Shoeless Joe Jackson was banned from Major League Baseball for life for his alleged role in tossing the 1919 World Series. Pete Rose was banned for life for betting on the game he loved. Yet, the top brass in Major League Baseball have been painfully slow to take a strong position on players who use Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). The National Football League began to test players for steroid use during the 1987 season, and started to issue suspensions to players during the 1989 season. Major League Baseball’s drug policy—the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program—was established by agreement between the MLB Players Association and the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball. The goal was to deter and end the use of banned substances, including anabolic steroids and other illegal drugs, and to “provide for, in keeping with the overall purposes of the Program, an orderly, systematic, and cooperative resolution of any disputes that may arise concerning the existence, interpretation, or application” of the policy itself. The Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program was adopted in the Spring of 2006.
Why did it take Major League Baseball so long to step up to the plate? What stalled Major League Baseball’s efforts in adopting a strong stance against steroid use, which would have included enacting a punitive system against players who dope? Follow the money. Looking at the data of what draws fans to the park, one can easily draw a correlation between the players who dope are the same players who hit the long ball and fans love the long ball so if players are hitting the long ball, fans will pack the ball park, which all translated into increased stadium revenue, increased sales of licensed goods, which is all lucrative but the real cash cow is in increased television advertising revenue – and this adds up to a whole lot of zeros behind an owner’s name. The more fans watching means not just more revenue but a whole lot more revenue.
In 1989, the year that the NFL took a stance on steroid use it is not difficult to understand why MLB did not readily jump on board and eagerly follow their professional counterparts. The 1989 MLB season witnessed one of the most steroid-ridden teams to date who went on to swept the World Series in four impressive games. The team, the Oakland A’s was managed by one of the most steroid compliant General Managers and overseen by the most steroid compliant team owner in baseball history to date.
The 1989 World Series Champions – The Oakland A’s – were a team of juicers and everyone in sports world knew it. The meatheads of the Oakland A’s looked like bunch of football players with their brawny arms and beefy necks. No, it was not yet illegal by MLB standards but does something have to be illegal for to be unethical? Two key figures on the 1989 A’s and later central figures in the baseball doping scandal were Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. There is no way possible that baseball-beloved Manager, Tony La Russa, an athlete in his own right, did not notice that each of his player’s arms were the same circumference as his right thigh. The front office, sport’s writers and baseball fans must have all been aware of what was going on in the locker room. Jose Canseco, king juicer and star of the 1989 Oakland A’s, later reported that six to eight A’s were juicing by the time he was traded to Texas. While McGwire and Canseco are paying a steep price in being denied admittance into the Baseball Hall of Fame for doping – should they be held singularly culpable? The stain of doping has yet to wear off onto the men who assembled and managed them knowing full well that they were suborning doping. Are the Managers and the team owners also culpable in the rash of doping that has plagued MLB?
It is McGwire and Canseco who been the target of the fans and sports writer’s anger but if McGwire and Canseco are forever denied Hall of Fame entry should La Russa be stripped of his post-World Series wins honors? While largely symbolic and irrelevant at this point, there is merit to stripping his two additional “Manager of the Year” awards with the A’s, in 1988 and 1992. Just because La Russa did not physically shoot up McGwire with steroids, at least to our knowledge, it does not lesson the fact that he knew and therefore shares responsibility.
Now, jumping ahead to 1994-1995 season – there was a significant moment in MLB history that may have also inadvertently played a role in MLB’s compliance with steroid use. In the 1994-1995 season MLB went on strike. This was only the eighth work stoppage in all of baseball history. The 232-day strike, which lasted from August 12, 1994, to April 2, 1995, led to the cancellation of between 931 and 948 games overall, and the entire 1994 postseason and World Series. The cancellation of the 1994 World Series was the first since 1904. The strike has been considered one of the worst work stoppages in sports history and it left the fans and the sports world outraged. Fan’s anger lingered into the 1995 season and they showed their anger with plummeting stadium attendance and television ratings. There was a 20 percent decline in attendance from 1994 to 1995 which would have amounted to over a billion dollars in lost revenue.
The strike and subsequent significant financial losses unknowingly set up MLB in the 1997-1998 season for two of baseball’s most notorious juicers to take center stage. Mark McGwire, by this time having left the Oakland A’s and moved onto the with the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa with the Chicago Cubs started a home run chase to beat Roger Maris’ record that set baseball on fire again. The third player in the chase was Ken Griffey, Jr. of the Seattle Mariners who has never been shown to use steroids and was quickly shut out of the home run race.
Roger Maris was a right fielder playing for the New York Yankees from 1957 through 1968. In the 1961 season, Maris hit a MLB record 61 home runs for the Yankees, breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs set in 1927. Maris’ record stood from 1961 until 1998 when McGwire and Sosa made a sprint for and subsequently crushed Maris’ home run record McGwire did it with 70 home runs in 1998 (in 2001 Barry Bonds with the San Francisco Giants topped McGwire’s record with 73 home runs which is where the record stands). At the time of this epic run to smash Maris’ record, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind watching this griping race that steroids lurked in the background. Executives, journalists, and insiders in the know could have blown the whistle and made steroids THE story. Sports writers could have won journalism awards for exposes. But they did not; instead, insiders concealed blatant steroid use between these two men while watching Ken Griffey, Jr. – a stand up Hall of Famer – being pushed, if not shoved, out of the race. Everyone – fans, the front office, managers, players, writers, were complicit but why wouldn’t they – the stands were filled, ratings were up, and the strike became faint memory.
Many have credited the Sosa-McGwire home run chase in 1998 with “saving baseball,” by both bringing in new, younger fans and bringing back old fans soured by the 1994 Major League Baseball strike. Baseball conspiracy buffs might, for a moment, wonder if the front office orchestrated the entire run for Maris’ record to bring back MLB to its former revenue generating glory days. Fans love the long ball.
MLB as an organization is as culpable as the players, if not more so, because they have not suffered any consequences, which range from the damaging, long-term effects of steroid use, entry into the Hall of Fame or financial repercussions. It’s easy to dismiss the sleazy chemists who create and provide the drugs that shattered baseball’s image as symbolic of everything that is good and ethical in America, and the miscreants who use them, but what about an entire apparatus that knew players were cheating and did nothing about it? What’s MLB’s excuse? The spotlight shines most brightly on MLB than other professional sports because MLB did more than just condone the steroid saga they made billions off it. Managers and owners played a significant role in baseball’s famed Steroid Era and when will they pay?