Last night’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game was the keystone of shortstop Derek Jeter’s season-long retirement celebration. As things tend to go in the sports media coverage of Derek Jeter, it was a bit over the top. Yet, nowhere among all the plaudits did anyone see fit to mention that Jeter is the last active superstar of the Steroids Era.
From roughly 1995 to 2003, Major League Baseball experienced the scandal of a great number of players using anabolic steroids, human growth hormone (HGH), amphetamines, and other performing enhancing drugs (PEDs). The fact of the matter is that if a ballplayer played during this era, the odds are statistically in favor of him having used PEDs. Some used PEDs when they were on the bubble of making it on a major league roster. Some used them to recover from injury. Some used them in their “walk years” to try to get a favorable contract as a free agent. Some used them once and then never again. Some built their careers around them.
The peak of Derek Jeter’s career coincided with the Steroid Era. While he’s never tested positive for PEDs, the rosters of his team from that era are riddled with known users. The win-at-all-costs owner of Jeter’s team sought out the top superstars of the time, many of whom were later documented as PED users such as Gary Sheffield, Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Jeremy Giambi, and Alex Rodriguez. With a line-up of juicers, Jeter’s team won 4 out 5 World Series Championships. PED use spread through Major League Baseball and entire teams instructed their players in their use in order to compete.
And yet with PED use so widespread, we are told by the sports media that Jeter never touched the stuff. Even with the rest of the team juiced up and pressuring their teammates not to play “naked,” Jeter maintained a superhuman virtue. Of course, his virtue was not strong enough for him to speak out against PED use and inspire his fellow players to play clean. And even if Jeter did play clean during this era, he still benefited from his teammates using them. How many times did he come to base with runners on base who would not have been there if they’d played clean? How many of Jeter’s career hits came against mediocre relievers because the starting pitcher was knocked out the game after struggling against a lineup of juicers?
My point here is not to condemn Jeter. Even if one filters through the glurge written about him, he appears to be a decent player, and he’s a talented ballplayer for any era. If I were a Hall of Fame voter, he’d have my vote. The point here is to challenge the media narrative that has framed the Steroid Era as a few villainous players who cheated, while the virtuous Jeter stood above it all and still won. There are some players for whom the evidence that they used PEDs is as circumstantial as that which I outlined for Jeter (such as Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza), but sportswriters are attempting to punish them retroactively by not voting them into the Hall of Fame and otherwise sullying their reputations. Nowhere in the Jeter versus the bad guys narrative is there any acknowledgment of the complicity of baseball team management, the sports media, and the fans. And Jeter himself who would have to have known what was going on, and as I noted above, benefited from PED use regardless of whether he used them or not. The scandal is not that a few players cheated, but that all of baseball allowed the rise of PEDs because they desired bigger, better, faster superstar baseball players.
It’s interesting to note that in the decade since Major League Baseball instituted more stringent restrictions on PEDS, we’ve seen the decline of the superstar ballplayer common during the Steroid Era. Many teams now try a model of finding many players with complimentary skills and abilities to build a team (the “Moneyball” approach) as opposed to building around a slugger and a power pitcher, at least those that have won the World Series. Boston won with a “bunch of idiots” and more recently with a group of mid-level free agent signings added to players rebounding from injury. San Francisco won 2 out of 3 years with a team of “misfits and castoffs.” The Cardinals maintain a top-shelf team year in, year out while remaining largely anonymous. They did have superstar slugger Albert Pujols, but continue to win without him.
Perhaps as we say farewell to Derek Jeter, we can also say goodbye to the the Steroid Era and its cult of bigger, better, faster. Perhaps now we admire someone for being a great ballplayer without having to pile on the plaudits (or when a human being inevitably fails, the insults). Perhaps we will be able to enjoy baseball not as a display of exemplary individuals but as a game played by a team (even at an All-Star Game). That is my hope going forward as we can finally close the door on the Steroids Era.