If you were there, you remember. If you weren’t, you have no idea. But baseball will never experience anything like the Great Home Run Chase of 1998 again, and in order to get context for the relatively banal decision to use performance-enhancing drugs, you have to remember just how bananas it all was.
On Sept. 21, 1998, there were three different stories about Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire at the top of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger’s sports page. The paper is published in Mississippi’s capital, about 400 miles away from the closest Major League Baseball team, but there was still room for a syndicated column about Sosa and McGwire, an Associated Press recap of Sammy Sosa’s night, and an Associated Press recap of Mark McGwire’s night at the top of the page.
In the middle of the page, there was news about an Ole Miss offensive lineman suffering a season-ending injury. Toward the bottom, there was a little something about Cal Ripken missing his first game since 1982.
It’s 1998, explained in one sports page.
People born after McGwire and Sosa might think they’ve experienced an entire nation in the grips of baseball mania, whether it was with the Cubs or Red Sox winning the World Series, or the two separate Barry Bonds record chases, but they’ve never lived through an editor at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger deciding that a huge update on Ole Miss football was roughly the fourth- or fifth-most important story of the day. McGwire-Sosa Mania was something that turned the end of Ripken’s streak into something that needed to be buried at the bottom of the front page.
The Home Run Chase of ‘98 was something that made tollbooth operators hold up traffic because they needed to ask someone wearing a Cardinals hat if anything happened. It was responsible for Sunday sermons that weaved biblical narratives together with the home run chase. It was why barbers and hairstylists held court about baseball all day, and it was why taxi drivers spent 10 hours a day on McGwire-Sosa small talk, only to wake up the next morning and happily do the same thing for another 10 hours.
It was a shared moment in time for millions, a beautifully raw nerve ending that kept getting hit, kept releasing endorphins, kept thrilling an entire hemisphere. It was tremendous fun, even if it didn’t age perfectly.
It’s OK to profess your love for it while rolling your eyes just a little bit at the thought of you getting so sucked in. It was basically Top Gun, but spread out over six months, and it was as awesome as it was silly.
And, hell yeah, writers were into it.
When everyone is that excited about something, any threat to that excitement is seen as an existential threat. The scolds come around to tinkle on your parade because that’s just what they do, man, and the only appropriate response is to push back and aggressively not care.
McGwire was taking a substance that built muscle mass. Everybody was aware of it, and he kept the bottle of pills in plain sight. The side effects of this substance weren’t understood very well, but nobody cared.
The substance was androstenedione, and it was legal then. It’s illegal now, but that’s not the point; McGwire was willing to take something that made him stronger and hit more home runs, even though the side effects weren’t well known. Turns out the side effects included shrunken testicles and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke, but it wasn’t anabolic steroids, sportswriters around the country shouted in unison, as if most of the people exclaiming that could really explain the difference. As if anyone wanted to take the time to elucidate why the supplement didn’t cross the ethical line that steroids did. Or even think about it at all.
Nobody cared. Not while the dingers were flying.
This is not an attempt to argue in favor of performance-enhancing drugs. This is not another performative exercise in that anarchic brand the cool kids love, where we pretend that steroids are rad and everyone should take them. It’s also not an excuse to go full Helen Lovejoy and scream about the bad men hurting our babies.
This is where we figure out how McGwire and Sosa went from international heroes to villains. It seems like a linear narrative now — player succeeds, player gets caught cheating, player slinks off in ignominy — but that’s just not how it happened. Nobody cared about what McGwire or Sosa put into their bodies until everyone decided, en masse, that they did care. After that, it was a mad scramble to revise history.
With apologies to George Orwell, Baseball Oceania was at war with Steroids Eastasia; Baseball Oceania had always been at war with Steroids Eastasia.
What in the hell happened?
Murray Chass became one of the leading anti-PED voices of the post-BALCO era, and he was vigilant enough about the cause that a player’s back acne was entered into evidence against his Hall of Fame case. After the Mitchell Report, after Bonds fatigue, this brand of skepticism and anger was the mainstream position when it came to performance-enhancing drugs. If it isn’t the current default stance of the typical baseball fan, it’s mighty close.
However, this was Chass back in 1998:
A McGwire record, for example, could be tarnished because some people think it is wrong that he takes testosterone-producing pills.
In past years, some of the game’s best players were said to have played their careers on amphetamines. So no bluenose asterisk, please, for a McGwire home run record.
That was in reference to the buzz created by an Associated Press writer, Steve Wilstein, who wrote a story about McGwire’s use of androstenedione. The supplement was openly displayed in McGwire’s locker, even though it was a substance that was banned by the International Olympic Committee, and the column riled up the baseball world. Just not in the way that you might remember.
From Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe:
No wonder ballplayers loathe the media. Mark McGwire is stalking one of baseball’s most cherished records — until now the feel-good story of the baseball summer — and suddenly he’s engaged in a tabloid-driven controversy that’s painting him as a cheater and a bad role model.
Shaughnessy would actually use the word “steroid” to describe andro later in the column, though he would take the effort to point out it wasn’t exactly an anabolic steroid.
Steve Bisheff of the Orange County Register was just as direct:
Roger Maris’ home run record, should McGwire break it, will not be tainted. McGwire is doing nothing wrong. He isn’t breaking any rules. He isn’t even stretching them.
In every paper, there was a hot take. The Sporting News published an editorial that started with this paragraph:
If Mark McGwire’s use of androstenedione isn’t much ado about nothing, then certainly it is much ado about little.
And it ended with this one:
Were we not trying to find a story that, in this case, just wasn’t there?
That’s not to say there weren’t dissenters. Wallace Matthews of the New York Post ended his anti-steroid column with this inspiring spicy take:
As the most famous ballplayer of his era, McGwire has the power to educate those people, if not stop them. Many of those people are children. He owes them the truth. Anything less would be the thing McGwire hates most in the world.
But those sentiments were very much in the minority. The majority was very, very clear in their belief that dingers were more interesting than supplements.
Really, what are supplements? Just some stuff that you use in your fitness routine, surely. They were no different than Rocky downing a raw egg and running up the courthouse steps. Sure, the supplements might have had potential side effects, but raw eggs can give you salmonella. You can get a heart attack from running up steps. It’s not like you want the government to protect you from eggs or steps.
That wasn’t the official position of the federal government, but it was close. Supplements were considered more of a food-like substance at the time, thanks to Orrin Hatch and a whole lot of industry lobbying. The world is trying to kill all of us and it will eventually succeed, so, in the meantime, there’s no shame in getting stronger through science. Please buy some science and ingest it; it’s probably fine.
As long as andro wasn’t steroids, the columnists posited, it was acceptable. Even as scientists gave quotes like, “The body recognizes that (androstenedione) is a steroid hormone and converts it,” to the Chicago Tribune (Aug. 26, 1998), the vast majority of writers were more than OK with with the supplements. They weren’t steroids. They were legal, after all. There’s no way that something legal could be harmful.
McGwire was captivating the world, and he was openly taking a substance that built muscle mass. The side effects of this substance weren’t understood very well, nobody cared, and most people were mad at the writer who made us think about it.
(Don’t worry about Sosa, though. In that original Wilstein article, it was made clear that Sosa was big on ginseng, not andro. The correct answer was “ginseng”.)
In this context, in this environment, why would a baseball player make a distinction between the pills the Olympics had banned and the steroids the Olympics had banned? Why would a baseball player change anything he was doing? Nobody cared, and most people were mad at the writer who made us think about it, so why wouldn’t these guys take the help that gets you on the cover of the danged TV Guide?
Ten years later, both players were villains who were out of baseball. Twenty years later, they’re a cautionary tale at the fringes of baseball’s sanitized history. The Cubs like to pretend Sosa doesn’t exist.
Back then, nobody made a cogent argument about what were steroids and what weren’t, and what was OK. Since then, we’ve had plenty of surface-level pearl clutching — a Wilstein op-ed titled “Ban McGwire from baseball” is a perfect representation of the genre — but they all relied on platitudes about why all PEDs are bad. You don’t know the exact lyrics, but you can hum along: Cheating; sanctity of the game; what about the kids?; not what this sport is about. I love it when they play the hits.
For years, I’ve struggled with the phrase “begs the question” and its correct usage. I knew that it didn’t just mean “raises a question,” but I didn’t really understand the correct way to use the phrase, so I’ve mostly avoided using it. Didn’t want to look silly.
Except I understand it now. It took the default arguments about performance-enhancing drugs to get it.
It’s an unfair advantage.
You’re begging the question when you declare PEDs to be cheating and move on. Why would that be cheating?
It’s not natural.
It’s not natural for a human being to ingest substantially more calories than they need for the purposes of bulking up. Forcing 8,000 calories into your system every day to build muscle mass isn’t good for you.
Why is it cheating to ingest a substance that helps you build muscle? Sure, there might be side effects, but that’s the problem of the guy taking it, not mine.
It’s not legal.
It’s also not legal to spray Silly String in public if you’re in Southington, Connecticut. Blindly pointing to a law begs the question about the law making sense.
See, I’m getting it! Just begging the question all over the place. But the larger point is that saying something is illegal doesn’t tell us why that would be considered cheating.
Because, idiot, it’s an issue of workplace ethics. A player shouldn’t have to risk his health to compete with a peer who is willing to risk his health for an unnatural advantage. Employees should never have to ingest potentially harmful substances to keep their job.
Yeah, that’s the correct answer.
Performance-enhancing drugs that cause harmful side effects should not be allowed in baseball. I agree.
This isn’t because better baseball through chemistry is inherently wrong, though. It’s because it’s an issue of workplace ethics. A player shouldn’t have to risk his health to compete with a peer who is willing to risk his health. Employees should never have to ingest potentially harmful substances to keep their jobs or advance in their careers.
This wasn’t the conversation people were having back in 1998, though. Heck, it’s not the conversation people are having today.
The goal of this article isn’t to convince you that steroids are cool and fun, it’s to put the context back in the 1998 home run chase. Back then, everyone just assumed that the big dudes were big because of whatever, and it was mostly fine. Almost no one discussing the topic would have been able to make a logical argument of why andro was inherently more ethical than anabolic steroids, because that would have been an extremely difficult argument to make. Everyone knew that it wasn’t exactly push-ups that made the 34-year-old McGwire look like a creature from the deep recesses of an unfriendly Earth. Nobody cared, and most people were mad at the writer who made us think about it.
I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating: In 1999, I went to spring training with a buddy. Before a game started, Barry Bonds sauntered by us, and he looked like a comic book character. Specifically, one drawn by Rob Liefeld. It was noticeable, unavoidable, and entirely amusing. My friend turned to me and said, “Looks like somebody wants that McGwire-Sosa attention.” Because we both knew. And we didn’t care.
It was reasonable for Bonds in 1999 to think that nobody cared. Just like it was reasonable for McGwire and Sosa to think that nobody cared. The feeling of nobody-cares was strong enough for McGwire to keep a bottle of androstenedione on display in his locker. Sure, it raised testosterone levels, and the long-term effects were unknown (and extremely undesirable, as it turns out), but that was fine.
Nobody cared in part because the idea of ingest-to-be-best was codified by the teams, too. From Howard Bryant’s Juicing the Game:
By the mid-1990s, creatine was as ubiquitous in major league clubhouses as tobacco. Several teams, including the Oakland A’s and St. Louis Cardinals, purchased creatine for their players. During the leary days of the Arizona Diamondbacks, an expansion team launched in 1998, the team supplied creatine and protein powder to its players.
Creatine is still legal, and it’s still allowed in baseball. But according to the Mayo Clinic, using it might come with a cost:
- Muscle cramping
- Gastrointestinal pain
- Weight gain
- Water retention
- Heat intolerance
This brings us back to the original question of why performance-enhancing drugs aren’t cool. It’s because individuals have the right to compete and succeed without risking gastrointestinal pain and diarrhea.
This isn’t to imply that creatine is perfectly analogous to anabolic steroids. It’s just to point out that the culture of baseball suggested that a few side effects were fine if you wanted to get stronger. And once you get there, the leap from the side effects of creatine to the poorly understood side effects of steroids wasn’t a large one, especially considering that the steroid side effects were often long-term concerns that were hard to notice at first. It also reinforced the idea that if a player wasn’t taking the stuff, it was his loss.
It wasn’t just that teams didn’t care about players sucking up creatine and andro. Former A’s manager Tony La Russa was absolutely, 100 percent clear that Jose Canseco was taking anabolic steroids. From Bryant, again:
La Russa knew Canseco was using steroids because Canseco had told him so.
The manager didn’t go to the general manager, who would have been obligated to go to the commissioner. The manager did nothing.
[whoops how did that get in there, ha ha, must be a bug with the CMS, one minute ...]
There’s no way that La Russa was the only manager who was aware of what his players were taking. Consider this USA Today feature from 1997 on Padres third baseman Ken Caminiti:
Ken Caminiti calls it his goody bag.
Caminiti unzips the bag and reveals bottles and zip-locked bags of pills, vitamins and nutritional supplements. He opens one packet and shoves a handful of capsules into his mouth viking-style, all but swallowing the plastic.
The nobody-cares were strong enough to make Caminiti open up to a national reporter. No, the article didn’t suggest that Caminiti was also taking steroids (he was, keep reading), but considering what was completely out in the open, it isn’t a stretch to assume there was more just beneath the surface, and that it wasn’t the most guarded secret in the clubhouse.
It’s at this point that I’m realizing that my “nobody cares” thesis has a flaw: Baseball cared. Baseball loved it.
In the post-strike rubble, baseball was desperate. A national television deal with CBS ended up being a disaster, and attendance was down. If you think the baseball-is-dying chatter is strong now, you can’t imagine how loud it was after the strike. The sport made it through the miserable ‘70s, a decade filled with unimaginably low crowds, and rebounded in the next decade with the help of the baseball card boom and stars like Dwight Gooden, Don Mattingly, and Rickey Henderson. There were still problems with the sport, but the trend was a promising one.
Until 1994 and the strike, that is. Baseball needed a way to manufacture interest, and they needed it fast. Big, muscly dudes hitting taters would do the trick.
If you think Tony La Russa could be well aware that these big, muscly dudes were using anabolic steroids, but the league didn’t know, you’re very trusting.
If you think that the league would have shut down all of the shenanigans if they did know, you’re very new to all of this. Baseball, life, capitalism, all of it.
The suits loved it. They certainly weren’t having conversations about the ethics of it all, especially when the real ethical victims were the players on the fringes of a 25-man roster who decided not to take PEDs. Those were the people who lost out on life-changing money and pensions. When good players like McGwire and Sosa took PEDs, they became great, sure, but they weren’t forcing people out of a job. They were just giving the public more of what they wanted. Which was dingers.
Incredibly impressive dingers.
Taters that made people gasp and send electronic mail to their friends.
Home runs that made people watch and attend.
Home runs that made people buy stuff like this:
Imagine a button, a big, red button, sitting in the middle of a conference table in 1998. Around the table are 30 chairs, each occupied by the controlling owner of a Major League Baseball team. You announce that by hitting the red button, steroids are out of baseball forever. Push it, and they were never even there. The decision would affect the home run chase, sure. Might even dampen the spirits of the fans. We wouldn’t really know what would happen. But there would be no more steroids. All it would take is one of them to hit the button.
No one would hit the button. Twenty years later, the button would still be there, untouched, with every team in baseball scared to see what would have happened if steroids were retroactively eliminated. Baseball might not have died after the strike, but without the home run chase, it wouldn’t have become the media monolith that it currently is.
The button will remain undisturbed until the end of time.
What changed, then? How did we go from a culture of willful ignorance and blissful acceptance to the idea that PEDs were a threat to a national institution?
It starts with Sosa and McGwire themselves. The chase was so thrilling because of the shared belief that we would never see anything like it again. Then the next season Sosa hit 63 homers, and McGwire hit 65. It wasn’t an unexciting chase, but there was definitely a sense that something was very different. In the season that Bonds broke McGwire’s record, Sosa hit 64 home runs. Award yourself a gold star if you remember that, because I sure didn’t. Sosa had three seasons with 60 homers or more, and he led the league in none of them. America was experiencing dinger fatigue.
Then there’s Bonds, who wasn’t beloved before the PEDs and was reviled afterward. He broke McGwire’s record just three years later, and while it was absolutely thrilling to watch, there was a sense that someone else would break the record three years after that, and three years after that, and three years after that.
This was how baseball was now, and it was a version of the game that was a photocopy of a photocopy several hundred times over, until it was completely unrecognizable.
Another tipping point was Tom Verducci’s cover story for Sports Illustrated in 2002. It moved the conversation from, “Yeah, they’re probably juicing” to, “Oh, yeah, they’re definitely juicing.” Ken Caminiti didn’t just admit to steroid use; he was unrepentantly proud of it. If there was a stool of plausible deniability, the last leg was ripped out from under it.
My favorite passage:
One former pitcher in the Detroit system even says, “Two coaches approached me and suggested I do steroids.”
That was the culture of baseball back then, but after McGwire and Sosa and Bonds, after the BALCO investigation and the Mitchell Report, fans snapped. Writers snapped. There was pushback. Nobody cares became everybody cares. Baseball was a sport with a numbers fetish, and suddenly the numbers looked skeezy, which made the whole sport look cheap.
This doesn’t change just how special 1998 was, how it felt, how it made this beautiful hellworld just a little more beautiful at the time. Because at the time, it felt pretty damned good. In the era of nobody-cares, McGwire and Sosa didn’t think they were gambling with their legacies. They didn’t think they were rolling dice, with a chance that NO COOPERSTOWN would show up after an unlucky roll. They were exploring the limits of an era in which teams bought jugs and jugs of supplements for their players. There were no rules, no testing, no stigmas. There was just a belief that chemical dingers were desirable now, and it wasn’t incorrect.
There were certainly no discussions about the ethics of it all, with an exploration of who was really harmed.
As to how to deal with all of this information, I dunno. That’s up to you. You can consider Roger Maris to still be the home run king, unless you penalize him for playing in an expansion season with a longer schedule. Consider J.D. Martinez to be the real home run champ if you want, I don’t care. You get to decide what’s the most impressive accomplishment.
Just don’t consider Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to be villains. Don’t consider them stains on baseball’s history. Don’t be the kid on the courthouse steps begging them to “Say it ain’t so.” They were products of a different, more lenient time. McGwire was literally Time Magazine’s “Hero of the Year” after admitting he was using a substance with unknown side effects to get stronger. You can understand how the person in that position keeps forging that same path ahead, right?
One of these days, there won’t be as many side effects. Getting stronger and recovering faster will have the same cost as, say, taking a couple of ibuprofen. Oh, there will be discussions. It will be messy, and baseball will screw it up at first. Don’t we want to see the best players on the field every day? Doesn’t it suck when players get hurt so often? Wouldn’t it be a delight to see players recover quickly, even late into the season?
Probably. Until then, we’re in this weird purgatory, between the traditional and the chemical, and we’re not sure what to make of the latter. Just know that it’s far, far too reductive to look back at McGwire and Sosa with disgust. At the time, they were the absolute best. They were transcendent. History has judged them, and I’m not sure if that’s entirely fair.
Performing-enhancing drugs probably weren’t a good idea, even if baseball was better off because of them. Try twisting that sentence around in your head for a while. It’s a messy one, and it’s entirely true. McGwire and Sosa saved baseball, and if you argued 20 years ago that they were trying to ruin it, you would have been mocked ruthlessly.
Look at the record-setting numbers with skepticism, but don’t look at them with disdain. It was a different culture in 1998, and two superstars decided to blaze their own trail. Dingers saved baseball. Dingers are the reason you’re here right now. Everybody loves dingers, even if nobody wanted to see how the dinger sausage was made back then. McGwire and Sosa were just giving the fans what they wanted, doing what the owners were thrilled to have them doing, building the sport up for decades to come.
That doesn’t make it right. But I’m not sure it was wrong, either. Everything seems simpler with the benefit of hindsight, but nothing was simpler than how it seemed at the time. People were excited about baseball like they never were before or since. Don’t you see? People were excited about baseball.
My guess is if baseball could inject the spinal fluid from kittens directly into human brains to get people excited about baseball like that again, they would. The writers would write, write, write, getting swept up in the excitement, and they would absolutely love it as much as the fans. When somebody spoke up about the kittens, there would be a week of hot takes and a final conclusion, but the buzz and excitement would rule until further notice.
Nobody would care. Until, one day, without warning, they would. It wouldn’t make it right, but it would be entirely understandable. You would have had to been there.