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MLB The Show 23 ad shows baseball is still tone-deaf about Steroid Era

I’m no gamer, but I am an avid baseball fan. As such, I was delighted to see that the MLB The Show video game series has added Negro Leagues players to its roster for the 2023 edition. These players, who for decades were unfairly denied an opportunity to compete at the highest echelon of their sport because of the color of their skin, have long deserved such a moment in the spotlight, as well as an introduction to generations of fans who may be unfamiliar with names like Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Josh Gibson, and John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil Jr.

MLB The Show 23 - Storylines: The Negro Leagues Season 1 | PS5 & PS4 Games

Gibson drew comparisons to Babe Ruth, Paige’s career spanned five decades and his antics on the mound are the stuff of baseball legend, and O’Neil became one of the game’s most admired ambassadors long after his career ended. All three are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately, my elation at the inclusion of these players has been tempered somewhat due to a questionable marketing decision that diminishes that great decision. One TV spot for MLB The Show 23 — which has several publishers, including MLB Advanced Media — features a montage of Negro Leagues greats and recently retired modern-day standouts like Hall of Famer Derek Jeter and David Wright. Also present, though, are Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — two of the most infamous poster boys of baseball’s Steroid Era. (McGwire admitted in 2010 to using steroids during his career and Sosa tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003.)

I get it. McGwire and Sosa are still two of the sport’s most well-known sluggers, and I’m certain that their addition to the game has many fans excited. But as a die-hard fan of baseball — especially the New York Yankees — the Steroid Era came perilously close to causing me to turn my back on one of the great loves and passions of my life. In fact, I know many longtime baseball fans who walked away from the game for good because they were so disheartened over the steroids scandal. That’s why it’s so puzzling, and upsetting, to see some of baseball’s biggest villains featured among the true heroes of the Negro Leagues. This raises questions about how sports games should deal with infamous and alleged cheaters.

The Steroid Era

I’m not among those who will argue that records set by players who used or are accused of using performance-enhancing drugs should be expunged from the books — although it doesn’t hurt my feelings that they have been unable to earn the necessary votes for inclusion in the Baseball Hall of Fame (I’ll leave that argument for someone else’s article). But there’s no denying that Sosa and McGwire’s feats were likely aided by banned substances.

In the four seasons between 1998 and 2001, Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61, which stood for 37 years, was eclipsed six times by a total of three players: McGwire, Sosa, and Barry Bonds, another notorious Steroid Era figure. Bonds hit a staggering 73 home runs in 2001, and it took 21 years before another player would surpass 61 home runs in a season. That happened when The Yankees’ Aaron Judge smashed 62 home runs last season.

MLB The Show 23 LEGENDS Trailer!! (Check out the NEW legends in the game)

Shockingly, some people belittle Judge’s historic season — after all, he’s 11 homers behind Bonds’ mark — but that only illustrates how the Steroid Era warped the game and sent it into a slump that it is still struggling to recover from. Yes, Bonds holds the records, but Judge was the first to top Maris’ mark in 61 years without the shadow of scandal looming over the accomplishment. (Bonds has never admitted to knowingly using steroids, but it’s been widely alleged that he used a host of such drugs.)

It doesn’t help that Major League Baseball continues to make alterations to the baseball that result in swings between seasons where home runs are off the charts and ones where pitching dominates. A total of 3,298 home runs were hit in 2019 — that’s 600 more than the previous season and nearly 300 more than the second-highest total of 3005, which was recorded in 2000, during the heart of the Steroid Era. The home run total last year was down by 640 from 2019 as pitching experienced a resurgence.

It’s simply impossible to put any stock in these numbers.

How should sports games handle it?

This all leads to a complicated question of how sports video games should handle athletes who have cheated or been accused of it. Should players like Sosa and McGwire be excluded completely? That’s not the right answer. Controversies are as much a part of baseball’s history as its records and athletic accomplishments.

Mark McGwire hits a baseball with a bat in MLB The Show 23.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

I don’t really even have a problem with them being highlighted in ads; they have their fans and achieved many of their feats without the help of performance enhancers. I just think that more care should be taken when it comes to how they are highlighted and how these athletes and their accomplishments are contextualized within a sports game and its marketing strategy.

A lot of casual players may not even register the incongruity of lumping steroid figures in with Negro Leagues players, but I still feel that the latter group should have never been made to share the spotlight. Both the fans and the athletes who got where they are by playing fair deserve a little more sensitivity and honesty in their sports simulators.

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Rob Oster
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