History shows baseball will bounce back

Baseball is no stranger to scandal and unsavory history.

One of its earliest superstars, Cap Anson, perpetuated a culture of fierce segregation that scarred the game for decades.

Another early great, "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, was one of eight Chicago White Sox who agreed with gamblers to take a dive in the 1919 World Series.

All-time hit leader Pete Rose can't enter the Hall of Fame because he bet on the sport. Some of the biggest stars of the 1980s became embroiled in cocaine trials. The 1994 World Series was lost to labor strife.

Always, baseball bounced back.

So it's little surprise that, after years of widespread steroid abuse were described in former Sen. George J. Mitchell's report on Thursday, many historians, economists and baseball men expect the game to survive and thrive.

Their optimism is countered by dire assessments from Congress and by former commissioner Fay Vincent, who believes that the integrity of all sports is in peril.

But those who predict a successful future needn't look far for evidence. Baseball has already lived under a steroid cloud for almost a decade but just experienced its most lucrative year ever, earning more than $6 billion in revenue.

Fans feel a greater intimacy with baseball than with other sports, said longtime sportswriter and commentator Frank Deford, and that means they're more wounded by its letdowns but also apt to forgive.

"It's this sense of family with the game," he said. "Sometimes, your family makes mistakes, but in the end, you love them just the same."

Drug scandals are harder on individual sports, he said, but baseball fans can always return to the teams and ballparks they love after the tainted players are gone.

"By June, this will all be in the background," Deford said. "After all, if fans were really upset, they wouldn't be packing the stands."

San Francisco-based historian Jules Tygiel has written about how segregation and other aspects of baseball's past fit into the broader culture. He agrees that baseball will roll on and, in fact, called steroids a lesser scandal than gambling, segregation and labor unrest.

"I think very little will change in the game's popularity," he said. "I suppose this has done some harm to the public image, but I'm not sure how much that means. Baseball recovered quickly from the Black Sox scandal. It's pretty resilient."

Baseball has yet to find the scandal that can lead to a true economic downturn, according to Forbes associate editor Kurt Badenhausen.

"At the end of the day, fans don't care about steroids when it comes to the teams they root for," he said. "People vilify [Barry] Bonds around the country, but in San Francisco, they've drawn 3 million a year. Maybe this devastates individual reputations and the legacy of [commissioner] Bud Selig, but the game's never been healthier."

Some who love the game take a darker view of the steroid issue. The problem is not endemic to baseball, said Vincent. Instead, it's a threat to our faith in all sports.

"It's a staggering problem," he said. "We can't have sports if we can't have level playing fields."

That's why Vincent wants Congress to go beyond hounding baseball and convene a "council of wise men" to consider the issue in its fullest scope.

Asked whether he believes paying customers will continue to look the other way, Vincent said, "I don't think it's possible for that to continue. You can't have a competition where the public thinks it's not fair."

More than any other sport, baseball relies on statistics and records for its vitality. Those who see steroids as a major threat focus on the fact that no one knows what to make of the numbers posted in the past 15 years. Fans thought that Bonds was making a claim as the greatest player of all time and that Roger Clemens was doing the same among pitchers.

Does the fact that both were prominent characters in the Mitchell report wipe that out? Does it mean that a whole generation of fans will grow up disconcerted?

Tygiel suspects that questions of statistical legitimacy will linger beyond other aspects of the steroid scandals.

"But I think you have to accept that all records are products of the eras in which they were produced," he said. "These are the conditions under which baseball was played in the 1990s. You can't just wipe it out."

Eventually, he believes, arguments over how to interpret the numbers will become part of the game's mythology, like debates over who was the greater power hitter: Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron?

Among past stains, segregation might be most similar in how it damaged historical integrity. No one will ever know whether Negro League outfielder Oscar Charleston was better than Ty Cobb (as observers of all races suggested.) No one will ever know whether Josh Gibson could have hit as many homers from the right side as Ruth hit from the left.

But segregation didn't unfold in the same way. Given that it was a cultural norm in much of the country, it didn't feel scandalous to many fans until they and their children looked back.

It was also wiped away more decisively. After Jackie Robinson's debut in 1947, other black stars followed in greater and greater numbers. The subsequent focus has been on the courage and power of their entry rather than on the pain of exclusion.

By contrast, it's not clear that with drug testing in place, players have stopped using performance-enhancing drugs. In fact, many experienced watchdogs believe that players have already moved to less detectable substances and will continue to do so in perpetuity. It might not be a problem that can be relegated to the past as segregation was.

In other respects, the steroid scandal more closely resembles gambling. The Black Sox scandal of 1919 was the culmination of an era in which a few unsavory stars, such as Hal Chase, maintained close connections to gamblers and were suspected of throwing games.

Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis' banishment of the eight players was supposed to be the hammer blow that drove such doubts from the sport. But like the Mitchell report with steroids, no revelation or punishment could completely kill the drive to gamble. Rose demonstrated that 75 years later.

"It is sort of similar in that it oozed out of a culture that had been in place for some time," Deford said in comparing gambling and steroids.

The pernicious effects are also similar, in that it's hard to trust the results when some athletes are on drugs and some aren't.

"In a way, gambling is a little easier," Vincent said, "because I don't think little kids are going to be persuaded to use gambling as a means to receive an education and earn a living."

For anyone looking to bury baseball, however, 1994 is instructive. The cancellation of the World Series left baseball's fan base about as gloomy as any in history. Attendance remained down for three seasons. But in 1998, fans packed the stands again as the chase for Roger Maris' home-run record took baseball to the covers of newspapers and national magazines.

That experience might look different now through steroid-tinted glasses, but it was a testament to the sport's resilience.

"Baseball," Deford concluded, "will be fine."