The excitement over Giancarlo Stanton’s home-run binge brings me back to the 1998 season, when one’s first thoughts each day were, “make bed, brush teeth and who is going to hit a dinger today, Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire or both?’’
Mentioning Stanton in the same sentence as the 1998 home-run race is to bring him, no matter how remotely, into the shadow of steroid suspicion. And that stinks. So don’t go there! you tell me. But how do we not go there, when few players have done what Stanton is doing since the height of the Steroid Era? Is there a sport more tied to its past than baseball?
It’s a tortured bit of contortion that is asked of us: Talk about Stanton within the historical framework of the home-run hitters who came before him, be amazed at the power numbers of the former players while pointing out that some of those same players were massive cheaters, but steer clear of wondering if something is currently rotten in baseball.
How are we supposed to proceed here?
The 1998 season was a thrilling, almost innocent time. Here’s how innocent (or ignorant): I did not mention “steroids’’ or “performance-enhancing drugs’’ in any story about Sosa in 1998. Not one word about cheating in connection with the slugger, even as he sent homer after homer into the bleachers at a pace that should have raised eyebrows. I coauthored one story about McGwire’s use of androstenedione, a dietary supplement he was using to mimic the benefits of testosterone, the male hormone. But that’s it.
I do know this: Chicago wanted to believe. We wanted to believe in Sosa, who was an entertainer of the first order. We certainly wanted to believe in the home run, that most American of sporting accomplishments, the carnival strongman making the bell ring. We were in a civic fog. We stared at the baseball and wondered if Major League Baseball had doctored it to increase home runs. We thought the sun orbited the earth. We were idiots.
In 1999, I went to the Dominican Republic in search of a young player who could represent the hard work, talent and poverty that had produced Sosa. We were still in that fog. We were all caught up in it.
In fact, nothing about Sosa and PEDs from me until 2002, two years after I became a columnist. How is that possible, from a writer who since has carried the flag for keeping drug cheats out of the Hall of Fame? I don’t know. It’s embarrassing.
So here’s the question I ask about Stanton, who had hit home runs in six consecutive games before the streak was snapped Wednesday, 23 in his last 36 games and 44 for the Marlins this season: Are we better off approaching this with all-out belief again, attributing everything he does to effort and superior genes? Or should we be skeptical of everyone and everything?
Would you feel comfortable writing an ode to Stanton, attempting to capture the sound of the ball off his bat and the great distances his home runs travel? Or would you temper it in some way for self-preservation, in case it’s later found out he was using PEDs? (ESPN certainly isn’t in the restraint business. It hyped Stanton’s hot streak like a 1-800 lawyer hyping his jury awards.)
This brings me back to 1998, the dangers of forgetting history and the uncomfortable decision to even discuss the current excitement over Stanton in that context.
The writers who worked during the Steroid Era have been asked the same questions over and over again: Where were you? Why didn’t you call anybody out? Didn’t you have the investigative skills to find the sources behind the rampant PED use in baseball?
But now, almost 20 years later, we’re not supposed to suggest in the slightest way that we’re suspicious of a player. Not fair, we’re told. Un-American. Who made us the judge and the jury? Innocent until proven guilty, and all that.
The current discussion is whether Stanton should be considered the home-run record holder if he hits 62 this year, one more than Roger Maris’ 61 in 1961. The record is 73 by serial juicer Barry Bonds in 2001. McGwire (70) and Sosa (66) went beyond Maris’ mark in that thrilling 1998 season. Sosa had two more seasons of more than 61, and McGwire had one more. All three players have been tied to PED use.
This year, baseball is on pace to smash the record for home runs in a season. How is that possible, with drug-testing allegedly so stringent now? And we’re not supposed to ask questions?
If you tell me that the baseball is more tightly wound this season, I might be sick in print.
I’m not accusing Stanton of using PEDs. But there’s no wiping away the stain of steroids on the game. It dirties everything it touches — even players who never touched the drugs. What are we, the viewing audience, supposed to do? Talk about it? Not talk about it?
I find the whole thing confusing, distasteful and, if it can be said about something as silly as a kid’s game, heartbreaking.
Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.