Monday, February 9, 2009

Is there any baseball player that did not use steroids before 2003?

As I eagerly await the start of Spring Training 2009, again I am dismayed by the news that one of the great baseball players of this generation has tainted their achievements because of steroid use. While Barry Bonds and Roger Clemons get ready to face the music on federal perjury charges, now a Sports Illustrated report comes out that says Alex Rodriguez, known as A-Rod to many fans, had a positive steroid test in 2003, the year he won the American League MVP with the lowly Texas Rangers.

First of all, why would a baseball player take steroids? There use to be a time when baseball players were forbidden to weight lift because it was thought that it would limit a player's flexibility. Now not only is weight lifting encouraged, but guys were getting juiced up to get bigger. It makes no sense because the key to hitting a baseball is superior hand-eye coordination.

In less than a second, a batter has to locate the baseball's release from the pitcher, determine which the direction the ball is travelling to home plate partially based on the rotation of the ball and where he is going to hit the ball once he makes contact. Steroids cannot help you with that skill. Practice in a batting cage will, swing plane training will, soft toss will, but not a needle.

One has to remember, if a baseball player hits the ball in fair territory, without making an out, every three out of ten times, they are considered a great hitter, especially if they get anywhere from 500 to 600 at-bats per season. If a baseball player hits a home run 25 times out of 200 hits, that player is considered a legitimate offensive threat. So why the need for extra strength, especially in a day and age where the ballparks they play in have been shortened to create more opportunities for professional hitters to hit the long ball and the baseballs they play with are designed to carry further upon impact.

Many athletes have said that steroids improve healing, which is important in a sport that starts competitive play in April and ends in October. But since steroids are banned from all athletic competition and long-term use has proven to have devastating side effects health-wise, why even take the risk? When you have the ability of a Bonds, Clemons or Rodriguez, it definitely does not make any sense.

When I played baseball, I took pride in being able to hit the ball and being a pretty good defensive first baseman. I didn't hit for power, I just figured out a way to get on base and score runs. In the sport, that is called a contact hitter. I would have loved to hit a home run, but I was not going to cheat to do it. If it happened, it happened. But I guess since I was not playing for my livelihood and it was more about the joy of playing the game, hitting for power was not important.

It is fun to watch though, just like a long run for a touchdown or a slam dunk. I remember when baseball was in a bad place fan-wise in the late 1990's. Three men, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey, Jr., in 1998, took the country by storm by setting a pace to break the single season record for home runs, which at that time was 61 in a 162-game season. Griffey faded by late July, but Sosa and McGuire keep banging balls out of the park. Both ended up with more than 61, but McGuire earned the record by finishing the season with 70 home runs. Sosa ended up with 66 homers and the National League MVP honors as his offensive production helped the Cubs get into the playoffs.

Baseball had become exciting again. The fan base came back and everything was right in the sports world. Now, years later, we are finding out that steroids may have been the co-star of that summer on '98. As a sportswriter during that time, a story came up about McGuire using a substance that was not banned, but was close to being considered a steroid. I defended him in doing that because it allowed him to play longer than he ever had in season. Now, based on his lack of openness at a Congressional hearing a few years back, that may not have been the whole truth. Sosa has adamantly denied that he ever used steroids, but would never voluntarily take a urine sample. So far the only thing that proves Sosa may have cheated was the corked bat that exploded his last year as a member of the Cubs.

As a true fan of the game, I am deeply hurt by the constant allegations. It has definitely taken the luster off of some of my greatest memories. It may cost the heroes of my generation their shot at sports immortality.

But baseball, more than any other sport, is a game of hope. The more you play as a team, the better your chances are at winning. If you lose, you live to fight another day, more than likely against that same team that just defeated you. Every day is a new day where hope springs eternal and victory is just a couple of hours away.

That is what I love about baseball and no drug could ever give me that feeling, even if I got paid to play the game I love.