Denying Our Own Eyes | Sports | Chicago Reader

Denying Our Own Eyes 

Sportswriters knew what steroids were doing to baseball long before we were willing to admit it.

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I suspected Barry Bonds was using steroids as he hit his record 73 home runs in 2001; I felt sure of it by the start of the 2005 season. That's when the BALCO scandal was breaking, a year before the release of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams's book Game of Shadows. But Bonds's leaked grand-jury testimony, the seed of the book, had little to do with my certainty. Rather, it was a table I saw comparing Bonds's seasons from his mid-to-late 30s with those of other baseball greats.

Babe Ruth at 35: 49 homers and a .359 batting average; at 36: 46 and .373; at 37: 41 and .341; at 38: 34 and .301; at 39: 22 and .288.

Ted Williams at 35: 29 and .345; at 36: 28 and .356; at 37: 24 and .345; at 38: 38 and .388; at 39: 26 and .328.

Stan Musial at 35: 27 and .310; at 36: 29 and .351; at 37: 17 and .337; at 38: 14 and .255; at 39: 17 and .275.

Hank Aaron at 35: 44 and .300; at 36: 38 and .298; at 37: 47 and .327; at 38: 34 and .265; at 39: 40 and .301.

Willie Mays at 35: 37 and .288; at 36: 22 and .263; at 37: 23 and .289; at 38: 13 and .283; at 39: 28 and .291.

Time afflicts us all, even baseball's immortals, and the table captures the ebbing skills of past greats as they aged from 35 to 40. But here's Bonds at 35: 49 and .306; at 36: 73 and .328; at 37: 46 and .370; at 38: 45 and .341; at 39: 45 and .362.

Bonds produced not just a record 73 homers at age 36 but after that two of the greatest hitting seasons ever. His batting average when he was 37 led the National League, and his 2004 season, when he was 39, featured a record .609 on-base percentage and an .812 slugging percentage, one of the highest of all time.

Much was written in those years marveling at how today's athletes keep themselves so much more fit than their predecessors. But the table offers stats of earlier players known for their conditioning, such as Hank Aaron, who maintained his statistical excellence but did not improve, and Stan Musial, who declined with injuries. Babe Ruth lived a life of excess and declined precipitously after a few last hurrahs (including his legendary called shot at 37 at Wrigley Field). Ted Williams battled injuries triumphantly before fading.

But Bonds didn't merely fight off decay: he enormously improved. Meanwhile, I noticed that his skull looked bigger, a phenomenon linked anecdotally with human growth hormone. So in time I knew. Something too good to be true, I concluded, isn't.

But I didn't say so in print. I didn't even express doubt. I was like most in the media--from time to time considering the possibility that players were juiced, sometimes even mentioning it, but for the most part turning a blind eye. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were asked about steroids during their 1998 home-run chase, and both denied using them, which was good enough for me and most writers. Of course, their sudden declines and abrupt retirements--Sosa's coinciding with baseball's tougher testing policy this year--said otherwise. Yet as late as the spring of 2005, the eminent Baseball Prospectus, my guide of choice, was writing in this vein on Bonds: "For all the hand-wringing, moralizing, and high-horsing the issue has triggered, the net effect of steroids on baseball players remains unknown. . . . We'll leave the moral outrage to someone else."

In the season and a half since, more than enough morally outraged reporters have taken up the slack. With anguish has come troubling self-examination. Steroids are illegal and, by most medical accounts, dangerous, and although a little cheating is actively encouraged in baseball--and amphetamines, or "greenies," have been part of the game for decades (going back to Jim Bouton's 1970 book Ball Four and beyond)--steroids offer too great an edge and exact too high a price to be permitted. How could we have let those players using them get away with it, even though we sensed--even though we knew--what they were doing? I found the answer to that question in history, in a new book about what remains baseball's darkest scandal.

The central point of Gene Carney's meticulously researched Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball's Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded is that the attempt to conceal the fix--particularly by White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, who wanted to protect his roster, his fan base, and his profits--was potentially an even greater crime than the fix itself. Although talk of the fix was widespread before and during the Series, only sportswriter Hugh Fullerton pursued the subject after the season ended: for his pains he was derided by lapdog papers such as the Sporting News. Just like with steroids, for all the talk a grand-jury investigation was needed to expose the scandal.

Then as now, the sports media didn't want to believe what they knew. Press box crank Westbrook Pegler wrote in 1932: "The fake Series of 1919 produced some of the worst newspaper reporting that the American press ever has been guilty of and why all of us who were detailed to cover the show were not fired for missing the greatest sports story in 20 years is something I have never understood. We were terrible."

Eliot Asinof wrote, not in his Eight Men Out but in 1919: America's Loss of Innocence, that "mostly the secrecy was maintained by the power of the owners themselves. Whatever they knew, or suspected, they concealed, terrified at losing the public faith in the game." Press skeptics were pooh-poohed, whistle-blowing players thanked and dismissed. "The official, if unspoken policy preferred to let the rottenness grow rather than risk the dangers of exposure, for all the pious phrases about the nobility of the game and its inspirational value to youth. In fact, that too was part of the business."

Retired boxing champion Abe Attell, who helped fix the Series, said this in 1944: "What I never could understand is why the blow-off took as long coming as it did. People knew it in Peoria and knew it six weeks before the Series. But I guess the answer is that baseball is such a great and decent game that they wouldn't believe their own eyes and ears."

Just so with steroids. The players didn't dupe us as much as we duped ourselves. I believe knowing this fuels our anger today.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/All Bello/Getty Images, Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images.

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