Saturday, April 30, 2005

Steroids vs. Hot Dogs: Which Is Worse?

Ruth's legacy will always be larger than Bonds'

If Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and the rest needed steroids to blast all those homeruns in this day of juiced up, lively baseballs and mediocre pitching, can you imagine what it would have taken them to do in the dead ball era of Babe Ruth? Bionics? Gamma radiation?

No, Ruth wasn't on steroids -- he was on beer and hot dogs. Such was the legend of the Babe, whose gastronomic exploits were a colorful backdrop to a career filled with larger than life performances, both on and off the field. If Babe was high on anything, it was life. And, thankfully, his is a legacy that will never be tarnished.

The same can't be said, of course, for some of today's sluggers, who are now getting cross-eyed looks and whose records are being mentally asterisked by baseball fans everywhere. Performance enhancing drugs? Is this baseball or a clinical laboratory?

This isn't just about steroids, though. Baseball is a monster now, as are all professional team sports. In a chicken or egg conundrum, it's either the rise of television or the rise of salaries that has forever soiled sports. It wasn't all that long ago, for example, when World Series games were played in the afternoon -- on a weekday -- or at least before the stars and the moon came out. No, you can kiss afternoon games in October goodbye. Television calls the shots now, and it would prefer to wait until the evening, when we are all captives inside, without foolish things like our lawns or grocery shopping or worship to get in the way, like they do in daylight hours. Fat TV contracts pump outrageous amounts of money into big league baseball's coffers, which is directly proportional to how much money teams can spend on players, should they choose to do so.

Money isn't clean -- literally or figuratively -- in most instances, and part of the financial contamination means there is temptation and opportunity. Temptation to do whatever it takes to gain a competitive edge, and the opportunity (i.e. financial means) to do exactly that. Sadly, it appears as if many major leaguers -- too many that we would care to know about, most likely -- have succumbed to this temptation and opportunity in a manner that is not only untowardly, but self-destructive and downright illegal.

Players in Ruth's day never had access to such funds, for sure, and because the media back then was limited to static radio broadcasts and daily newspapers, it hardly provided ballclubs with financial windfalls. In fact, most ballplayers worked jobs in the wintertime to make ends meet until spring training, if you can imagine such a thing. Or in today's terms, you may have been just as likely to run into Ivan Rodriguez behind the counter of 7-Eleven on a cold November morning as you would to see him behind the plate on a warm June afternoon. No joke.

Yet they busted their humps on the diamond because, well, that's who they were, that's what they did. They were baseball players, just as someone was a factory worker or a salesman or a laborer. Bound to their teams by the now defunct reserve clause (fancy for "no free agency") and with little guarantee of their jobs from year to year -- even the star players, baseball players played with a sense of desperation and urgency that can't be replicated by today's guaranteed contracts and signing bonuses.

"Every year I had to make my job"

Enos Slaughter
, a star of the 1940's, said that despite hitting close to .300 and driving in nearly 100 runs every year, he went to spring training "fighting for my job. Every year there was a young player that was gonna come in and take my job. I had to make my job, every year." You want a guaranteed contract? Here was the guarantee: "We don't guarantee you a thing. Now go play ball and shut up."

What about the travel, apologists for today's players ask. They point to the fact that no major league baseball team was located west of St. Louis in the days before World War II. Surely that makes things more difficult, doesn't it, to have to play games in Seattle or Los Angeles, than New York and Boston? Well, sure, if you think traveling first class -- sometimes in private team jets -- with every detail taken care of for you, is some tough stuff. Which would you rather do: fly to California twice a season, or take a train to St. Louis four times?

Which would YOU rather use all summer?

This was in the day before commercial airlines, remember; every trip was made by bus or train. And to say the accommodations weren't quite as luxurious would be one of the safest things you could say about anything. In the days of Babe, there were eight teams in each league. The schedule was 154 games. That meant each team played its opponents 22 times each -- 11 home, 11 away. Those 11 away dates were usually divided into four trips -- four trips by rail, in cramped quarters, sometimes on the very same train your opponent was traveling. Not a lot of glamour in that.

Today there are 30 big league teams. That's approximately 330 pitchers (most teams have 11). Until 1960, there were 16 teams. Each team carried nine or ten pitchers back then, so the most pitchers that existed on big league rosters was about 160 at any given time. You don't think that more than doubling the amount of major league pitchers, combined with lowering the mound (1969), along with playing with a scientifically-proven livelier ball, and adding a team in a city like Denver with its high altitude, and building ballparks that are nothing more than glorified home run derby playgrounds, you don't think all that is gonna lead to an increase of dingers?

A night game at Coors Field in Denver:
the Babe would salivate!

And these guys still need performance enhancers? How about if we just let them hit a tennis ball off a tee -- with an aluminum bat? Think that might put an end to all this steroid nonsense?

Some might call me an idealistic fool who only wishes for a return to the past. But how foolish is it to think that maybe today's ballplayers enjoy advantages that their predecessors could only dream about?

You think the Bambino wouldn't like a crack at baseball in today's form? He'd have hit a thousand homers. You know, the hot dogs just weren't as performance enhancing back then.

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