Mark Shields: Three men who saved baseball from itself
From Aug. 10, 1994, to April 25, 1995, Major League Baseball went on strike. The 1994 World Series was canceled. Fans, furious at both management and the players, voted with their feet by staying away afterward. Average attendance at games fell by more than a fifth, and — of more urgent concern to the owners — total revenues dropped by one-third.
To remedy its money problems, baseball made a bargain with Lucifer by illegally and immorally sliding into a prolonged dark night, when players who “juiced” on performance-enhancing steroids and human growth hormones grew bigger and bigger before all our eyes.
When these chemically enhanced Paul Bunyan look-alikes began hitting more and more home runs, fans came back to the ballparks, paying higher prices for their seats. There were 40 percent more home runs hit in 2000 than in 1995. Occasionally, some player’s drug abuse would be exposed, and appropriately, the baseball owners and the baseball commissioner would be “shocked” and vaguely pledge that there would be increased testing.
But in 2005, steroids in baseball finally met their match, in the form of two talented members of Congress — Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., respectively the chairman and the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform — who together presided over public hearings that, quite simply, forced baseball’s owners and commissioner (as well as baseball’s fans) to admit the epidemic use of steroids, which the sport had officially outlawed in 1991. In his testimony on camera, Mark McGwire — at least 40 pounds lighter than in 1998, when he, then a mountain of a man, had hit a major league record 70 home runs — became emotional when referring to the earlier appearance before the committee of the parents of two young baseball players whose suicides had been attributed to their use of steroids. McGwire repeatedly avoided answering questions about whether he had used steroids.
The Davis-Waxman hearings forced baseball to appoint another exceptional public servant, George Mitchell, a former Senate majority leader and the principal negotiator of the historic peace agreement in Northern Ireland, to officially investigate steroids in baseball.
Mitchell, after interviewing 700 witnesses, named names and teams, indicting baseball’s owners, players and commissioner for their collective failure in condoning, even encouraging, steroid use among children in the country by recklessly delivering the message to American kids that breaking the rules was perfectly legitimate and that their failure to use steroids could put them at a comparative disadvantage. Three American politicians effectively saved America’s pastime from itself.
But today there are different questions about baseball. Two weeks before the final regular season games, Alex Gordon of the Kansas City Royals hit the 2017 season’s 5,694th home run, breaking the single-season major league record set in 2000, which, you’ll note, was right in the middle of chemistry period. Because of that morally reckless steroids era, suspicions are aroused. No one has seriously suggested that today’s players are again juiced. But questions are raised about the possible “juicing” of the baseballs being thrown and hit and even about the possible corking of the bats. It’s sad, but there is a precedent for that doubt.
Before the 2017 World Series, it’s a good time to remember Tom Davis, Henry Waxman and George Mitchell, now all retired voluntarily from public service — which is what their collective rescue of baseball truly was.