I used to be a baseball guy, a Major League Baseball fan, until I wasn’t. And it wasn’t the 1994-1995 strike either, as it was for so many of my friends. I was a long-suffering Atlanta Braves fan, and the Braves were in the World Series four out of six years in that era. I was then glued to the McGwire v Sosa v Maris run. I attended the 8/30/1998 game against Atlanta in which McGwire hit #55. I remember feeling torn, because he hit one off my team, but I felt a part of history. If he broke Maris’ record, I rationalized, I could always say I attended #55. No, from about 1985 to about 1998, I was a huge baseball fan.
Something happened shortly after the strike that conspiracy theorists believe helped Major League Baseball regain popularity. Some suggest the steroid era loosely existed between the late eighties to the late 2000’s, but most baseball fans would suggest that it only became an issue requiring attention between 1997 and 2000. Some diehard baseball fans suspected that something was amiss early on. Something intangible and tangible changed about the game. It was no longer a secret, but many in my inner circle of MLB diehards chose to deny it was happening.
I don’t remember ever considering the idea that an MLB player might take performing-enhancement drugs a moral issue in a larger sense, but during the 1997-2000 run, Major League Baseball became Sega, Nintendo, or Playstation baseball. In just about every console’s baseball game of that era, the obsessed gamer found ways to artificially edit a player’s attributes to monstrous proportions, and we believe the upper echelon either encouraged such actions in Major League Baseball, or they turned a blind eye.
Some deniers argued that steroids can’t help a major leaguer see the ball better, and they don’t help a hitter turn his wrists quicker. Those arguments are true, but we argued that they could make an average major leaguer better, a good major leaguer can become great, and a great one can break every record on the books with steroids. The question of the era gradually shifted from why would they take steroids to why doesn’t every Major Leaguer do it? If everyone took steroids, it would level the playing field, right? Yes, until we measure their ability against past performance. The best argument against steroids I heard at the time was most barstool debates about baseball involve its storied history. Was Ty Cobb better than Babe Ruth? Was Ted Williams better than Joe DiMaggio, and has any modern star earned a mention in those debates? Other than some subtle changes involving spit balls and the height of the mound, the game largely remained consistent for over one hundred years, until the steroid era.
The question I always asked, in debates with agnostic and apathetic friends, was are Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Roger Clemens that much better than Roger Maris, Roberto Clemente, and Sandy Koufax? Statistically, it appears as though they were, but to level the playing field Maris, Clemente, Koufax we probably would need to go into a time machine and give them some steroids.
It was an era of “no one’s guilty, so everyone is” that stated “we all know that Greg Maddux and Ken Griffey Jr. are on the juice. Every Major Leaguer was.” I didn’t believe that. I thought some of those big names weren’t, and I held them in high regard for avoiding that temptation. I honored them for playing the game clean, but we were never sure who was clean and who wasn’t. Plus, if everyone else was on the juice, why wouldn’t they join in, to level the playing field? This question of the morality of taking steroids was such a confusing, complicated one that baseball fans debated it ad nauseam, and it led to a level of cynicism that ruined the core of the game for some of us.
On a separate but similar note, the NFL passing and receiving records are now an absolute joke. Whatever barstool chatter we once had, regarding the comparisons of one generation’s superstars versus another’s is so ridiculous now that I can’t imagine anyone is still having them. On the current, NFL’s all-time passing yards list, Joe Flacco and Kerry Collins surpassed a man that many, who saw him play, declare the greatest quarterback of all-time Johnny Unitas. Flacco and Collins are also ahead of Joe Montana, a quarterback who many of my generation bestow that crown. Flacco and Collins had fine careers, but those of us who saw them play never thought they would end up in the top 20, and no one imagined that they would boot Joe Cool and Johnny U out.
At one point, we can only guess, The NFL Rules Committee decided that their game is not a tradition-rich game in the vein of baseball, and they eviscerated the comparative-analysis barstool discussions for the now. With NFL ratings constantly topping previous years, it’s obvious The Rules Committee made the right choice, and the collective ‘we’ have determined that we want now too, and the who’s better now is the only discussion we can have, as it’s ridiculous now to debate the statistical merits of current players versus the past.
Writers and broadcasters state that Tom Brady’s highly disciplined regiment and diet are the reasons that he’s been able to have such a long career. That is a huge part of it, but no one asterisks that conversation with modern rules against a defense touching a quarterback outside legally designated areas. Couple that with the updated pass interference penalties, and the defenseless receiver penalties, and you open up the game, and make every passing record nonsense when compared to previous eras. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning compiled impressive stats throughout their respective careers, but were they that much better than Joe Montana and John Elway, Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach, or Jonny Unitas and Sonny Jurgensen? The NFL game is so different now that you just can’t compare different eras in true side-by-side comparisons, without adding five asterisks at the very least.
Thanks to those rule changes, Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton’s records will never be threatened, because very few teams run anymore, except to throw the defense off. Why would you run? I’ve read well-researched articles stating even running to throw the defense off is a waste of time. I disagree with those articles, but I wouldn’t say they’re ridiculous.
Lynn Swann played in an era when cornerbacks, safeties, and linebackers could maul a player at the line and rough them up throughout their route, and no receiver who valued their career went over the middle. Due to the rules at the time, Swann could only play nine years, and his opportunities to catch the ball often occurred only on third down. To catch Shannon Sharpe at #50 on the list of most receiving yards of all time, Swann would’ve had to double his career total. The NFL rules tightened up on that during Rice’s era, but they became ridiculous during Megatron’s and Julio’s current era.
I’m a fan of NFL teams, but for some reason individual players ruin teams for me. I loosely cheered on the Packers for much of my life, but I really enjoyed the Brett Favre era. Favre was confident/brash/arrogant, but I loved it. The same characteristics could be applied to Aaron Rodgers, but I dislike him for his play on the field, and I’ve disliked him for as long as he’s played. It has absolutely nothing to do with anything else he’s done. I loosely cheered on the Matt Hasselbeck-led Seahawks, but I can’t stand Russell Wilson or Pete Carroll. My fickle nature is not based on winning or losing either. I liked Tom Brady and Peyton Manning throughout their careers, but I couldn’t stand Terry Bradshaw or Joe Montana. I also liked Ben Rothlisberger and Steve Young, so my preferences are not team specific either. Every time I think I’m above the soap opera of the NFL, then I go about disliking some players for no clearly defined reasons.
As hard as I’ve tried to force myself to like hockey, I just can’t. I appreciate how grueling it is, and I respect the idea of how much mastery the game requires. I respect the idea that it might be one of the toughest sports to master, and how those playing it might be some of the toughest athletes in all of sports, but I just can’t force myself to enjoy a match.
Magic v Bird was my entry point into the NBA. I followed the NBA loosely before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were drafted, but I don’t remember ever sitting down and watching a game tip to :00. I knew of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. J before Magic v Bird, but Magic v Bird was the beginning of the NBA as far as I was concerned. I watched their regular season matches with mild amusement, but their Finals’ matches were must-see-TV for me.
Save for some Bad Boy years, a disruptor became the game in the form of Michael Jordan. I watched Magic v Bird from the comfort of my home, but Michael Jordan in the Finals was an event that required get-togethers, on par with crucial Cornhusker games and Super Bowls. The roles reversed and the Bad Boys, the Knicks, and Magic v Bird became the disruptors, or the side show. Every male and female I knew during that era loved or hated Michael or Jordan. Few called him Michael Jordan, and no one, other than a few announcers, called him Mike. He attained the one-name status previously enjoyed only by entertainers like Cher or Madonna. Just about every male I knew wore something with his iconic image on it, or they dribbled a basketball with his name on it, while sticking their tongue out.
After Michael left the game, I gravitated to Chris Webber and the Kings v Lakers, but it just wasn’t the same. I also held on, somewhat, to watch Tim Duncan and the Spurs team game, then Chauncey and his defensive Detroit Pistons, but the epitaph for my love of the NBA was Game 6, 2002.