The Steroid Era is now cemented in baseball lore alongside the Dead Ball Era. The Dead Ball Era, notorious for a lack of offense, began in 1900 and ended in 1919 when the White Sox threw the World Series and Major League Baseball made a number of changes that favored offense. Baseball historians will inevitably compare famous Dead Ball stars like Joe Jackson and famous Steroid Era players like Barry Bonds not only to eachother but to the stars of the future. This is what baseball people do.
It’s important for baseball fans to best be able to understand when performance-enhancing drugs began to affect the game to a point where players were being overvalued. According to ESPN’s Dan Patrick, “More than any other sport, baseball is numbers-driven. Fans relish numbers, and if they're tainted, there's a sense of consumer fraud.” Fans who followed the game in the 1990s will take the era with a proportionate grain of salt. But for generations to come, any analysis of the Steroid Era will help them better understand everyone’s place in the game.
The initial reaction is to presume the Steroid Era began in 1988, when Jose Canseco used steroids to become the game's first player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases en route to the Most Valuable Player Award. This was such a noteworthy event, and since Canseco has become the poster boy for steroids (apologies to Bonds, Giambi and McGwire), it will be easiest to look back at that year as the beginning of the era. It's hard to argue that Canseco in and of himelf is enough to warrant marking the beginning of a tainted era, but from a historical/statistical standpoint it isn't accurate. Sure drugs were affecting the game at that point but even Canseco admits not many players were using at that time. I imagine drug use prior to 1992 was on par with what it will be in the future. There was no testing then, but the drugs were less sophisticated, there were fewer of them, and there were fewer experts to advise athletes on how to take them; this may be similar to a decent testing program and the widely available drugs of today. This is not to say we shouldn't investigate this time, but to group 1985-1991 into the Steroid Era wouldn't suit historians. For these reasons and a more detailed analysis below, this article is suggesting that the Steroid Era began in 1992 and ended (hopefully/presumably) in 2006. This is how it would look.
When did the steroid era start?There has been much discussion of players bulking up during the strike in 1994. In 1995 Albert Belle hit 50 home runs in what would be just the beginning of things to come. The following season, 1996, was maybe the most inflated offensive season ever.
But really, 1994 was the return of the 50-homer season, even though there were none.
There were six players on pace for 50 home runs in 1994 when the players went on strike. Those players, Matt Williams, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Barry Bonds and Albert Belle would have been the first players since 1990 when Cecil Fielder hit 51. To put things in perspective, besides Fielder, the only 50 home run season since Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle both topped the mark in 1961 was in 1977 when George Foster hit 52 for the Reds. That’s two 50 home run seasons in the 32 years following the 1961 season.
Of course there were fifteen 50 home run seasons between 1995 and 2002.
Operation Equine was an FBI investigation targeting anabolic steroid dealers that led to 70 trafficking convictions in the early 1990s. In 2005, FBI informants revealed that Curtis Wenzlaff, who had been arrested for steroid distribution in 1992, supplied steroids to Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire among others.
Jose Canseco was traded to the Texas Rangers on August 31, 1992. If you believe his story from his book, Juiced, Canseco began educating and systematically doping Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, and Ivan Rodriguez at this time. Canseco began using steroids in 1985 in double-A but even Canseco said steroid use was pretty rare then. For a guy in a hurry to reveal steroid users and detail the scope of steroid use, Canseco’s steroid accounts of others all are from 1992 or later.
There were surely players using steroids prior to 1992. Tom House’s admission that he and other players used steroids in the 1970s put things in perspective, but it was 1992 and 1993 when Canseco, McGwire, Palmeiro, Rodriguez, Gonzalez, and Lenny Dykstra were all implicated. 1990 might be a better guess as to when a lot of these guys started using performance-enhancing drugs, but 1992 was the beginning of hard evidence.
When did the steroid era end?Major League Baseball did its survey testing in 2003. Even though 96 players reportedly tested positive for a banned substance exceeding the 5% threshold set to kick in a full testing program in 2004, at the first hint of steroid control, the 50 home run season had vanished.
MLB instituted their first drug testing program in 2004 amid calls that it didn’t go nearly far enough. The penalty for a first offence (not including 2003) was counseling and further testing.
It wasn’t until 2005 that players faced a true threat. Any player failing an drug test would be suspended for 15 games and have their name revealed to the media. 12 players failed tests in 2005. Baseball called it a dramatic decline while the critics still maintained the program had giant loopholes and wasn’t severe enough.
In 2006 the suspension for a first offense increased to 50 games. Only one player, Colorado Rockies pitcher Yusaku Iriki failed a test.
As the BALCO and Jason Grimsley scandals played out in the news in 2005 and 2006, players had a new threat. BALCO documents revealed hGH was an important part of advanced steroid cocktails. Grimsley had been suspended for 50 games without ever testing positive. He admitted to IRS Special Agents that he had only used human growth hormone (hGH) since MLB instituted its testing policy in 2004. There is still no reliable test for hGH and no test in baseball at all. But thanks to the Grimsley sting specifically there is finally a serious public risk in using hGH. Players now know that government officials are tracking hGH supplies and clamping down on bogus prescriptions.
While statistics began normalizing in 2003, it’s hard to argue the steroid era was over without even the slightest deterrent from using hGH. Ryan Howard’s youth and David Ortiz’s consistency and belly will help them be interpreted favorably for their 2006 seasons, but the year began with the Grimsley story breaking and ended with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Miguel Tejada, Brian Roberts, and Jay Gibbons linked to ‘anabolic steroids’ or ‘athletic performance-enhancing drugs.’
2007 will be the first season with a full set of deterrents (though hugely flawed) and precedent to really curb drug use. If baseball can make it through a year with no more steroid scandals or super-human feats, fans and media should declare the era over. Drug use will be a part of every era from now on, but never again will it go unchecked.