Holiday cards came in the mail this week from Major League Baseball, featuring pictures of cheering crowds with this greeting: ``'Tis the Season ... To celebrate our 79,502,524 fans.''
Fresh off the Mitchell Report, go ahead and say it's so - while steroids ruined the game, they also revived it.
Oh, that sounds awful. Sends the wrong message to kids. Makes a mockery of records. Reshuffles the Hall of Fame roster.
Yet while we troll the Web and flick on the TV waiting for another ballplayer to admit his transgressions, that conclusion should be in those 409 pages, too.
Really, what thrilled baseball the most over the last decade or so? Power. Raw, sheer power. Huge hits by star sluggers, blazing fastballs by imposing aces.
A splash shot by Barry Bonds. A moonbeam by Jose Canseco. A line drive by Rafael Palmeiro. A heater by Roger Clemens.
In the Steroids Era, they're not just Bonds, Canseco, Palmeiro and Clemens. In this lineup, make them Indicted, Admitted, Tested Positive and Accused.
A while back, it was different.
Balls bonked off clocks and rocks. They sailed into the bay, river, swimming pool and water fountain. They dinged the warehouse, dented the Coke bottle and darted off the restaurant window. They rattled around the catwalk, flew onto the streets.
Every game became Home Run Derby.
We loved it.
The whole nation stayed up late to watch Big Mac and Slammin' Sammy race for Roger Maris' record in 1998, baseball's summer of love. It was straight from ``Field of Dreams.'' Or maybe ``The Natural,'' with a titanic shot crashing into a light tower. Only this was real.
``The whole country has been involved in this,'' Mark McGwire said that enchanted evening when he hit No. 62 in St. Louis. ``I'm happy to bring the country together.''
Go ahead and cringe now. Remember, though, how it was then.
Gone were the bitter memories of '94 when a players' strike wiped out the World Series. People were really into the game, and the majors set an attendance record by averaging 31,256 that year.
It took a dozen years before baseball reached the mark again.
Following the players' walkout, the NFL was a solid No. 1 with the Cowboys and Packers on top. The NBA was immensely popular, especially after Michael Jordan ended his dalliance as a Double-A outfielder and returned to the sport where he was king.
Baseball certainly needed jolt. Conveniently, there was the juice.
So long, sacrifice bunts. Suddenly, 500-foot homers were the rage.
The result: From 1990 to 2000, home runs increased almost 50 percent. Scoring spiked about 20 percent.
Purists hated the changes, said they wrecked the game. That didn't stop fans from coming, paying more and more for box seats to cheer their bulked-up stars.
Certainly other factors helped the resurgence. Cal Ripken's streak, his dedication and blue eyes gave fans something to believe in.
A spate of cozy ballparks, spiced up with interleague play and the wild card, gave the game a new look.
Complaints about steroids? There were a few. Not enough to make anyone stop for any significant investigation. Besides, there were easy reasons for the extra offense: lively balls, smaller parks, expansion-laced pitching, body-built players.
Even before the 2006 World Series, performance-enhancing drugs weren't causing such a ruckus. According to an AP-AOL Sports poll done then, steroids were only the third-biggest problem in baseball, behind spiraling salaries and the high cost of attending games.
This year, baseball set another attendance record. Thanks to the fans - and the game's dirty little secret.

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