Who Cares About Steroids, Redux

I rewrote my steroids post for a journalism class I’m taking:

At some point this summer Barry Bonds will likely hit the 756th home run of his major league career, passing Henry Aaron as the all-time home run king. Many fans consider this the most hallowed record in all of sports. The public outcry is and will be immense. Barry Bonds is a cheater in the court of public opinion because of his connection with the BALCO steroid scandal. Whether or not Bonds is truly morally disreputable and whether there should be an asterisk placed next to his record are both debatable issues; convincing arguments will be lobbied for both sides. But really, given the nature of both steroids and records in today’s game, should we care?

The home run record is important to baseball because it was the defining record of the game’s defining player: Babe Ruth. Ruth revolutionized the game; he made it important. And how did he do it? Simply by hitting home runs. In 1920, Babe Ruth hit 54 home runs, his first year playing for the New York Yankees. That year the Philadelphia Phillies, playing in perhaps the major’s most home run-friendly park, hit 64. Ruth out-homered every other team. To put this in perspective, it would be the equivalent of a player hitting more than 200 home runs today. This is an important thing to understand because it speaks to the underlying issue: players can only be judged against their contemporaries. Ruth’s stats transcend the current game.

This being said, when Aaron hit his 715th homer to pass Babe Ruth, it was still immensely important. But not because we could say definitively that Aaron was the greatest home run hitter to ever live. Not only is this a subjective statement, but one that is easily contradicted by the stats I’ve previously mentioned. Aaron was a black athlete playing a game dominated by white athletes. For years, including during Ruth’s career, black players were not allowed in the major leagues. Aaron’s overtaking the record did not ensure that blacks would have an equal stake in the game. But it did ensure that African American athletes could not be ignored. That the civil rights movement was underway in America at the same time is no coincidence. As such, Aaron’s home run was a special moment where sports helped to reflect our culture.

Bonds in a similar way will reflect his era. He represents the evolution of the game: stronger players and bigger numbers. With or without steroids, both of those trends were bound to increase with improvements in strength training and increased fan interest in statistical production, particularly home runs. It is important to note that these trends are predicated on what we as fans want. Our understanding of steroids is limited. They are considered unnatural, but much of what we do to our bodies is. They provide an unfair competitive advantage; but of course so does growing up in a wealthy household. All advantages are unfair; otherwise they wouldn’t be advantages. Steroids are illegal primarily because they are destructive to your body but newer drugs, such as human growth hormone, may not be harmful at all. It seems arbitrary what substances are ethical when so many things on both ends of the spectrum can help your athletic performance and hurt your long term health.

What we should really be worried about right now is that close to a billion dollars will be spent investigating steroid use in baseball by our government, when we know that there are no answers to be found outside of players confessions. And judging from history, those confessions will be very hard to come by. So when Bonds does hit that historic home run this summer, there is no need to be angry. He is a great player playing in an age of advanced training that we do not fully comprehend. The records he holds are not necessary to validate this, much like they will not validate his superiority to players of the past. Records are interesting sports stories but they have never truly proved anything.

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