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What Steroid Scandal Has Stolen From Fans

Published in The Baltimore Sun, December 17, 2007

The report on performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball tempts me to cynically say that given the inclusion of 19 present or former Orioles among the 87 players named, you would think that we would have witnessed a better on-field performance than we have had to endure for the last 10 seasons.

But the findings of former Sen. George J. Mitchell strike me in a way that leads my mind back to Game Four of the 1970 World Series, when the trees visible beyond Memorial Stadium’s open end were full of glorious fall color. In the second inning, a spontaneous ovation began to build throughout the stands as Brooks Robinson approached the plate.

The Orioles led the Cincinnati Reds three games to none, principally because Brooks had turned the series into a personal showcase like few players before or since. And, as if on cue, he answered the fans’ show of appreciation with a booming home run.

Brooks Robinson had ascended to the pinnacle of his profession by delivering a magical performance on the game’s greatest stage. Yet, as he rounded the bases, he displayed no signs of exultation or triumph. Instead, the shoe black on his checks revealed a man clearly humbled by the magnitude of what he was accomplishing. And the Baltimore fans were teary-eyed with joy for a player whom they regarded as part of their family.

That collective lump in our throats was an instant when the game transcended itself and became a communal bond and an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the richness of baseball’s spiritual balm.

It is in this that baseball’s ownership and players association have been so devastatingly negligent in their stewardship of our game. Indeed, they have taken from us the gift of finding inspiration and life lessons in witnessing an athlete calling on the full measure of his natural abilities and delivering a work of performance art.

The Mitchell report is the product of a flawed process in which the investigation proceeded without subpoena power and relied substantially on evidence provided by two suppliers of illegal substances. Nevertheless, the imperfection of the resulting allegations and innuendo cannot mask the undeniable fact that baseball so ignored its responsibility to maintain the integrity of the game that it created a pervasive culture of drug use that has cast suspicion on all accomplishments, sullied the legitimacy of even honest achievement, and broken the sanctity of statistical comparison that has been the game’s glue binding one generation to the next.

While the report’s inclusion of flimsy hearsay, such as in the case of the Orioles’ Brian Roberts, deserves no respect, one cannot dismiss the documentation of widespread and even routine use of substances banned by the sport and constituting illegal purchases and trafficking in prescription medications. And all this is based on the statements of only two of who-knows-how-many suppliers.

The report comes on the heels of a season in which we have been subjected to the disturbing spectacle of Barry Bonds, ever surrounded by allegations of his use of illegal performance-enhancing products, breaking perhaps the game’s most hallowed record, the career home run mark – and promptly being indicted on perjury charges stemming from a criminal investigation of steroid use. In fact, intoxication with unprecedented long-ball exploits contributed mightily to the blind eye baseball turned to the growing steroid problem.

In the history of baseball, only 25 players have hit 50 or more home runs in a season, and those 25 have done so a combined 41 times. Eighteen of those 41 occurred during the 75 seasons from 1920 to 1994. The other 23 occurred in just the 13 seasons since. And the six greatest single-season home run totals, all accomplished by three players – Mr. Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa – occurred in just a four-season span from 1998 to 2001.

Such offensive prowess sells tickets and memorabilia, along with boosting team earnings and player salaries. But to have allowed the specter of dishonesty to shroud these records with ambiguity strikes at the very heart of why the game is a meaningful part of our national personality.

When Brooks Robinson performed so majestically in that long-ago October, Americans remained at war in the jungles of Vietnam, and American cities still displayed the scars of rioting in the streets. He provided a demonstration of the power of the sport to inspire and draw us together. Baseball is a forum for the public display of the human spirit, from which bonds emerge that help forge a communal identity and collective memory to be passed to future generations.

That is what we gained from Brooksie. That is what we have lost in baseball’s inexcusable failure to enforce the rules of fair play.

— Raymond Daniel Burke