Why are some baseball players so fat now? It’s a good question, and one that has a pretty straightforward answer. If you’ve tuned into a baseball game recently (maybe by accident or because you fell asleep when something else was on the TV), you might have noticed that some (certainly not all) of the players on the field are, um, hefty. This wasn’t always the case, was it?
The last 15–20 years in baseball have been marked by rampant and blatant steroid use that league officials and fans both chose to ignore. Much has been said on the topic (including this great primer by Deni Carise), which posits that anywhere from 40–80% of players have used steroids or other PEDs—performance enhancing drugs—in their careers. Major League Baseball officially banned steroids in 1991, and then, more tellingly, only started testing its players for the use of steroids in 2003. Remember the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa?
That was in 1998, and both men were using steroids at the time.
A recent crackdown on use however has caused a turning of the tides and several high profile suspensions. Alex Rodriguez, or “A-Rod” as no grown man should be known, is arguably the most high profile player to be significantly suspended for using PEDs. This crackdown has led to a change in the league and, more interestingly, a change in the body type of our sluggers.
Now for a bit of explanation. Hitting a baseball (or kicking a soccer ball, or shooting a hockey puck) relies on two essential components: technique and power. Technique involves things like how you get the bat to the ball at the right time, the point of contact, and the arc of the swing (boring, I know, please stick with me). Power comes from good technique, but it also comes from the transfer of weight. Whew. That was almost too much technical garbage. Remember those huge, ill-begotten muscles that Mark McGwire used to break all sorts of long-standing historical records? Those arm cannons allowed him to generate power. Now that those muscles are no longer on the menu, big guys like Prince Fielder (his actual name, unfortunately) are using another type of weight to hit the ball out of the park.
There are a few pitchers in Major League Baseball who also don’t conform to an athletic ideal in their physical appearance. Players like C. C. Sabathia of the Yankees use their extra pounds to deliver crushing 100+ mph fastballs across the plate, because, much like hitting a ball, throwing a ball also depends on the ability to transfer weight.
This doesn’t mean that these big players aren’t tremendous athletes; just that the athletic ideal is an increasingly flawed image in the sport of baseball. In the face of players who buck the traditional stereotype when it comes to appearance and physical type, it’s fascinating to see how the game evolves and how the players evolve with it. Think of the most famous baseball player you know. Do you have it in your head? Is it Babe Ruth? And if it is Babe Ruth, did you think about The Sandlot and all of his nicknames? Just me? No problem.
Yes, Babe Ruth is probably the most famous baseball player in the world. And you may or may not know this, but the thing he was most famous for? Hitting baseballs far. (And/or wearing rouge. It’s between the two.) You might also recall that he was a bit of a porker too. That’s (partially) because The Great Bambino didn’t use steroids!
The Wikipedia page on steroid use in baseball hilariously catalogues the fact that Ruth attempted to use the steroids of his day, extract from sheep testicles. These “steroids” didn’t work and he got sick and had to miss games. Oh, the backward ways of the 1920s! No, The Colossus of Clout had to earn his home runs the old fashioned way—by “binging on hot dogs and soda pop” before games. Now that’s an athlete!*
Take comfort, Fielder, Sabathia, and countless other “big” hitters—you are part of a true baseball legacy.
*The Pop Culture Reference does not endorse eating hot dogs before an athletic pursuit, or, well, ever.