So Mark McGwire (above, right) finally has admitted that he was juiced when he and Sammy Sosa (left) resurrected America’s interest in baseball with their spectacular home run duel in 1998.
McGwire and Sosa accounted for 136 home runs that summer, and their chase of Roger Maris’s single-season record of 61 captured the nation’s attention unlike any event since the cancellation of the 1994 World Series because of a contract dispute between the Major League Players Association and team owners.
Author Jacques Barzun once noted that anyone wanting to understand America should learn about baseball. So if baseball is a microcosm of America, maybe our current financial mess was foretold in the cancellation of the ’94 series and the McGwire-Sosa home run extravaganza four years later.
During negotiations for a new labor contract in 1994, team owners wanted to establish a limit on players’ salary increases. The Major League Players Association didn’t want limits and threatened to strike if the owners tried to impose them. Neither side budged by the September 14 deadline, so the rest of the season and the World Series were cancelled.
It was a stunning indicator of how deeply the obsession with money had penetrated our national psyche. Despite the chaos and uncertainty caused by two world wars and the Great Depression, the World Series had been played every year since 1905. But in 1994 this venerable event could not survive the immovable greed of millionaire players and billionaire owners.
Fans were furious and interest in the game plummeted when the 1995 season began.
Yet Major League Baseball’s annual revenue has steadily increased since the strike. Blomberg.com reported that MLB had a record $6.5 billion in revenue for the 2008 season, and that seven teams set attendance records.
How did MLB overcome fans’ disgust and increase revenue in the wake of the 1994 strike? CNN noted in 2006 that MLB tapped into Internet-driven income sources that didn’t exist at the time of the strike. But the foundation for the revenue surge of the past decade was laid when team owners and league administrators looked the other way while talented athletes boosted their already exceptional skills with steroids. Some players built up muscle mass that seemed supernatural and launched phenomenal home run outbursts at a time in their careers when such totals typically declined among players of earlier eras.
Fan excitement returned when longstanding home run records were shattered by apparent super-athletes who seemed on the verge of eclipsing the careers of legendary earlier stars such as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. Crowds filled the stadiums. The damage from the lost World Series of 1994 seemed short-lived and greatly over-estimated.
The home run orgy in Major League baseball coincided with a national obsession with excess that blossomed in the 1990s and continued after the turn of the century. Everyone wanted bigger houses, bigger automobiles, bigger cheeseburgers. Big was in, biggest was best. Merely having enough wasn’t nearly enough. You had to have far more than enough, and you had to display it conspicuously. Never mind that you’d used a junk mortgage – the financial equivalent of steroids – to buy a $600,000 house on a $35,000 income, or that you’d artificially inflated your living standard by making minimum payments at 18 percent interest on a half-dozen maxed-out credit card accounts. You were living large, and that’s what life has been all about for the past 20 years.
And what about those who said this artificial prosperity couldn’t last and sooner or later everything would collapse and there’d be hell to pay? Whiners. Losers. Girly men.
When McGwire’s and Sosa’s home run battle took place in 1998, everyone thought we’d all become Internet millionaires by the Millennium. McGwire hit 70 home runs; Sosa hit 66. Both players surpassed a season home run mark that had been reached only twice in the previous 71 years.
But amid all the excitement, rumors emerged that many Major League players – including McGwire and Sosa – were using steroids. And the rumors escalated in 2001 when Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs and started closing in on the record for career home runs held by Hank Aaron.
MLB’s halfhearted effort to police steroids was undermined when the players’ union diluted attempts to monitor players. So the league hired former U.S. Senator George Mitchell to investigate steroid use. He filed his report in December 2007 – about the same time that some people were getting seriously worried about the proliferation of shoddy mortgages and the unheard-of escalation of housing prices.
Mitchell’s report linked some of the game’s most prominent names to steroid use.
New York Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez admitted in early 2009 that he’d used steroids earlier in his career. Rodriguez’s admission came as an edgy nation watched stock prices tumble and jobs disappear amid revelations of spectacular mismanagement and fraud in the financial industry.
It also was revealed that superstar pitcher Roger Clemens may have lied to Congress during an investigation that followed Mitchell’s report. And Barry Bonds faces trial for allegedly lying to federal investigators about his steroid use.
So now, all those flashy home run records of the late 1990s look as phony as a Bernie Madoff financial statement. Meanwhile, home run totals for seasonal leaders in both Major Leagues have declined and now are closer to the totals compiled by mere mortal players before the era of steroid supermen.
And in the real world, Americans are making do with less as they struggle to clean up the financial wreckage caused by years of mindlessly pursuing a lifestyle of wretched excess.
Baseball survived its painful return to normalcy. We have to hope that this is an indicator that America also will readjust to reality.
(Photo of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire is by CP Photo)