For Baseball, The Cloud of Steroids Refuses to Blow Away

As we head into the second half of the season, baseball’s past continues to haunt its bright future. 

There’s so much good happening in baseball right now—the dominant young superstars, the willingness to change after decades of recalcitrance, the churro dog—that it’s easy to overlook the venom performance enhancing drugs are still injecting into the game. PEDs just won’t go away.

It’s not that players are still abusing them; they’ve largely moved beyond PEDs. The game is even changing because of it. Schwarzenegger stunt doubles are no longer the dominant offensive force in baseball. Toolsy athletes like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Andrew McCutchen have replaced the Paul Bunyans of the turn of the century. And pitchers keep getting better, throwing harder and mixing in more breaking balls than ever. All of which has helped swing the balance from the plate to the mound.

But Major League Baseball and its fans refuse to let the cloud of steroids blow over. It’s no longer the main obsession, but at All-Star Weekend in Cincinnati, it was clear that few have forgotten the scourge of the syringe. The first indication came a couple weeks ago when the All-Star reserves were announced. Despite 18 home runs, a .898 OPS and .386 weighted on base average, good for 11th best in all of baseball, Alex Rodriguez was not a part of the team. His candidacy was no doubt hurt by Nelson Cruz and Prince Fielder putting up spectacular first halfs from the DH spot, but A-Rod’s reputation as baseball’s number one villain undoubtedly hurt him too.

That’s funny when you consider that Cruz has also been suspended for PEDs. But the Mariners DH quietly served his time and started mashing again. There were no apologetic press conferences and contentious lawsuits. There were no giant contracts to contend with and no minotaur paintings, which certainly has something to do with Cruz re-entering baseball’s good graces and A-Rod remaining outside of it. A-Rod is also hated more because of how great he was. It seems mediocre players who take PEDs and start playing like good players are more easily forgiven than great players who take them and start playing like Gods.

Cruz’s selection, along with those of Ryan Braun, Yasmani Grandal, and Jhonny Peralta, all of whom have been suspended for PEDs, speaks to just how peculiar baseball’s problem is. Fans have forgiven some guys, like Cruz, Grandal and Peralta, but others, like Braun, get mercilessly booed during All-Star intros. Some of that is because Braun is a particularly egregious asshole, in addition to being a PED user. But most of it is because Braun was a better talent than the others, making fans even angrier about his decision to cheat.

But at least he made the team. A-Rod was rebuked by the fans, the players and the managers. Then the final nail in his 2015 All-Star coffin—Major League Baseball left him off the ballot for the final roster spot and included four batters with inferior offensive numbers instead.

Before you feel too sorry for A-Rod though, consider the plight of the only man more hated for his history with PEDs—Barry Bonds. The giant-headed Giant is, by some measures, the greatest offensive player to ever play the game. So he should have been an easy inclusion in MLB’s “Greatest Living Player” foursome that took the field before the All-Star Game on Tuesday. He wasn’t. Instead, Johnny Bench and Sandy Koufax joined rightful inclusions Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. Bench and Koufax are baseball legends, but neither did what Bonds did for as long as he did it. But neither cheated either, at least as far a we know.

Baseball is a game obsessed with history, a fact proven once again by the insistence on parading old guys around the field before the All-Star Game. Fans should acknowledge that PEDs are a part of that history and until they do, they’ll be honoring a false version baseball. It’s not a game about honor or morality; it’s a game about hitting homers and racking up Ks. Baseball fans should honor the players who did those things best, regardless of their loathsome personalities. That is, after all, the American way

Photos by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images