It has been more than a decade since the Great Home Run Chase of 1998 brought baseball back to prominence after the strike of 1994 nearly killed it, and the issue of steroids, and the artificial numbers they produce, has never been more firmly entrenched in the minds of fans everywhere. There's a testing program, but few observers from outside the game believe the problem has been eradicated. Instead, the Steroid Era and the Selig Era have become nearly synonymous and likely will remain so when the history books are written.
In 1998 baseball was in a bad way. The work stoppage in '94 had soured many fans on the game; the players were seen as selfish prima donnas, the owners as grasping skinflints. The only common thread everyone saw was greed. Players, agents, owners — all were painted with a wide, tarry brush.
Cal Ripken's pursuit and eventual passing of Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games-played streak brought some people back, but things were still a far cry from the previous highs America's pastime had seen. Baseball badly needed something to captivate the public imagination.
Enter Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
All through the summer of 1998, McGwire and Sosa chased after Roger Maris' 37-year-old record of 61 home runs in a season. Both would eventually eclipse that magic number, but Big Mac was the one who stood alone when it was over. He hit 70 home runs that year, a number most had never even imagined possible. And if there were whispers then of performance enhancers that McGwire may have been taking, they were quickly squelched. When a bottle of androstenedione, a steroid, was spotted in McGwire's locker, those who called for an investigation were criticized. No one wanted the fun to stop.
All through that summer, Selig himself was at many of McGwire's and Sosa's games, a constant presence on the road to glory. This was his game, after all; why shouldn't he share in its big comeback?
To be sure, the Chase of '98 was a glorious time. It brought people back to the game of baseball in droves, and showed us much of what sporting endeavors could be at their very best. Two titans of the game duking it out all summer long, pursuing one of the most hallowed records in all of sports.
The problem, of course, is that so much of that summer has since been cast into doubt. We've seen the home-run record McGwire set surpassed by Barry Bonds, and the legitimacy of both records destroyed by the scandal of steroids in baseball.
In 2001, when Bonds was chasing down McGwire's newly minted record, the sporting world was once again excited, but the doubts were already creeping in. Bonds himself was a physical freak by that point, a man almost completely unrecognizable as the same wiry rookie he had once been. Looking at Bonds, it was impossible not to think that something was very wrong, and it was only a short jump from there to looking back at the men who had run down Maris three years before. McGwire had always been big, but his biceps had achieved bodybuilder proportions by 1998. Sosa had come into the league a water-bug shortstop and ended up looking more like a cartoon superhero.
The Home Run Chase very well may have saved baseball, or, at least, returned it to a state of prominence. All that came after, the very game we now know, was built on the broad shoulders of McGwire and Sosa. They brought back baseball from its own foolishness, and baseball's later prosperity was founded on that golden summer.
The only problem with the summer of 1998 is what we now know about it. The wonderful, exciting pursuit that turned everyone into baseball fans (at least for a few months) was built on a foundation of lies. The very chase itself now feels like a fraud, and the idols of baseball's youth have been tarnished by the men who surpassed them.
When Bonds limped his way past Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron to become the all-time home-run leader, Bud Selig appeared only sporadically, preferring to distance himself and his sport from its own perfect monster. All the goodwill, the outpouring of pride that had accompanied McGwire and Sosa years earlier, had been sucked away by allegations of cheating, federal indictments, perjury trials, congressional hearings, trainer testimonies, doping arrests and the emergence of José Canseco as a paragon of credibility. What had been easy to overlook in the joyous summer of The Chase was now staring baseball full in the face, and baseball's top man seemed reluctant to meet its gaze.
By 2003 the rumbling had grown loud enough that it could no longer be ignored, and Selig took the step of instituting a one-time-only test for performance-enhancing drugs. (The tests were to have been completely confidential and the test specimens supposedly destroyed, but even that turned out to be a lie.) Of all the players tested, 104 proved to be positive for some variety of PED. Clearly, this wasn't a problem isolated to only a handful of the game's most dominant players.
Earlier this year, Alex Rodriguez's name was leaked to the media as one of the 104 who tested positive in '03. Once again one of the biggest, if not the biggest, name in all of baseball was outed as a cheater. Not long afterward, Manny Ramirez tested positive for a banned substance and was suspended 50 games under the new PED policy. Both Rodriguez and Ramirez garnered large numbers of votes for the All-Star Game, even though Ramirez wasn't even playing.
Even more recently, it was revealed that Sosa was another of the players who tested positive in '03. Those seeds planted during The Chase were now full-size plants, bearing bitter fruit.
This, then, is the legacy of Bud Selig, the legacy that he will bring with him back to the city that did so much to rebuild his sport. The success of baseball these past eleven years has been built on that foundation laid in 1998. The fans who rediscovered baseball that summer, plus all the new ones attracted by that remarkable three-month duel, have paved the way for an era of tremendous prosperity for baseball. Attendance has fallen some with the nation's economic downturn, but outside of a few tough situations, the faith has remained relatively strong. The media contracts the sport has managed to negotiate are some of the fattest in the world. The newer digital ventures of MLB.com and the like have proven to be moneymakers, and profit sharing has allowed smaller-market teams a chance to keep together their talent cores longer than they could have in the past. There has even been an unprecedented run of labor peace, with no hint of a work stoppage since the strike that nearly killed the game a decade and a half ago.
And yet all is not well in Selig's kingdom. The monstrous home-run totals put up by men like McGwire, Sosa and Bonds have proven to be a double-edged sword; the metronome beat of records falling left and right has changed the landscape of fandom itself. Fans come to the park in droves to see sluggers do what they do so well, yet very few of us trust what we're seeing any more. What were once hallowed records, numbers that carried almost-sacred significance for those who love the game, are now nothing more than figures seen in the rearview mirror. Arguably, the game has never been more popular; why, then, does it all ring so very hollow?
Of the men who step onto the field in St. Louis to play in Tuesday's All-Star Game, some will certainly have faced suspicion. Some are beyond suspicion, having been proven to be cheaters. But there will also be those believed to be clean, players held up by baseball as the face of the new MLB, players who have come of age in the era of testing for PEDs. These players, baseball would have us believe, are doing things the right way, without the need for steroids to help them accomplish what their predecessors did.
The question, of course, is whether anyone does believe it. We all believed in The Chase, right up until the moment it was proven to be a lie. Even after, it remains one of the single most compelling events any of us have ever witnessed in sport, a golden interlude the likes of which is rarely seen outside of the world of Hollywood.
People believed in Alex Rodriguez, too; he may have been a prima donna, but to many he was also the face of the Clean Player. He was the one who would eventually surpass Bonds and return the all-time home-run record to legitimacy. That, of course, won't happen now.
Even as baseball celebrates the 80th playing of the Summer Classic in the city that had so much to do with saving the game itself, the complicated history of the past decade will be on full display as well. There will be few images of Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa, but their ghosts will be present all the same.
Aaron Schafer writes about baseball at Riverfront Times' sports blog, The Rundown, which can be found at http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/therundown.