(WTNH)–It was the summer of 2001, and baseball was on fire.
Ballparks across the country were packed, TV ratings were sky-high, and the game was the first thing on every sports fan’s mind. The single season home run record had already been obliterated, broken three times, and was on its way to being smashed again.
The Seattle Mariners were in the middle of winning a record-tying 116 games, the New York Yankees were about to rally their devastated city in the aftermath of September 11, and the World Series was about to end on a game-winning hit in Game 7 by Luis Gonzalez.
In a video essay after the season, ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian described how the game had never been in a better place.
Offensive records had fallen on an almost nightly basis, maybe best exemplified by Fernado Tatis’ ridiculous two grand slams in one inning in 1999.
Players were swollen up like helium balloons, looking like real-life versions of Popeye, wads of chewing tobacco replacing the cartoon pipe. Home runs were flying out of the ballpark at a disquieting rate, and video game stats would have to be adjusted for inflation. (I think a juiced-up Kels Dayton Jr. finished with 83 homers and 185 RBI for the Rockies in All-Star Baseball ’02).
Idiot sports writers were wondering if the baseballs were juiced, when it probably should have been clear to any normal, non-tree-trunk-for-forearms-having person that, in fact, the players were.
It was crazy. But it was a lot of fun.
Imagine a league in which mediocre players rise up to do things only Hall of Famers had ever done before. Shawn Green hit 47 home runs in 2001. Richie Sexson hit 45. Hell, Luis Gonzalez hit 57.
Bret Boone was like the second coming of Honus Wagner, bashing 37 home runs and racking up 141 RBI. He finished fourth in the league, well behind Sammy Sosa (160).
In 2001, Larry Walker and Ichiro both hit .350. The top 10 hitters in baseball finished better than .330, and the next six were above .325. And how’s this for a crazy stat: In 2001, 56 players hit at least .300. In 2015, eight guys did.
The game was so much fun then that you almost couldn’t contain your excitement. I can’t tell you how many times I went outside to play Wiffle ball, bashing home runs over our white picket fence every three at-bats, trying to keep my made-up games realistic.
Yes, football was popular then, and it would be on the verge of entering its own glory era thanks to a massive increase in offense. Basketball had been arguably the nation’s most popular sport in the ’90s, when Michael Jordan dominated the sports and popular culture landscape, but after he retired in 1998, the NBA would enter a dark age that it has only recently rebounded from.
But from April to October (yes, even in the middle of football season), baseball was king. It was the one thing that unfailingly connected generations of fans and started arguments at summer cookouts between family members who rooted for rival teams (I’m talking to you, Uncle Jeff and Uncle Brian!)
Sure, the steroid era presented some major problems, not the least of which was the metaphorical match it took to the sport’s sacred record book. When it was discovered that Barry Bonds had cheated his way to 73 and 7-hundred-whatever-he-has homers (which everyone knew he had done even as he was smashing balls into McCovey Cove), it was a national outrage.
How dare he deface the record book by rendering the venerable Hank Aaron’s hard-earned record obsolete? Throw in the ridiculous racism Aaron had to overcome in beating the Babe, and it’s almost unforgivable. In fact, it is. I hate Barry Bonds to this day.
Of course, the biggest reason the steroid era had to come to an end was the effect it was having on kids. High schoolers had to choose between using and getting looks from major league teams, or not using and heading to community college. It was a horrible example for our youth, and it was becoming a national health crisis.
Something had to be done.
Admirably, commissioner Bud Selig took steps to clean up the game. Players’ biceps shrunk back to relatable levels, balls started dying at the warning track instead of careening off statues of Hall of Famers in the concourse, and games went from 13-8 to 4-2.
Today’s game is still a lot of fun to watch, as pitchers like Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta are historically unhittable. Stars like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are cleaner and more relatable, and it’s nice that every ERA isn’t hovering above 4.00.
But baseball was at its best–and most popular–when guys were bombing balls over the fence and no-name players became instant legends.
Maybe the game’s offensive explosion was a case of too much, too fast, like the financial recklessness of the Roaring ’20s. Maybe it was always destined to fall into its Great Depression, which came as games got longer and more boring, and pitching started dominating too much.
From 1990-2007, there were 39 no-hitters. In the nine years since, there have been 39. Home runs are up this year, which is great, but so are strikeouts. There isn’t the same juice swinging those wood bats.
The competitive balance is certainly better now. I love the fact that the Kansas City Royals are the defending World Series champions, the Pittsburgh Pirates have made the playoffs in three straight years, and nearly every team in the league doesn’t have to go back too far to remember the last time they were relevant (sorry, Mariners fans).
But the players aren’t superhuman anymore. They aren’t cartoonish. As distasteful as this is to say, it’s not quite as much fun.
Baseball has fallen far behind football and basketball in the national consciousness, to the point that some people think it’s going to end up behind soccer. God, we can’t let that happen.
This isn’t a plea to bring back steroids. They shouldn’t ever come back.
But there has to be a way to get some more offense into the game. To make it exciting, suspenseful, dramatic again. To make the pitcher-hitter confrontation skewed just a little bit more towards offense.
Maybe we should juice the baseballs. Move in the fences a little bit. Let Kevin Kiermaier hit 57 home runs.
Let’s go back to the steroid era, without the steroids.
Or maybe I should just start playing MVP Baseball 2004 again.