Glenn Dickey: Baseball cheated long before steroids

Mark McGwire’s dismal showing in the Hall of Fame voting was obviously due to his link with steroids. In the NFL, San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman was suspended for four games because of substance abuse, almost certainly steroids, yet nobody seemed to care. And Merriman made the Pro Bowl.

On the surface, this difference in attitude towards steroids use in the two sports makes no sense.

If anything, steroids use is more important in football — for linemen, on either side of the ball, and linebackers because strength is so important.

The importance of steroids use in baseball is more problematic. It didn’t help either Marvin Benard or Alex Sanchez.

But there’s an emotional issue that is important, because fans view the two sports differently. Many of them formed a mythical view of baseball when they were 12, and they don’t want to let go of that view.

It isn’t just fans, either. I had a couple of conversations near the end of last year with two reporters whom I respect thatreminded me how fiercely many in the media hang on to this mythical view, especially when the subject is Barry Bonds.

A radio sportscaster at a Big Game press luncheon told me Bonds should not be in the Hall of Fame because he “desecrated” the sport.

Desecrated? Baseball is a game, a form of entertainment, a business. It is not a religion — but clearly, to this man, it is.

The second conversation was with a female sportswriter at the Fox Sports Bay Area Christmas party. I noted that Bonds had had a Hall of Fame career before 2000. “But then, he cheated,” the sportswriter said.

Cheated? Baseball has long supported a culture of cheating. Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of Fame because he used an illegal pitch, the spitter, and admitted it in a book on his career. I saw Perry at the start of his career with the Giants and he was probably no more than a year from washing out of the game before Bob Shaw taught him how to throw the spitter.

There are other pitchers from the post-World War II era who were believed to have thrown spitters or other illegal pitches, including another Hall of Famer, Whitey Ford.

There are hitters, most recently Sammy Sosa, who have been caught using corked bats. Sign-stealing has been an admired skill over the decades; there is one story that Bobby Thomson was tipped off before he hit the home run that won the 1951 playoff for the New York Giants. Groundskeepers have altered the diamond, slanting the basepaths one direction or another to either help bunts by their team to stay fair or encourage those by the other team to go foul.

Yet, even with this evidence from the past, those who want to hold on to the mythical image of a pure game are enraged by steroid use. (Even though there are many other factors involved in the power surge, including new, hitter-friendly parks and expansion.) A report the other day said the 1998 baseballs, which McGwire hit for athen-record 70 home runs, were juiced.

But, to those clinging to the mythical image, it is all about steroids.

As for me, I will vote for Barry Bonds for the Hall of Fame, because he is emphatically deserving.

I’m no longer 12 years old.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on E-mail him at

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