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Baseball - The Tenth Inning

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It's Over There, Commissioner

Red Sox Fans

Red Sox Fans Elsa/Getty Images

For a generation, Roger Maris's single-season record of 61 home runs, set in 1961, had never been seriously challenged. Over the following thirty-three seasons only three players – Willie Mays, George Foster, and Cecil Fielder – had hit more than 50, and none had hit more than 52.

  • Gary Hoenig talks about the 1998 home run chase.
  • Selena Roberts talks about sportswriters rationalizing away the home runs

Gary Hoenig talks about the 1998 home run chase.

Selena Roberts talks about sportswriters rationalizing away the home runs

Then something began to change. In 1992, all major leaguers had combined to hit just over 3,000 home runs. By 1996 the total was almost 5,000. Cleveland's moody slugger, Albert Belle, hit 50 in just 143 games in 1995, as well as becoming the first man since Stan Musial, nearly half-a-century earlier, to compile over a hundred extra-base hits in one season. In 1997, Ken Griffey, Jr., led the American League with 56 home runs.

Baseball fans and writers speculated that the ball had been "juiced" – a recurring point of contention since at least 1920 – or that all the home runs were due to the cozy dimensions of the new, nostalgia-driven ballparks. Others pointed to the promiscuous use of relief pitchers, or to modern fitness and training techniques. Whatever the reason, it seemed clear that someone would make a run on Maris's mark.

Mark McGwire

Mark McGwire Scott Rovak

Howard Bryant talks about the 1998 Baseball season

In 1998, Ken Griffey, Jr., Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa all had Maris in their sites, and their thrilling quest to break his record captivated the nation. By mid-season, Griffey started to fade, but McGwire and Sosa both kept hitting home runs at a blistering pace. They seemed to embody everything that was joyous, exciting, and wholesome about the game and by August, there were hordes of press and television reporters – not just from St. Louis and Chicago, but from Caracas and San Juan, New York and Tokyo and Santo Domingo – following both players around the country.

The increased scrutiny would have lasting consequences.

One of the new reporters assigned to the home-run chase was Steve Wilstein, a writer for the Associated Press. Wilstein had been covering stories on doping scandals in the Olympics for ten years, and in the daily scrum around Mark McGwire, he noticed a bottle of pills in the slugger's open locker labeled, "androstenedione."

Androstenedione

Androstenedione AP Photo/Ed Bailey

The American shot putter, Randy Barnes, won a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics, but was later banned for life after testing positive for androstenedione

The American shot putter, Randy Barnes, won a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics, but was later banned for life after testing positive for androstenedione Lutz Bongarts/Getty Images

Here was a potential monkey wrench to bring baseball's great good time to an end. Andro, as it was called, raised testosterone levels and would eventually be classified as an anabolic steroid. It was usually taken in conjunction with other more powerful steroids, and could help athletes increase muscle mass significantly. Could it be that it was the players, and not the ball, that was juiced? And what did that say about the integrity of the home-run race that had gripped the country?

Major-league baseball had no idea. Commissioner Bud Selig visited his local Milwaukee drug store in search of andro. Before he could ask, his pharmacist pointed to a nearby counter and said, ‘It's over there, Commissioner. And it's legal."

That androstenedione was legal was what everyone in baseball wanted to hear. Andro, it was true, had already been banned by the National Football League and the International Olympic Committee, and General Nutrition Center stores had pulled it from their shelves two months earlier, citing health concerns. Just a few weeks before Selig's trip to the drug store, Randy Barnes, a gold-medal-winning U.S. shotputter, had been barred from the Olympics for life for using andro.

If andro was a steroid, and steroids were illegal, then a huge cloud would descend upon baseball's thrilling home-run derby. But when was a steroid not a steroid? When it was a "dietary supplement." During a new wave of government deregulation, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah – the state where one-fifth of the country's booming, dietary supplement industry was based – had pushed through midnight legislation in 1994 that enabled the legal, over-the-counter sale of such diverse substances as paint stripper, bat excrement, toad venom, lamb placenta, ephedra – and andro – as supplements.

Selena Roberts talks about sportswriters feeling if they talked about Andro they were 'ruining the moment'

Gerald Early talks about how most fans didn't care about the steroids during the 1998 home run chase

Now, andro's legality became the fig leaf that everyone – the commissioner's office, the baseball owners, the Players' Association, the press, the fans, and Mark McGwire himself – would hide behind.

"Everybody that I know in the game of baseball uses the same stuff I use," shrugged McGwire – words that would return to haunt the game. "If somebody tells me that it's illegal and I shouldn't be taking it, I will stop."

The response of other baseball writers was not to investigate McGwire but to ostracize Wilstein, who was not a regular beat reporter. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa proclaimed that Wilstein had violated McGwire's privacy, and that as a punishment all AP reporters should be banned from major-league locker rooms for the rest of the season.

Wilstein and a few others continued to pursue the story of steroids in baseball. But for the most part, sportswriters were debating whether developing muscle mass really helped hitters at all, without informing themselves or their readers about the full extent of how juiced the game really was, or the damage that steroids could do – not just to professional baseball players but also to millions of young amateur athletes who increasingly felt the need to "bulk up" in order to compete, just like their heroes.

A few of Mark McGwire’s many admirers, 1998

A few of Mark McGwire’s many admirers, 1998 Ron Vesley

Meanwhile, fans and other players seemed unconcerned. Sales of andro exploded, and Major League Baseball promised to commission a study of the supplement in the off season.

The controversy faded away. McGwire and Sosa continued hitting home runs at a record-breaking clip and both eventually eclipsed Maris. Sosa finished the season with 66 home runs and became an international celebrity, while McGwire smashed an astonishing 70, and was hailed as a hero.

From THE TENTH INNING film script and the new chapter by Kevin Baker of Baseball: An Illustrated History.

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