Take Me Out To The Ultra-Ball Game

So Major League Baseball has thrown out a dragnet again and hauled in 14 players accused of using so-called performance enhancing drugs. And the biggest catch in this batch of alleged cheaters is the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, who has long been considered a certainty to join other immortals in the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

When MLB announced that Rodriguez had failed a drug test and faced a lengthy suspension, he needed just 13 home runs to tie Hall of Famer Willie Mays’s home run total of 660, which places Mays fourth on the list of all-time home run kings behind Barry Bonds (also accused of using drugs), Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. ESPN reported that Rodriguez’s contract calls for him to receive a substantial bonus when he matches Mays’s mark. That doesn’t seem quite fair to reward a juiced Rodriguez for reaching a milestone that was accomplished by players who weren't using any sort of performance-enhancing drugs to achieve their prodigious totals.
And to me, that’s the reason it matters that Rodriguez and Bonds achieved their impressive career statistics while using drugs. Baseball, more than any other major league professional sport, is tied to its history and its superstars that have been spread across more than a century of play. The statistics compiled by stars of bygone eras are part of the appeal of the game and a topic that can be endlessly discussed and debated by old fans and young fans.

“Baseball fans love to argue statistics,” Benjamin Hoffman wrote in today’s New York Times. “Mentions of Willie Mays or Ted Williams are often accompanied by the caveat that they lost time to war. Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier, would have had even better statistics had he been allowed to play before he was 28.”
Cynical fans ridicule the anti-drug sentiment and argue that drug use doesn’t matter and that players should be allowed to do whatever they can to improve their performances. It’s nobody’s business what they do to their own bodies, the argument goes.

But here’s the thing about that ultra-libertarian perspective about MLB and drugs: If you’re going to do that, you might as well close and seal the baseball record books from 1904 – when the Major Leagues as we know them began – until 1997 – the season before a steroids-enhanced Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998 to become the first juiced player to set a season record for home runs.
A few years after Bonds, McGwire, Sammy Sosa and other “enhanced” players elevated seasonal home run totals beyond anything seen since the beginning of the sport, MLB actually started enforcing its no-drugs rules. Seasonal home run totals by MLB players, which had escalated dramatically in the late 1990s, came back down to Earth. And that dramatic decline in home runs made the effect of drug use on baseball’s sacred statistics obvious to anyone who cared to compare the numbers.

So if you want to allow juiced players to play MLB, then close the record books from 1904 to 1997, declare the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown to be filled to capacity with stars of “old” baseball, and start over with record-keeping and a new league and a new game. Call it “ultra-baseball” or “extreme baseball” or “robo-baseball” or “ultimate baseball,” something to indicate that this is not a game for mere wimpy mortals but a game that’s being played by super-evolved, chemically enhanced cyber-humans.
Then, instead of arguing whether Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Duke Snider was the best centerfielder of his era, you can argue about whether Barry Bonds’s home run total would have been higher if he’d avoided steroids and used a different type of performance-enhancing drug. That doesn’t seem to have the same appeal as talking about Willie, Mickey and The Duke, but I suppose it could make for a lively debate among chemists.

NOTE: The photo at the top was published by the New York Daily News on October 8, 2011 and shows Alex Rodriguez after he struck out to end the game that the New York Yankees lost to the Detroit Tigers, 3-2 in the American League Divisional Championship Series.