False Saviors

Despite PED revisionist theories, Sosa and McGwire did not increase MLB attendance.  (Getty Images)

Despite PED revisionist theories, Sosa and McGwire did not increase MLB attendance. (Getty Images)

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.

5 thoughts on “False Saviors

  1. I believe attendance in St Louis increased when McGwire came. Even when the team was out of the playoff race, people came to watch him. At the games, everyone planned their concession and restroom breaks around his at bats. He even had a portion of Interstate-70 named after him. Crowds at Busch Stadium changed significantly from the early to late nineties. This was directly related to McGwire’s arrival.

  2. Its not a so-called ‘revisionist theory’ at all. The apparent conclusion that both McGwire and Sosa supposedly ‘saved’ baseball with their epic run at the Maris home-run record in 1998 has been with us in the media and even fan consciousness ever since that year itself, when the myth was actually fostered! It was always more psychological than factually based. It was perhaps un-intentionally a blessing, being a circumstance that took peoples attention finally off of the lingering aftershocks of the 1994-1995 strike and cancellation of th ’94 Worlds Series. There was also not even really an actual steroid scandal on the horizon yet then either, for all practical purposes, other than a few town criers whistling in the wind about rumors from within MLB locker-rooms. The truth remains that baseball regained its inherent popularity and, once again, has proven the maxim that nothing can ever likely really kill it…neither PEDs, gambling or any other real or imagined scandal!

    • Sorry to come back so soon, ;). But, I actually left out another important revivalist reason that baseball regained its popularity quickly and that was, of course, the fan excitement generated by the famed Cal Ripken Jr. pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s Ironman record in late 1995. So, the expansion era theory comeback explanation was pre-dated by not only the McGwire-Sosa homer chase summer of 1998 but also this even more immediately impactful cause for the uptick in MLB attendance coming in the years ahead…which would only grow, as well, due to the enlarging of the playoffs with divisional realignment in the same year of 1995, which added teams to the postseason and later expansion with another team to each league in ’98, as the author noted to generate even higher overall income levels and parity with revenue-sharing soon to follow. Finally, last but certainly not least, the wild card round format was enlarged with the recent adding of two more playoff teams to the mix!

  3. What were the ratings in 1998? Those numbers get brushed off a little too easily. Also, as a Yankees Fan in 1998, who would want to watch the Yankees inevitably sweep the Padres?

    Can we all just admit that we liked baseball in the late 90s/early Aughts? I would rather be construed as a steroids enabler than a huge hypocrite.