How the Steroid Era Saved Baseball

We’d all like to just pretend baseball's Steroid Era never happened. Erase it from memory and move on. There’s one reason we shouldn’t. Steroids just might have saved baseball.

Jan 14, 2014 at 10:34AM

Craig Biggio fell just two votes short of Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame last week. In doing so, he became baseball's first member of the 3,000-hit club to require more than one ballot in 52 years.  Some say he's a shoo-in for eventual induction. But Biggio has one big factor working against him: His most successful years at the plate for the Houston Astros came during a stretch in baseball that many are trying to forget.

We're talking about the steroid era, the period from the late 1990s through the early 2000s when players were packing on the muscle unnaturally, balls were accordingly leaving parks at a much faster rate, and long-standing long-ball records were falling. Many baseball writers who vote on Hall candidates are dead-set on punishing cheaters, and fans don't seem to mind the sanctions. Let's face it, we'd all like to just pretend that the era never happened. Erase it from memory and move on.

Barry Bonds, the career home run leader at 762? Never heard of him. The great home run race of 1998? Never happened.

There's one reason we shouldn't. In fact, it's reason to think about extending that olive branch and letting those sluggers in the Hall.

Steroids just might have saved baseball.

The post-strike doldrums
Flash back to 1994. Major League Baseball's owners and players are unable to reach a deal for a new collective bargaining agreement. The players strike, and the season stops on Aug. 12. The two sides continue to toss proposals back and forth, but by Sept. 14, when no deal is reached, Commissioner Bud Selig cancels the rest of the season. No pennant races. No World Series.

Fans were fed up. They were angry at both sides. That National Pastime and all the joy of the Fall Classic had been snatched away. What's more, it was a year in which the Montreal Expos -- a club that had been to the postseason only once -- had the best record in baseball.  It was a year in which the Padres' Tony Gwynn had a chance to become the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams, and the Giants' Matt Williams was on pace to break Roger Maris' 33-year-old single-season home-run record.

What followed were some dark days for Major League Baseball. When play resumed in a shortened 1995 season, attendance, as compared to the full 1993 season, dropped by some 12% on a per-game basis across the league. And that was even while clubs kept ticket prices down. Fans still weren't showing up in 1996, when attendance was about 9% off the 1993 mark.

Then, things started to turn
But a trend emerged in 1996. Some 17 hitters had at least 40 home runs. In 1993, there were just five who hit that mark.
From 1996 to 2001, at least a dozen hitters belted 40 or more home runs each year, and those ranks include several names most fans probably do not remember.

In 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated fans in their battle to win the home-run race and pass that long-standing Maris record in the process. The two sluggers revived the rivalry the following season. And where McGwire left off, Barry Bonds picked up.

And baseball became popular again
From 1995 to 2001, the year Bonds eclipsed McGwire's home-run mark, attendance at games was up 44%. 
The average ticket price for a baseball game had gone from $10.65 to $18.99 -- a 78% increase. Major League Baseball revenue increased by some 115%.Americans hadn't just grudgingly taken baseball back into their lives, they had fallen back in love with it. America's pastime had been resurrected.

League revenue grew from $1.4 billion in 1995 to $3.7 billion in 2001.


MLB revenue (in billions)



1996 $1.8
1997 $2.1
1998 $2.5
1999 $2.8
2000 $3.4
2001 $3.7

That's a compound annual growth rate of 16.3%. That didn't quite match the growth of boom-era Microsoft, which grew at a rate of 24.4% over that stretch. But it wasn't bad for an enterprise that was well more than 100 years old.

What's more, the average value of an MLB franchise went from $115 million in 1995 to $286 million in 2001 -- an annual growth rate of 15.3%. 

Some of the biggest winners over that period were Barry Bonds' Giants, whose value grew at an annual rate of 18%, and Mike Piazza's Mets, whose value grew at 20.6% per year, on average.

There's not doubt about it -- baseball fans love the long ball. It's the reason teams are willing to ink long-term, big-money contracts with seemingly one-dimensional players. Home runs put people in the seats.

In baseball's darkest hours, home runs came to the rescue. They took a sport that many fans had turned their backs on, and made into one that people were watching again.

Is it time to stop looking the other way?
Like it or not, it did that with the help of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. The steroid era was a black eye for baseball on one hand, a savior on the other. High-level athletes are always going to do everything they can to get an edge, to beat the competition, and to extend their short careers. That includes physical and psychological training, diet, and supplementation.

The late '90s and early 2000s were a time when science seemed to offer the exact combination so many were looking for: a clear way to get an edge, and no clear way to get caught. Put that combination into any big-time professional sport, in any era, and you're going to see similar results.

This is something that won't go away, no matter how much we turn the other way. Bonds still owns those home-run marks, as well as seven league MVPs. Mike Piazza will still be the best offensive catcher in the game's history. And McGwire and Sosa will still have slugged it out in a home-run race that grabbed and held the nation's attention like baseball hadn't done in decades.

It's time that we acknowledge that while we don't feel good about being so excited to have watched steroid-fueled athletes break records, it was an important -- and indeed enthralling -- era of baseball. It just may have saved the sport.

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4 in 5 Americans Are Ignoring Buffett's Warning

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Jun 12, 2015 at 5:01PM

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David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Coca-Cola.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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