be in the Hall.

The man with the most 60-homer seasons in baseball history (Sammy Sosa) doesn't look like he's headed for the Hall, either.

Yes, it is tragic that the Baseball Hall of Fame, the most hallowed museum in all of sports, will not adequately tell the story of its sport—that the Hall will be more notable for its omissions than its inductees. But this entire discussion has left me wondering whether baseball writers, historians, and fans are telling the right story.

Several times since the report of Alex Rodriguez's performance-enhancing-drug use, analysts and baseball geeks have discussed at length their disappointment that baseball's hopes of having a "clean" home run king had been dashed. Many had hoped that A-Rod would "save" the sport by hitting his 763rd dinger, thereby topping Barry Bonds's all-time mark. A-Rod will more than likely hit 763 (and possibly 800), but he will have been juiced for at least 156 of those.

But a home run in baseball is just a means to an end. The goal for any ball player is not to compile statistics but to make contributions that will help his team win games and, ultimately, championships. Let's return to the above excerpt from Starks's column. Starks and countless other commentators have voiced their disappointment that Mark McGwire's apparent steroid use tainted his 70-home-run season in which he broke Roger Maris's record. I have yet to hear anyone ask whether steroid use by McGwire and former teammate Jose Canseco invalidates the Oakland A's' 1989 World Series victory. Similarly, I have yet to hear anyone ask whether performance-enhancing drugs played a role in the 1999 and 2000 World Series, both won by a Yankees team featuring Roger Clemens. Moreover, I find it interesting that baseballists have placed A-Rod and Bonds at the center of the steroid controversy when these two players have one pennant and zero World Series titles on their combined résumés.

So for me, the most significant question raised by baseball's performance-enhancing-drug scandal is, Why are people who cover and analyze a team sport so obsessed with individual achievements?

See also: "Baseball's Steroid Problems Exacerbated by Cult of the Individual" (March 9, 2006)

One more thing: I talk about this sort of thing in the "Dreaded Asterisk" chapter of my forthcoming book, Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports. Look for it this fall.


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