View From Lodi, CA: Baseball On Steroids
December 10, 2004, 04:00 AM
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I am always reluctant to write columns that conclude that things were better back in 1970…or 1960…or 1950.

For one thing, going back three or more decades takes a significant percentage of readers outside of their personal frame of reference.

And many readers comment that the time has come to move on by replacing old favorites like Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Willie Nelson with new stars like Leonard DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman and Tim McGraw.

But when the subject rolls around to baseball, I'm sorry. The only kind of column I can write is the one that concludes, "Things were better back then…"

What brings baseball to mind in the middle of December is, of course, the sad sagas of Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds and assorted others like Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa who have taken performance-enhancing steroids.

Those players have introduced a new and ugly period in baseball. Now we can add to the Deadball Era and the Liveball Era is the Pharmaceutical Era.

My lifelong fascination with baseball ended ten years ago with the second Major League Baseball strike.

And prior to my official disengagement with baseball, I had not been to a game for another five years.

Disgusted with the astronomical salaries paid to position players who cannot lay down a bunt and starting pitchers who can't finish six innings, I simply stopped paying attention to baseball.

For a kid who grew up reading the Sporting News—when it proudly advertised that it covered only baseball all 52 weeks of the year—and who followed the collective fates of his hometown Hollywood Stars, their parent club, the Pittsburgh Pirates and his Dad's hometown New York Yankees, giving up baseball was tough—at first.

After a while, though, I stopped noticing. And when I tuned in—more out of curiosity than anything else— to this year's Boston Red Sox-St. Louis Cardinals World Series, I could not believe how boring it was.

Whatever the record for most ground balls hit to the shortstop in a single series had been, it now belongs to the St. Louis Cardinals.

But while I would describe myself as indifferent to baseball, I most definitely do not want to see pumped up players go down in the record books for achievements reached while taking steroids.

The specific record I refer to is Hammering Henry Aaron's 755 career home runs. Aaron, 6', 180 pounds, should not lose his standing as baseball's most prolific homerun hitter to Bonds who admitted—in couched terms—that he took steroids.

A few evenings ago ESPN conducted a fan survey about Bonds and his alleged steroid use. The results: 85% didn't believe Bonds' claim that he thought he was taking flaxseed oil and not steroids.

How can an athlete like Bonds, surrounded by San Francisco Giant and personal trainers not know?

If I were Major League Baseball's Commissioner. I would:

  • Strip Jose Canceso, Ken Caminiti and Jason Giambi of their Most Valuable Player awards. Canceso used pills and needle injections during his baseball career that included a 1988 MVP crown. Caminiti, whose use of steroids shortened his life, and Giambi won their MVPs by cheating. Immediately name runners up Mike Greenwell (1988), Mike Piazza (1996) and Frank Thomas (2000)  

  • Delete the 1998 home run totals, 70 and 66 respectively, of Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa. McGuire's hit his homers after taking anabolic steroids. Sosa, who used a corked bat for much of the year, refused to deny that he took steroids.

To demonstrate the difference between baseball when I was young and baseball today, let me give you an example from the 1950s New York Yankees.

Manager Casey Stengel platooned his two exceptional left fielders, Gene Woodling and Hank Bauer.

Stengel considered the left-hand hitting Woodling the best defensive outfielder in the American League. And he admired the right-handed Bauer for his foot speed, bat control and tenacity.

In 1957, the Yankees trailed 3 games to 2 against the Milwaukee Braves. In the seventh inning of game six, Bauer homered to put the Yankees up one run, 3-2.

As Bauer rounded the bases, he didn't pump his fists or point his fingers into the air. Bauer kept his head down as he ran briskly toward home plate. And when he reached the dugout, his teammates paid no attention to him.

There were no high fives and no chest banging. Bauer simply sat down at the end of the bench.

The reason that Bauer and his fellow Yankees showed no emotion is because the game was far from over. Two innings remained in a one-run game….plenty of time for the Braves to pull it out.

And even though the Yankees won that game, the seventh game still loomed.

In short, Bauer knew that baseball is a team sport. And the time to celebrate was when the World Series ended and the Yankees won.

Bauer played baseball the way it should be played—hard and clean.

That's the way I chose to remember baseball.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.