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The Impure Game

Cheating has always been a part of Major League Baseball

By John W. He

Mark D. McGwire saved the national pastime. At least, so people said just over a decade ago, when the slugger engaged in the most prolific homerun chase in baseball history. At stake was the single-season homerun record, a mark set in 1961 by Roger E. Maris. At the plate was a superstar who, with every fence-clearing swing, enraptured the nation and revived fervor for Major League Baseball.

And we were duped. The steroids scandal broke, and the fairytales on the diamond turned out to be as artificial as McGwire’s biceps. We wanted to believe everything we saw on the field was organic. When we were told otherwise, fans felt angry, disillusioned, and, worst of all, deceived. Nothing in baseball could be trusted to be “real” anymore in a sport so fraught with juicers. These cheaters had tainted the game, bent the rules, and corrupted the most sacred statistic in all of baseball: the homerun.

Many asked how this perversion of the game could have occurred. But upon further inspection of the baseball’s history, one would do better asking, “What else is new?” In other words, cheating has always existed in Major League Baseball.

Why are steroids bad for baseball? The most natural response would be that they are performance-enhancing drugs, so using them would be cheating. But we say that as if “cheating” is a recent development novel to the steroid era. This erroneous argument neglects the prevalence of amphetamines used by ballplayers in the 70s and 80s to stay focused, alert, and energized over the course of a season. It also discounts the countless spitballers, scuffballers, and sign-stealers who doctored the game to their advantages in the game’s earlier eras. Cheating in baseball far predates steroid use, an important piece of background deserving of extra consideration as we grapple with this issue.

Following McGwire as he passed names like Ruth and Maris made us feel like we were witnessing the once-considered impossible. But magic has been proven false before. Thorough investigation of the 1951 season essentially proved that the underdog New York Giants, who completed an improbable comeback against the rival Brooklyn Dodgers to win the league championship, instituted an elaborate system of sign-stealing at their home stadium to pick up on their opponents’ strategies. The greatest come-from-behind story in baseball history was an illusion, made possible not by grit but by good, old-fashioned fraud.

Others may argue that the numbers put up during the steroids saga are sullied, hence giving rise to the era of the asterisked record. As baseball purists clamor for a disclaimer next to Barry Bonds’s all-time homerun record, some feel that PEDs have permanently altered the dynamics of the game. However, a recently released report by Eric Walker entitled Steroids, Other “Drugs,” and Baseball, provides evidence to the contrary. Walker makes a convincing case that the statistical influence of steroid use as an independent variable is barely significant, at best. He then shows that factors such as closer fences, better bats, and livelier baseballs have a demonstrable impact on power hitting. We have a situation in which we may be pointing fingers at the wrong people. Therefore, it is entirely feasible that juiced-up sluggers may not be entirely to blame for the recent power surge in the game. At fault could be, for instance, the baseball commissioners who institute a jumpier ball and the team owners who build ballparks with shorter fences. As evidence for these claims mounts, we must account for its validity and adjust our perception of steroids accordingly.

As it stands now, the debate on performance-enhancing drugs is frustratingly closed-minded and leaves little room for alternative considerations, perspectives, and evidence. We decry cheating in baseball as if it’s a recent phenomenon. We recoil at the naïve misconception that this generation of baseball fans is the first to witness such a shameless desecration. But we are not uniquely betrayed by the game; in fact, Walker’s report makes a strong case that we were deceived not by the likes of McGwire but the men behind the scenes who control the parameters of the game. Cheating has always existed in baseball, and it then turns out that steroids, in their minimal capacity to enhance performance, may not provide a material advantage at all at all. This is a frightening truth that baseball and its fans must accept if the steroids discussion is to advance in any constructive direction.

John W. He ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.

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