Say it ain't so, BALCO. Perhaps baseball's steroid brouhaha hasn't quite reached the same innocence- shattering proportions as did the 1919 "Black Sox," when players accepted payoffs to throw the World Series. After that scandal broke, one wide-eyed boy, a famous story goes, cried out to Shoeless Joe Jackson: "Say it ain't so, Joe."
But today, leaks from a federal investigation into the alleged distribution of designer steroids by the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), a former player's tell-all book, and congressional hearings have cast suspicion on current and former star players. Many fans and commentators have begun to wonder whether their records should stand.
"As much as this opens yet another Pandora's box, I think all sports have the moral obligation to erase any records linked to banned or illegal performance-enhancing drugs," says Keith Strudler, a professor of sports communication at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "This goes beyond the simple concept of justice - which is clearly relative and impossible to guarantee - but is critical in maintaining the integrity of the game."
A whopping 86 percent of baseball fans said steroid use was either a serious problem or ruining the game, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll conducted last week. An ABC News/ESPN poll also last week found that 69 percent of baseball fans said the league had not done enough to prevent steroid use. As to whether players who used performance-enhancement drugs should remain in the record books, 59 percent said they should not.
Much of the suspicion has fallen on the league's premier home-run hitters and the records they set. Under tense and sometimes exasperated questioning in a US House hearing last week, former slugger Mark McGwire refused to say whether he had used performance-enhancing steroids or not. In his new book, former star Jose Canseco wrote that he and McGwire used to inject themselves with steroids.
On Tuesday, San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds announced he might sit out the season because of knee surgery, leaving some commentators to speculate that he might retire. Bonds was on track to break Hank Aaron's career record of 755 home runs, possibly this season. According to news reports of leaked testimony in the BALCO case, Bonds's alleged mistress said Bonds told her he knowingly used steroids.
More than any other, baseball is a sport of history and lore. Heroes of past eras are compared to those today, to the thousandth of a decimal point. To preserve this historical integrity, the big leagues have even banned such technological improvements as lighter aluminum bats. The same wood bats used today are much the same as those of 100 years ago.
Babe Ruth's record 60 home runs, set in 1927, stood for nearly four decades before Roger Maris broke it on the last day of the season in 1961, by a single home run. Maris's record stood for nearly another 40 years before McGwire obliterated it with 70 in 1998, the same year Sammy Sosa hit 66 home runs.
After that year, the legendary 60 home run mark, reached only twice in a century, was accomplished four more times, culminating in Bonds's record 73, set in 2001. Until then, Bonds had never hit 50.
But if such startling statistical promiscuity is an affront to the cherished integrity of baseball, many of those calling for these records to be wiped off the books are more concerned with the larger social impact of steroids.
"It is essential that we look at the collective sum of our actions today as they impact our youth," says John Eliot, a professor of performance psychology at Rice University in Houston. "With 10- and 14-year-old kids sticking needles in [themselves], and jeopardizing their well-being and longevity, we need to treat this issue with utmost urgency. In no uncertain terms we need to make statements that drug use is not only an unacceptable means to achievement, but it is a medical danger."
For this reason, Mr. Eliot believes not only should players who use steroid have their records taken away, but they should also face criminal charges.
The problem with erasing records, many point out, is the impossibility of determining every player who may have used steroids. Baseball has only recently begun a policy of testing - years after the glut of 60-home-run seasons - and only after the BALCO investigation brought pressure on the league.
"If records were stricken, there would be a problem in that records set by suspected but not proven steroid users would still stand, and I do think that only a few cases will be proven or confessed," says Paul Schoofs, an economics professor at Ripon College in Wisconsin. "I think that if it is proven that a baseball player knowingly used steroids or any other illegal performance-enhancing drugs, that player should be banned from future Hall of Fame selections."
Others have even suggested bringing back the infamous asterisk, which the commissioner of baseball, Ford Frick, attached to Roger Maris's home-run record, since he played in a season that had nine more games than Babe Ruth had. Most now consider "the asterisk" a pretentious attempt to preserve the integrity of baseball, and that it detracted from a genuinely historic accomplishment. But should new records by players proven to be enhanced by steroids or other similar substances now receive an asterisk?
"If [players] did do it, obviously, they should be reprimanded in a way and if you want to put the asterisk next to their name, I think that's fine," says David Wells, a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox. "But at the time they weren't testing for that."
Though most observers think baseball will never again attach an asterisk to a record, they point out that many of these players have already damaged their reputations irreparably.
"It doesn't matter if we catch all the bad guys," says Eliot. "It matters that we hold ourselves - for our children to see - to a higher standard of health, performance, and pursuit of excellence."