Steroid use might not be as rampant as it once was in the MLB, but its impact on the game is nevertheless still felt to this day. Like the lingering black clouds of a past storm, details of the doping scandal are still fresh in the minds of baseball fans, such as the time Rafael Palmeiro appeared before United States Congress, wagging his finger and staunchly denying any involvement with performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). "I have never used steroids. Period," he said. "I don't know how to say it any more clear than that. Never." Of course, it turned out he had been using steroids. Then there was the time that three-time MVP Alex Rodriguez appeared on national television to deny the steroid allegations, only to later admit, once it had been revealed that he had failed a drug test in 2003, that he had in fact used them.
While these moments are etched in our memories, some details about the so-called "steroid era" may have been forgotten. Just in case, here's a reminder.
Here are 15 shocking things that you may not have known about the MLB’s “steroid era.”
15 Increase In Home Runs
When we say home runs went up in the late 1990s, we don’t mean they went up a little bit—we mean they shot up. In 1993, only five players had 40 or more home runs. Yet just three seasons later, during the peak of the steroid era, more than three times that many players (17 to be exact) had 40 or more long balls, and from 1996 to 2001, there were at least a dozen players each year in the 40 (or more) home run club.
In 1998, known juicers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa combined for 138 home runs in a season in which they both smashed the previous home run record, held by Roger Maris with 61, a record that had stood for nearly four decades and appeared unbeatable without a little chemical help. With their overinflated forearms and bulging biceps, McGwire and Sosa made Maris and Mantle look like little leaguers.
14 Steroids Saved Baseball
While often viewed as a blight on the game of baseball, rampant steroid use may have actually saved the sport. Thanks to the substantial increase in the number of home runs hit each year, fans filled up baseball stadiums around the league at a record rate. After all, the long ball is one of the most exciting things in sports. Even fair weather fans can appreciate it, which is why attendance went up in the late 90s, as fans came out to see Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, and other muscle bound sluggers park balls into the bleachers at an unprecedented rate.
Due in large part to the 1994 MLB strike, which lasted 232 days, interest in baseball in North America seemed to be at an all time low in the mid 90s, but thanks to the power spike due to steroids, attendance shot up in the late 90s, virtually saving the sport. As Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux put it in their famous Nike commercial, “Chicks dig the long ball.” Well, it turns out so does everyone else.
13 Canseco Claimed Upwards Of 85% Of MLB Was Juicing
In his tell all book, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big, former MVP and face of the steroid era Jose Canseco claimed that upwards of 85% of the league was taking performance-enhancing drugs. Think about that. If true—which, let’s face it, Canseco isn’t exactly the most credible source—that would mean that on any given 25-man roster, only 3 to 4 players would not have been on some form of performance-enhancing drug, which means that some of your favorite players, who you thought were clean, were in fact cheating.
Again, to be fair, Canseco isn’t exactly known as the paragon of honesty. For example, he once claimed to have run a 3.9 40-yard dash, which would make him the fastest person alive. So you need to take his claims with a grain of salt. That said, it is likely that there are many players, perhaps even some elite players, who took steroids and were never caught.
12 Number Of Players Named In Mitchell Report
While Canseco claimed that more than three quarters of the league were on steroids, which would equate to over 600 players in all of baseball, the Mitchell Report, a 21-month investigation into rampant steroid use in the MLB, named 89 players, both current and former. Far less than Canseco’s estimate, it was still a major shock to the baseball community, especially considering how it named elite players, such as: Miguel Tejada, Eric Gagne, Andy Pettitte, and Roger Clemens. Also implicated in the report due to their association with Victor Conte’s BALCO were Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, and current home run king Barry Bonds.
Many of the players named in the report have since admitted their involvement with steroids, but others, most notably Barry Bonds, to this day adamantly deny ever taking performance-enhancing drugs. Guilty or not, the Mitchell Report created an air of suspicion around the league, as just about every player who packed on a few pounds or hit a few extra home runs was labeled a potential steroid user by baseball fans.
11 Biggest Sports Story Of The Decade
The MLB steroids scandal was so big that Sports Illustrated called it the number one sports story of the 2000s, beating out the news of Tiger Woods’s infidelity, “spygate,” and the rise/fall/rise of Kobe Bryant. And for good reason. Never before had there been such a widespread scandal in professional sports.
It wasn’t just a case of a few bad apples; it was the entire league. Every major league team has at least some association with steroids. Some of the greatest names in the sport (Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodgriguez, Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, etc.) have been implicated or outright busted for steroid use, prompting the league to reevaluate its drug testing policy in an effort to clean up its image.
10 First MLB Player Banned For Life For PEDs
While most people think of big names like Alex Rodriguez or Manny Ramirez when it comes to steroid related suspensions, likely very few know the name of the first player to ever be suspended by Major League Baseball for steroids: Jenrry Mejia. Mejia, a Dominican pitcher, played for the New York Mets between 2010 and 2015, compiling a 3.83 ERA with 28 saves. He received his first suspension in 2015 and was forced to sit out the first 80 games of the season. But before he had even served the suspension he tested positive for steroids a second time, landing him a full season suspension. Not long after that he tested positive yet again, which, according to the league’s new suspension policy, resulted in a lifetime ban from the MLB.
9 Number Of Players Suspended
So far, Jenrry Mejia is the only MLB player banned for life for using PEDs, but he’s far from the only player to have received a suspension. Since Bud Selig and Major League Baseball announced their new drug policy in 2004, a total of 59 big leaguers have been suspended for testing positive for some form of performance-enhancing drug.
Even though the league has attempted to crack down on cheaters, players continue to test positive. This season alone nine players have been suspended, including last year’s NL batting champion, Dee Gordon, and 38-year-old veteran Marlon Byrd, who’s positive test was his second, which likely means that his career is over.
Doping isn’t just an issue in the MLB. In fact, it’s perhaps even more prominent an issue in the minors, as aspiring major leaguers look for something to help them get a leg up on the competition and make the final push to the big leagues.
8 Rafael Palmeiro Was Booed So Bad He Had To Wear Earplugs
When the Mitchell Report was released, players who were once revered around the league and adored by baseball fans were suddenly being treated like pariahs. One of those players was Rafael Palmeiro. Before news of his steroid use, Palmeiro, who was nearing the end of an illustrious career, was hailed as one of the greatest power hitters of all time. And with over 3,000 career hits and 500 career home runs, he was a shoe-in for a spot in the Hall of Fame. But after he was suspended in 2005 for a positive test result, which landed him a 10-game suspension under the league’s much more lenient policy at the time, he was reviled by most baseball fans. It wasn’t just that he tested positive for steroids; it was that he blatantly lied about it, appearing before Congress and adamantly claiming to have never used performance-enhancing drugs. Palmeiro was booed so badly on the road that he eventually resorted to wearing earplugs during games.
7 As Bonds’s Home Run Numbers Grew, So Did His Hat Size
We all know how Barry Bonds, the biggest name to ever come up in the doping scandal, put on substantial size from the beginning of his career to the end (just look at the side by side pictures of him with the Pirates and the Giants), reportedly going from a lean 185 lbs. to a bodybuilder-like 228 lbs., but did you also know that as his home run numbers grew, so too do his hat and shoe size?
In an effort to prove that Bonds had used human growth hormone (HGH), prosecutors in his perjury and obstruction of justice case sought to show, through the Giants clubhouse manager and a Nike employee, that the career and single season home run record holder had gone up in both hat and shoe size while with San Francisco.
6 MLB Now Claims To Be The Toughest On Drug Testing
Because of the blow that had been dealt to MLB’s reputation as a result of the doping scandal, Bud Selig implemented a much tougher drug testing policy. MLB now claims to have the toughest policy out of all of the major North American professional sports, moving ahead of the NFL in recent years through superior HGH and testosterone testing. The New York Times wrote of the league’s expansion of their testing program in 2013:
The expansion of the testing program allows Major League Baseball to again argue that it has moved ahead of the National Football League on the drug front and that it now has the toughest testing program of any of the professional sports leagues in North America. The N.F.L. has yet to test for H.G.H. and does not have a comparable testosterone test. In 2011, the N.F.L. and its players union said they had agreed to initiate blood testing for H.G.H., but since then the union has expressed reservations and no testing protocol has been established.
5 Not All Steroid Users Are Huge
One of the most common misconceptions about performance-enhancing drugs is that everyone who uses them is huge. This idea was propagated by the fact that the most well known figures of the steroid era (McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, and Canseco) gained considerable amounts of muscle as a result of their steroid use. That is, steroid use has become synonymous with muscles and home runs. But that’s not always the case.
Whenever a player comes back from the offseason with a few more inches to his chest, everyone confidently asserts, “Must be steroids.” But sudden growth isn’t always an indicator that a player is juicing. As we’ve learned from recent positive tests—such as Dee Gordon, who at roughly 160 lbs. is one of the slighter guys in the league—PED users come in all shapes and sizes (Bartolo Colon tested positive for PEDs, and while he is indeed huge, it’s safe to say that he’s not all muscle).
4 Not All Steroids Are Alike
Just as not all PED users are alike, not all PEDs are alike. To the uneducated fan, when they hear the word steroids they often think of human growth hormones, but that’s not the only performance-enhancing drug. In fact, there are over 70 substances on the MLB’s banned substances list under the steroids category, most of which are impossible to pronounce, such as dehydrochlormethyltestosterone (also known as Oral Turinabol), which Blue Jays first baseman Chris Colabello and Phillies rookie pitcher Daniel Stumpf both tested positive for this season.
While many steroids are geared toward increasing strength, some are used for speed or endurance. Not all players are looking to increase the amount of home runs they hit. Some simply want to be able to last an entire season without getting injured or feeling fatigued.
3 The First Person Suspended Under New Drug Testing Policy Was a Light-Hitting Speedster
When it comes to steroid suspensions, the first players that come to mind for most people are probably big home run hitters, but did you know that the first player who tested positive for PEDs under the league’s new drug policy was a light-hitting outfielder known for his speed and not his power?
In 2005, Alex Sanchez, who is listed at just 5’10” and 180 lbs., had the unfortunate distinction of receiving the first suspension under the newly adapted policy. A good contact hitter, Sanchez, who spent most of his brief career with the Brewers and Tigers, had just 6 home runs in 5 seasons in the big leagues.
Sanchez claimed to have unknowingly taken banned substances through over the counter nutritional supplements, an excuse, be it true or not, that would be used by dozens of players in the future, such as David Ortiz, who was allegedly among 100 players to have tested positive during spring training in 2003.
2 Steroids Are No Guarantee For Success
Some people think that a performance-enhancing drug is a magic pill (or injection) that instantly makes baseball players better. Fans therefore often dismiss a player’s accomplishments if they suspect that he took steroids. And while it’s true that PEDs are capable of giving a player a boost, they are no guarantee for success. In other words, PEDs alone are not enough to make a baseball player hit more home runs, steal more bases, or strike out more batters. Baseball, like any other sport (and maybe even more so than other sports) requires skill and plenty of practice. No one’s arguing that steroids had nothing to do with McGwire’s 70-homer campaign or Bonds’s late career boost, but it’s not like they didn’t also spend hours in the batting cage working on their swings. There might be a drug that makes you stronger, but there isn’t one that specifically helps you hit home runs.
For some players, performance-enhancing drugs did little to enhance their performance. For example, four-time all-star second baseman Chuck Knoblauch said that not only did HGH not help him, but he had the worst seasons of his career after taking it.
1 Polls Suggest That Fans DO Care If Players Take Steroids (Or At Least They Used To)
There’s an ongoing debate amongst baseball fans as to whether or not the use of steroids should be considered cheating. Some argue that it gives players an unfair advantage, and therefore anything they accomplish while on PEDs should not count in the record books (there is talk of putting an asterisk next to Barry Bonds’s home run records); yet others see no harm in the use of PEDs and argue that steroids themselves cannot make a player hit home runs.
Comedian Daniel Tosh once joked that baseball needs steroids because it makes the game more entertaining. He was being facetious, of course, but there’s at least some validity to his argument, as proven by the rise in attendance during the steroid era.
Whatever your feelings may be about the issue, polls have suggested that baseball fans do in fact care whether or not players use performance-enhancing drugs. According to a 2009 New York Times poll, 60% of those surveyed said that they care “a lot” if players use PEDs, while only 9% said it didn’t matter at all to them. However, a more recent poll conducted by NPR suggests that with time fans may be changing their minds about the issue, as more than half of those surveyed said the allegations of baseball players using PEDs did not affect their thinking about the sport.