Mark McGwire admitted to using steroids during part of his career, including his happy-magic 1998 season when he and Sammy Sosa restored our faith in America. Reaction has run the gamut from derision to contempt. Not much of a gamut, you say. Well, ok.
Many people don't know, or ignore, that using steroids wasn't against the rules of baseball until a few years ago; the ones who do know that tend to consider the fact a hypertechnicality.* I don't begrudge anybody those kinds of opinions, I suppose. McGwire was an adult human when he shot up and had a choice. He made the one he thought would help him hit more homers and make him more money, and not for nothing, it does seem to have worked out the way he expected. If I seem to have sympathy for him as the dogpile grows, it's really just my inborn sense of justice.
*In a sense, they're right: The illegality of it involved taking prescription drugs without a prescription, which baseball could have punished, provided it could get the union on board with a testing regimen to prove it; it never tried, mostly because the juice was helping fill stadiums and making people learn to love the game again. But on.
I have a hard time making a qualitative distinction between performance enhancing drugs and things like advanced training methods, routinely performed surgical procedures that weren't even imagined 50 or even 25 years ago, and even the kind of data and information sharing players and teams avail themselves of now that players 50 and 25 years ago didn't have access to. When you can study hours of video on a pitcher before you face him, are you "cheating"? No, and the reason why not, to me, applies equally to performance enhancing drugs that weren't against the rules when taken.
That being said, I have no problem making steroids and similar performance enhancing drugs against the rules, as a consumer of baseball games. I want the most talented baseball players to pursue baseball careers. If some were to decide not to pursue baseball careers because it's difficult to compete with steroid users without using yourself, based on a completely understandable aversion to long-term side effects, then the product I consume wouldn't be as enjoyable. I don't think there's a parallel there to intense training, injury repair and video scouting.
But baseball didn't make steroids and similar performance enhancers against the rules until Congress leaned on them. Like McGwire, the people running the sport had a choice, and they chose the happy-magic of assaults on home run records. I am also quite sure, admittedly without proof, that many beat writers who had access to Major League locker rooms knew exactly what was going on but saved their hand-wringing features about the stain of steroids on the game till after the cat was out of the bag. Another choice: Don't rock the boat or you might lose access to players and front offices. Fine, but you'll pardon me if I don't lap up your newfound indignation now.
So, right, statistics, awards, the outcomes of games, seasons and Series were all influenced by what is likely to have been a widespread use of performance enhancers during what's being called the "steroid era" in baseball. I doubt the people who want to discount or disregard parts of that era want to discount Babe Ruth's career because he didn't face African American players or Walter Johnson's because he pitched during the dead ball era. Far more likely, they are perfectly capable of evaluating performance in context. Why are they so unsure that they or anybody else will have trouble putting Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens in similar context?
UPDATE: Joe Posnanski FTW.