I was looking through my old baseball cards the other day when I came across a Barry Bonds rookie card from 1986. People are always saying how different Bonds looked then, though I'd never noticed it. So I took a closer look at the card and compared it to a modern day picture. The difference is remarkable. Look how white Bonds' teeth are today. They shine. Now look closely at a picture of Bonds during that rookie year. See the yellow discoloration at the tops, and the overbite? It really makes you wonder: Has Bonds been using an illegal tooth whitener that also straightens? Is it helping his swing? Does it come in an affordable easy-to-use squeeze tube? OK, so the real issue here is steroids, or "roids" as the kids say. Performance enhancing drugs have always been a problem in sports, but with Bonds making his season debut last week while he and other athletes come under investigation in the BALCO case, the steroid problem continues to dwell in the national spotlight. In response to this controversy, baseball quickly developed a new drug "policy" that was immediately laughed at, and now that Congress has gotten involved (don't they have anything more important to do?), Commissioner Bud Selig wants to toughen his stance. The NBA's David Stern and the NHL's Gary Bettman are right behind him, and for their support Congress is giving everyone hearty pats on the back. But give baseball credit. Their new policy is working, as evidenced by the suspension of major leaguer and proven steroid user Rafael Palmeiro for a whole 10 days. Too cynical? Not really. I find the actions taken by all involved to be about as serious as my opening paragraph.
While I agree with anyone who says that steroids should be banned across the board, this current national discussion bothers me because of the circumstances under which it arose. It wasn't a health issue, even though former major leaguer Ken Caminiti's death during the past year was steroid-related. And it wasn't a moral issue, even though steroid use is clearly a violation of fair sport. No, this debate was spurned on by a numbers issue, and the number is 755, as in Hank Aaron's home run record, the most hallowed number in sports. Steroids weren't a problem when people were dying, and they weren't a problem when high school kids were following the lead of their professional heroes. But when Barry Bonds was indicated in the BALCO case, that's when we became interested, because if Bonds' 756th home run turned out to be fueled by steroids, how would we live with ourselves?
That's why the steroid debate has been focused on baseball, despite proof of steroid use in the Olympics, the NFL and in high school sports. Baseball is and always has been a game of numbers - numbers that are valued as much as the game itself. When Miami Dolphins wide receiver David Boston tested positive for steroids last year, no one cared. The reason? Even if steroids made Boston a better player, in which statistic is that improvement evident? Yards? Receptions? Touchdowns? In baseball, the correlation is obvious. A guy juices, hits the ball farther, pads his power numbers, becomes a bigger star and so on.
So now people want to "take action" by littering baseball's record books with asterisks? That's ridiculous. Those books reflect the baseball that has been played in the major leagues, which is why Sadaharu Oh and his career 868 home runs in Japan are nowhere to be found. To put an asterisk next to Bonds' or anybody else's statistics is to suggest that the MLB considers those totals unfairly earned due to steroids, steroids that they didn't even test for until 2003. Bud Selig knew that steroids were in his game, and he knew the effect they have, yet his league did nothing about the problem for years. They did, however, benefit greatly from steroid use, as rising home run totals helped put fans back in the seats after the '94-'95 strike. So now, amidst controversy and media attention, Selig and the player's union have created a steroid policy that allows players to be caught using four times before they are kicked out of the game. What a joke. If they really wanted steroids out of the game, they'd be out.
And really, that's the question that gets lost in this whole debate, and it's the only one that matters: Do we want steroids in our games? To me, the answer is an obvious "no." They go against the basic principles of fair competition, they emphasize the wrong areas of sport and they are dangerous. All that other stuff - the records, the asterisks, the smudgy line between "work out supplements" and steroids - is just window dressing. Get rid of steroids, and the best players will still be the best. They'll just be hitting 50 homers a year instead of 70. At the very least it should knock their massive egos down some, and just in time. Have you seen the size of Barry Bonds' head lately?