In a couple of recent threads about Ryan Braun and his "tainted" MVP, Vlad has pointed out that nobody faults players from the 60's and 70's for their amphetamine use. It's also worth mentioning that players in other sports use the same anabolic steroids that baseball players do and nobody bats an eye. Brian Cushing tested positive for steroids and not only did he not lose his ROY award, he actually got one extra vote (Ed Bouchette changed his vote to Cushing in the re-vote IIRC). This begs the question, why are steroids in baseball such a huge deal to people but nobody cares about earlier PED use within the sport or steroid use in other modern sports?
In my opinion, the reason that people are more upset with PED’s today than they were when the problem was greenies is that today’s PED’s are more effective. This might not be a good reason, but I think it is the reason. Baseball has always been a game built around it’s history. It’s also a game that much of the country grew up following in box scores, not on ESPN or Twitter. Without scouting videos available online, fans would often not know that much about a player beyond the stats he read in the box score. The amazing thing is, unlike many other sports the statistical norm stayed incredibly similar. From the 1920’s through the mid-90’s, you could compare two players production pretty easily and get an idea of how good he was. Obviously, there were eras that allowed for slightly more power or slightly better pitching but for the most part, you couldn’t hit .400 unless you were arguably the best hitter of all-time. Hitting 60 HRs (only Maris in '61) or winning 30 games (Lefty Grove in '31, Dizzy Dean in '34 and Denny McLain in '68 all did it once) took a truly magical season. In the 20's, there were a couple of statistical anomalies-George Sisler hit .420 in '22 and Rogers Hornsby hit .424 in '24-but for the most part the statistical limits of a baseball player stayed the same. It is this symmetry that makes people revere baseball records more than statistical milestones in other sports. This is why every baseball fan knew that Hank Aaron hit 755 HRs but I think a lot of football fans couldn’t tell you how many TD’s Brett Favre threw (508 FWIW).
Then Barry Bonds came along (and to a lesser extent, McGwire and Sosa) and destroyed that symmetry. Bonds was already the best player in baseball throughout the 90’s. Most people of my generation (I'm 26) grew up believing, or possibly hoping, it was Junior but it wasn't. Junior was cool and always smiling. He wore his cap backwards. He had the prettiest swing ever. There wasn't a kid on my little league teams growing up that wouldn't try to emulate Juniors swing in BP, even if they were righties. He was on Sports Center at night making highlight reel catches. Despite all of that, Bonds was the much better player. From 90-99, Bonds had an OPS+ of 179 compared to Junior's 152. Bonds had eight consecutive years with an OPS over 1.000 while Griffey went over 1.000 four times. Bonds walked in 18.7% of hit AB's. Bonds stole 343 bases to Griffey's 151. Bonds' Total Zone was 110 compared to Griffey's 69. I'm not mentioning this to put down Griffey or anything like that. I am only trying to show that Barry Bonds was the best baseball player in the world during the 90's. This is important because, if I took steroids, it wouldn't turn me into a big leaguer. When David Segui took them it didn't make him a superstar. But when an all time great takes them...well, take a look at Bonds.
Then when we saw the slightest sign of age catching up with Bonds, just like we had seen with every other baseball player in the game’s 120+ year history, he decided he didn’t like that. From age 36-39, a time when even the greatest players start falling back to earth, Bonds put up four of the 8 greatest offensive seasons in baseball history. The top-8 became four seasons of Bonds, Babe Ruth’s prime and Ted Williams’ best year (even this is only #7). Bonds' OPS+ over those four years was 256. No player other than Bonds has put up even even a single season that high since Fred Dunlap's magical 1884 campaign (I honestly didn't know who Fred Dunlap was before looking this up). Bonds wasn't human. He was a video game. He was Jon Dowd. He couldn’t be pitched to. This is why people care more about steroids today than they did about Greenies in the 60’s and 70’s. Apparently, all the Greenies were able to do was help players deal with longer schedules and additional travel without breaking down as easily. Of course Mays, Schmidt, Aaron and Stargell were all great players. Still, as great as they all were, their performance at least seemed possible. You couldn't say that about BALCO Bonds.
It’s sometimes amazing how perfectly baseball comes together. I mean it would have taken one hell of an engineer to figure out that spacing the bases out 90 feet and the mound 60’6" from the plate would fit so perfectly together that a ground ball to the 3B would give the defender just enough time to throw out a runner at first or that the pop times would just barely allow basestealers to swipe second (I know the dimensions of the diamond have changed since the late 19th century). Today’s PEDs have changed that playing field unlike earlier, and apparently less effective ways of cheating. They are all wrong, but I can understand the public outcry over today’s cheating because it changes the game. If we were playing Monopoly and I moved an extra space so I could avoid landing on your hotel, that would be cheating. It wouldn’t necessarily change the fundamental nature of the game. If I had a machine that was constantly printing me extra money, though, it would. Bonds found a way to print his own money.