- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 13, 2002

Stomping out steroids in baseball is a noble cause, to be sure. But are the owners truly prepared for what will happen next? Are they ready for a quieter, less "SportsCenter"-ish game in which the homer into the Bay is replaced by the double into the gap? Can they sell that kind of entertainment and will Joe Sixpack embrace it? Or have the fans been spoiled by all the fireworks of the past decade? Will they find Retroball wanting?

Offense is a drug, the opiate of the masses. Put America on a methadone program of warning-track fly balls, and you're likely to see attendance drop even further. Granted, 86 percent of baseball fans favored testing for steroids in a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll. But don't forget, the country once went the way of Prohibition, too and how long did that last?

Let's take a trip back to 1989, the end of baseball's Age of Innocence, just to get a sense of what the future might hold. The major league home run champ that year was Kevin Mitchell with 47. Nobody else hit more than 36. (A pre-andro Mark McGwire swatted 33.) The National League batting average was .246. On the other hand, 11 players had 40 or more stolen bases led by Rickey Henderson's 77 and Felix Fermin laid down 32 sacrifice bunts.

Now let's look at last year's numbers. Barry Bonds hit 73 homers. Seven others smacked 47 or more. The NL batting average was .261 (15 points higher than in '89). On the other hand, only five players had 40 stolen bases led by Ichiro Suzuki's 56 and no one had more than 17 sacrifice bunts.

At the end of the '80s, you may recall, the game was coming through a period another period in which it had been accused of juicing the baseball. (Suspicion reached a peak in 1987, when Wade Boggs, previously a 190-pound weakling, knocked 24 out of the park.) And now we have charges from Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti that the players themselves are juiced. Is this a great game or what? Just think: At some point in the last decade, we've probably seen a guy on steroids hit a juiced baseball over the fence with a corked bat at Coors Field. Oh, to have been there.

Baseball statistics are so out of whack nowadays that Jim Thome, on pace to hit 50 home runs, didn't even make the AL All-Star team this year. And if people can't get excited about somebody with 26 dingers at the break, how excited are they going to get about somebody with 18 dingers at the break which could well be what's in store for the game once drug testing is instituted?

Baseball's biggest problem, as everyone knows, is its demographics. Its fan base is getting older and older. And testing doesn't figure to improve the situation. Geezers like me might not mind deflated power stats, but there's a whole generation of Americans, kids approaching adulthood, who have known nothing but "Going, going, gone" their entire lives. Baseball to them is merely an extension of the CD-ROMs they play.

But what if baseball becomes Just Baseball again? Will it be able to hold the interest of the younger set, or will they simply turn the channel? (The drag bunt can, after all, be a drag.)

I've been trying to come up with ways aside from the health issue, that is that testing for steroids will be good for baseball. Here's what I've managed so far:

1. There won't be nearly as many injuries from outfielders running into walls.

2. Teams will save money on balls, since there'll be fewer landing in the bleachers.

3. On charter flights, clubs won't have to worry about seating an equal number of steroid users on each side of the plane to balance the load.

4. When a player borrows a couple of aspirins from a teammate's locker, he'll know for sure they're aspirins.

5. Equipment men won't constantly be running out of XXL undershirts.

And that's about it, folks.

If what I'm predicting comes to pass, if testing for steroids causes baseball to lose even more of its following, I don't expect the owners to take it lying down. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me to see them move the Expos to the top of Mount McKinley where the ball would really carry.

Then, too, maybe it's time for metal bats Who knows where this could lead with Bud Selig and his merry men calling the shots?

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