A day after the Hall of Fame balloting was announced, the author of “Juiced’’ took to Twitter to denounce the results that denied entry to some of his contemporaries from the generation of hormonal overload. Despite his contributions to the literature of the game, Jose Canseco has not been granted a BBWAA card, so he can only critique, not work for reform from within.
“Mlb should bow down to mark McGwire and sammy Sosa and others from that era who made the game exciting and great,’’ the Great Truth Teller wrote, borrowing from a theme popular among moral relativists on this matter.
Rarely one to skirt the outer edge of hyperbole, Canseco tiptoed around the most extreme version of this narrative. He did not bring out the line about Sosa and McGwire’s 1998 home-run chase saving the game from its post-strike malaise and replenishing its coffers with chemically enhanced attendance and viewership. This was always a theory without a foundation.
It sounded good, but the numbers reveal it to be another round of hollow myth-making by people who specialize in the field. Over the years, even as narrative-busting became a sport within the sport, very few people have challenged this shibboleth.
The surface facts show that baseball’s overall attendance hit a record that year, rising to 70,601,147 from 62,899,062 in 1997 and hitting the 70 million mark for the only time since the pre-strike season of 1993. The problem is that those numbers were juiced by the arrival of expansion teams in Arizona and Tampa, which contributed 6.1 million of the 7.7 additional turnstile ticks. The remaining 1.6 million were lower than the increase between 1996 and 1997, when attendance rose by 2.8 million. Between 1998 and 1999, when a saved game should have seen a healthy spike in attendance, especially since the early ’98 ticket buyers did not know a revolution was incubating, the figure dropped by a half-million.
In 2000 and 2001, the game saw a slight uptick, to 72.7 million and 72.5 million. The increase from 1999 was still lower than the one in 1997, and most of it was attributable to the Giants’ move into their new park. (Mythology holds that the place was built by Barry Bonds, but it seems more likely that the Giants’ agreement not to mooch off the tax base carried the election that green-lighted their project.)
The brief spell when McGwire matched and passed Roger Maris brought some fat TV ratings, but they had no carryover effect whatsoever. The World Series of 1998, which matched the Yankees and the Padres, turned in lower per-game numbers than the series between the Marlins and Indians in 1997. A year later, L. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated wrote a strong piece detailing MLB’s inability to spin the home-run hysteria into perpetual gold. He pointed out that the Fox national ratings had dropped 3 percent by late September 1999 and that ESPN’s numbers dipped as it fought with MLB for the right to move Sunday night games to ESPN2 in deference to the sport that really took flight in this period – the NFL.
A few others weighed in on this tale, including David Leonhardt of the New York Times two weeks after McGwire, Sosa and Canseco paid their historic visit to Capitol Hill. For the most part, though, the windy rhetoric did not cease.
The fact is, until the hearings parodied the heroic tale by bringing us a willful amnesiac McGwire and a suddenly monolingual Sosa, MLB happily touted them as saviors. So if the revisionists wish to charge baseball with riding PED coattails to a financial rebirth, it’s safe to say that the intent was there, but not the results.