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Steroids, Sports, and the Fan: Who Cares?

by Tom Shane
Managing Editor

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So they caught Alex Sanchez and 38 minor-leaguers dropping steroids chasing a Major League paycheck and what we got was Bud Selig beating his chest like he’d just wiped the baseball landscape clean of all of its impurities and all of its evils. Congress bought it like it was going out of style. A few weeks prior, a bunch of our elected officials got the chance to stare incredulously at Bud and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and shake their heads in disgust and contempt and this is what happens–Alex Sanchez is out for ten days.

In New York, Jason Giambi gets a standing ovation. In San Francisco, Giants fans hold their breath until Barry Bonds comes back as the avenging hero. When Bonds rips the home-run title out of Hank Aaron’s hands and holds it above his head, and in whatever ballpark he does it in, people will cheer. Guaranteed. Even though he broke that record while on anabolic steroids. If they know this–if we know this , then why do we give him, and Giambi, and Gary Sheffield and Alex Sanchez, all a pass?

Because we don’t care.

Because, in modern sports, it’s less about winning by the rules than it is about winning with a 500 foot home-run. It’s about winning with a closer who throws 104 MPH. It’s about winning with 230 lb. running backs who run like Olympic sprinters and cornerbacks who are built like Mack trucks. It’s about winning with the best they’ve got. It’s about winning…period.

It’s true, we get disgusted at times and shake our heads, just like Congress, and maybe we even write a letter to an editor, or say that we won’t go to a game until they “clean up the sport,” whatever that means. That is, until we realize the alternative. We can always go back to the days of the 87 MPH fastball and the league-leading 35 homer season. After all, Mickey Mantle hit a ball off the facade at the old Yankee Stadium–a shot that was estimated to have been hit over 620 feet. The longest that McGwire could ever hit one was 545 feet. And Mantle hit his without using steroids….didn’t he?

As football fans, we can go back to having 215 lb. linebackers, 280 lb. offensive linemen. Tight ends that run a 5.2 forty-yard dash; defensive ends that don’t run faster than running backs; running backs that don’t run faster than linebackers. Safeties that aren’t 220 lbs. and who don’t run under a 4.8/40.

Why not? Wasn’t it great watching those Steelers of the late 70’s? Mike Webster, Jack Lambert, Donnie Shell, Jack Ham? Bradshaw, Stallworth, Swann, Harris? But wait a second, now even those guys are under suspicion. Saints coach Jim Haslett, the old Buffalo Bill, recently was quoted as saying, “It [steroid use] started, really, in Pittsburgh. They got an advantage on a lot of football teams. They were so much stronger [in the] ’70s, late ’70s, early ’80s … Steve [Courson], Jon [Kolb] and all those guys. They’re the ones who kind of started it.” Does anyone want to knock on Mean Joe Greene’s door and ask for those Super Bowl rings back? Anyone?

The point is this–Professional sports should never be confused with reality. Professional athletes should never be confused with being Joe Average Everyday Guy. We watch them, we idolize them, we praise them, because they do the things that we, as “Regular Guys,” cannot. We–sitting in our cubicles, driving our mail-trucks, raking leaves in our yard–are never going to run the forty in 4.3. We will never bench 225 lbs. 36 times. We will never hit a home-run into McCovey Cove or bull-rush Jonathan Ogden back onto his heels. That’s why we pay the big bucks to watch other people–excuse me–other players, do it for us.

What is sports if not a giant circus? Players are not meant to be thought of as humans, these are not meant to be your next-door neighbors, they are idealized entities–Greek Gods in cleats. Nobody pays $5 bucks for a beer and $4 bucks for a pretzel to watch what anybody can do in a beer league softball game down at the local park. We want our home-runs high and far and we want our football players bigger, stronger, faster–and we don’t care how they get that way.

The NFL Draft is coming up and University of Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson will be one of the first five picks because he’s 6’4″, 245 lbs. and runs a 4.6 forty. After him, some team will draft the 6’7″, 320 lb. Alex Barron to play left tackle for them. Barron runs a 5.0 in the forty–at 320 lbs. This is the NFL. This is what we like. This is what we need. Size. Speed. Agility. Strength. Power. Not to say that Barron or Johnson are on steroids, but the fact remains that those players who are or were on steroids are the ones who set the bar for this new wave of player. You are not getting a sniff of an NFL roster if you are 2/100ths off on your 40 or if you can only throw up 225 fifteen times. You are an outcast. You are in the CFL (if you’re lucky). Case in point, Maurice Clarett. Despite all of his off-the-field baggage and his injury history, NFL teams waited with baited breath to see how fast Clarett could run at March’s NFL Combine. If he came out and dropped a 4.4/40, he was a lock first-round pick, easy. As it was, he ran in the high 4.7’s and is now in exile, a cast-off. Those teams that would have traded up to get him now can’t wait to throw him out the door.

So, baseball got Alex Sanchez and 38 minor-leaguers and Bud Selig got a little dirty in the process. These sacrificial lambs of baseball and Congress’s kangaroo justice system took the hit, not for the sport, but for us, the fan. Don’t look for Giambi to do jail-time anytime soon. Don’t look for Bonds to wear the orange one-piece. Don’t look for Paul Tagliabue to be sitting in front of disgruntled Congressmen with Brian Urlacher on one side of him and David Boston on the other. It’s just not going to happen. As silly as Congress seems sometimes, it does know its limits. It had its own circus a few weeks back, with Jose Canseco serving as Ringmaster, and now it’s over for that. The statement has been made. It’s back to business.

Every now and then we’ll see a Julius Peppers get a 4-game ban and blame GNC, or in the worst case scenario we get another Lyle Alzado or a Ken Caminiti who flame out in front of us. Again, we’ll shake our heads, scorn the inhumanity of it all, and then forget all about it, because someone, somewhere on ESPN, will hit a baseball 600 feet or Mel Kiper will tell us about a free safety in the Big Sky conference who weighs 230 and runs like a Porsche. That is sports. Caminiti and Alzado were reality. We should never, ever get the two confused.

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