Whole New Ballgame is a new exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum that chronicles the changing nature of baseball from the 1970s to the present. Using the artifacts, photos and videos from the Museum’s collections, a new and wider interpretive approach examines the game and its culture as a whole. The game’s athletic achievements and evolving nature is celebrated and explained, but so too is fans’ presence and input.
Barry Bonds blasts a moon shot that all but disappears into the night sky. And the fans love it. Or at least they used to. But that was before Bonds’ performance was tainted by what has become a topic of major controversy in major league baseball: Steroids.
Since the late-1990s, the word “steroids” has become a buzzword synonymous with sluggers like Bonds. After the offensive explosion in the mid-1990s – which some believe was driven by the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs (PEDS) – Major League Baseball (MLB) started cracking down heavily on banned substance. MLB has made it clear that they believe steroids have no place in baseball.
However, a case could be made that the offensive fireworks fueled by steroids helped give the game a timely shot in the arm.
The strike of 1994 sucked the air out of Major League Baseball’s lungs. In the wake of major labor disputes between MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association, the 1994 season was cut short. As a result, the Montreal Expos didn’t get to play out their best season ever. Players like Tony Gwynn missed their shot at making baseball history. And of course, there was no 1994 World Series. Fans, prevented from witnessing this baseball greatness, were unhappy with both the players and the management. And it showed. Attendance in the 1995 season was 12 percent lower than the 1993 season. Even the 1996 season showed poor attendance, nine percent lower in comparison to 1993.
But something began to happen in 1996 that rekindled the game’s flame. That something was home runs.
In 1996, a whopping 17 players hit 40 or more home runs. The 1993 season saw only five players hit that many long balls. The span from 1996-2001 saw at least a dozen players per season smack 40 or more homers. In that same span, attendance at major league games went up 44 percent.
Players like Mo Vaughn and Juan Gonzalez hit balls that seemed like they’d never come down. In 1998, fans went to watch a battle between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61. Some believe the race between the two sluggers is what revived interest in the game. Shortly after McGwire set the record at 70 in 1998, fans saw Barry Bonds break it again in 2001, hitting 73 home runs in the season.
However, it appeared that much of this new-found power was unnatural. In the Mitchell Reprt, the findings of an investigation performed by United States Senator George J. Mitchell in which he investigated the use of PEDS in MLB, many of the prominent power hitters during the mid-1990s were named as suspects of using steroids. Vaughn, Gonzalez, Sosa, McGwire, and Bonds were all named in the report. Of the 13 players to hit 40 or more home runs in 1998, eight of them have been linked to steroids.
So, if home runs helped save baseball, and steroids helped players hit home runs, did steroids help save baseball? For Associated Press journalist Ben Walker, the answer is yes. “Steroids saved baseball. . .” Walker said. “When it came to making baseball popular again and turning it into a booming business, nothing did the job like home runs. Particularly 500-foot home runs.”
But many couldn’t disagree more with Walker. Many view the use of PEDs as detrimental to our national pastime, providing players with an unfair advantage and teaching young players that greatness doesn’t have to be achieved through hard work. “Several professional athletes have wrongly taught many young Americans by example that the only way to succeed in sports is to take steroids,” said Jim Sensenbrenner, a United States Congressman.
Certainly, steroids aren’t the only way to succeed. Great players throughout history – Bath Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron and many more – didn’t rely on PEDs to bolster their play. They played the game clean, and they still entertained fans with their incredible abilities. Even some of those who used steroids look back on their decisions to do so with regret. “I had good years when I took steroids, and I had bad years when I took steroids,” said Mark McGwire. “But no matter what, I shouldn’t have done it, and for that, I’m truly sorry.”
And it wasn’t only home runs that contributed to baseball’s rise in popularity. Other exciting changes came to the game, too. Wild Card teams were added in 1994, allowing one team per league that didn’t win its division to compete in the playoffs. In 1997, MLB added interleague play. Building the thrill of the postseason, the Wild Card Game was created in 2011. Two more wild card teams were added, and the wild card teams would face off in a pair of play-in games to determine who would advance in the playoffs.
Steroids remain controversial in MLB. We still hear news stories about players who test positive for PEDs. Such substances are banned from the game, and players who use them are breaking the rules.
But steroids occupy an interesting place in baseball history. When the game needed it most, balls started sailing out of the park. The question is would the same spike in baseball popularity have occurred if the likes of Sosa, McGwire, and Bonds hadn’t put on such an amazing display of power?
Maybe. But maybe not.
Andrew Bevevino was the 2015 digital strategy intern in the Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
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