Cheating. Hoodwink. Deceive. Beguile. Bamboozle. Whether it’s the spitball, pine tar, or cork bats, these always exist in Major League Baseball. Players and managers have historically looked for advantages, a little (or major) difference between one player and an opposing one that can win a game. They’re the villains of the game of baseball, the things supporters of the sport detest out of fairness. Of course there is a new bad guy on the block. It’s a fight, all right.
The duel between baseball justice and MLB skullduggery entered a new round on Tuesday when the game found itself fighting doping Major League stars and…biochemistry. Weren’t expecting that kind of villain, huh? A handful of notable MLB names were dug up from the vault of sporting cleanliness (or the deep vault in the case of the alleged two-time performance-enhancing drug user) including Nelson Cruz, Gio Gonzalez, and Alex Rodriguez. Supposedly fueled by a biochemist named Anthony Bosch, who worked at an anti-aging clinic in Miami, these stars and more were the latest names to enter the wall of juiced-up shame. Queue the bombshell.
The report out of Miami didn’t have quite the flair and reach as the Mitchell Report, but it brought about the same effect: shattered perceptions and crushed hopes. There stood some of the brightest athletic talent on Earth – bobble head dolls at worst, dreams at best – forever now looked at with a raised eyebrow. They join a long list of baseball cheaters, so in a way they went from extraordinary to common – the exact opposite fate PEDs are supposed to bring. And it’s because their names are on web articles trashing, pitying, and sighing at them, that the clock can’t be rewound. Even if somehow the valley of evidence is false, if somehow the purchasing records were all just receipts of a dreamer, the label is now on them as long as memories still exist. The tag of PEDs will follow their life forever now, the curse of fame, and the blight of disappointment over disappointment.
The timing made this wound sting, of course. Five years and some change after the Mitchell Report became the ultimate standard for finger pointing in MLB, the Bigs looked dazzling. The postseason lacked, for the most part, the yawn factor that often permeated it – especially The World Series – for nearly a decade. Hitting standards plummeted, and batting became more realistic. Pitchers were the superstars, the players teams were willing to invest time in, and lock up early to attain championships. Less runs scored, more no-hitters, a focus away from blasting the ball out of the ballpark – it was the game as it was meant to be played.
Yet, the wave of baseball enthusiasm that hadn’t been seen since the National Football League became the U.S.’s go-to buddy, eventually lost its momentum to itself. A year of positive PED tests littered news feeds. From stars to prospects, to no-names to the money-hungry, to even a Most Valuable Player, 2012-2013 MLB sports a black eye. People are questioning everyone again. Who’s clean? Who’s not? Did the future Hall-of-Famers all just cheat their way into our hearts?
The accusation against A-Rod was no surprise, though. While the evidence of A-Rod PED purchasing records from as recently as 2012 was stunning, the overall notion wasn’t unbelievable. A-Rod clearly wasn’t off PEDs after 2003 like he claimed. The strength of five tools, .300 averages, and 30-plus homeruns at shortstop could only get him so far. Living up to more than $250 million and comparisons to Barry Bonds requires unnatural talent. Despite his denial, his 2005 and 2007 seasons still make observers shake their heads around twenty times in a second; the numbers were off the charts, even for A-Rod. 48 and 54 homeruns in 2005 and 2007 respectively – two totals eerily comparable to what he posted in his confirmed PED years of 2001-2003 (52, 57, and 47 respectively), stand out like a fake thumb. His numbers surrounding those years – 30-homerun consistency that would make Albert Pujols proud – simply seem human compared to his other seasons. And they were. A-Rod had some people fooled, but glancing at his stat line could prevent the pain of betrayal that seems all too common in MLB.
But, like always, it hurt when you heard the formerly-thought pure names in the report. Gio Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz – both players epitomize the gasp and the “Say it ain’t so!” Whether or not they’re good people isn’t so much the point as what they appeared to be: fair. They were no A-Rods, the kind of guy you know you should never get your hopes up on. They appeared to be what baseball lovers dreamt them to be. Again the truth can hurt.
The reality is that as long as the game of baseball exists, there will be ways to cheat it, and there will be those who will stab at its integrity. Whether for a payday, or for fame, or simply to be the best, there’s always an advantage that players will come across in their playing years. When we collapse into our chair and say we’ve had enough, that’s when we show we’ve really been cheated. There’s no final battle for the integrity of the game; we will always have to fight to legitimize baseball. We can limit the cheats, punish them more, and learn from the lessons, but we can never take out from everyone the human desire to cheat. There will always be shortcut takers. It’s a simple lesson – childish even – but it’s one to remember when we lose faith in baseball. It’s such a beautiful game, a part of life that we can’t be without. We can’t not fight for something that’s worth it. There will be more BALCO scandals, more press conferences of dishonesty, more A-Rods, Bonds, Clemens, Sosas. It’s an antagonist at heart, performance-enhancing drugs, so we baseball fans will end up doing what you always eventually do when you’re cheated and knocked down by a villain: Get up.