When the lights go on at Yankee Stadium tonight and a new baseball season begins, it will also mark a significant ending point: Baseball's Great Steroid Winter will be over. Already, the season that begins tonight in grand fashion, with the latest chapter in the epic rivalry between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, is being called the start of "the Post-Steroid Era." However, many within the game believe it is either too late or too soon for such a label.
Too late, because some feel the Post-Steroid Era actually began two years ago -- with the start of steroid testing in the game, the widespread downsizing of players' physiques and the decline of individual home run totals.
Mark McGwire, left, Rafael Palmeiro and Curt Schilling, right, were among those who testified before Congress about steroids in a rough winter.
(Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
_____Red Sox at Yankees_____
When: Sunday, 8 p.m.
Where: Yankee Stadium
Too soon, because the steroid story is nowhere near over -- not with Barry Bonds rehabbing his knee in San Francisco, not with Congress demanding that baseball leaders toughen the sport's testing program again and threatening legislative action in case they don't, not with a federal grand jury apparently contemplating charges against Bonds, not with lifelong infamy awaiting the first player who tests positive this season.
"It's not going to go away," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said about the steroid issue. "I'm looking forward to baseball [being played] to override the other stuff we've had to deal with."
Conveniently, with the Yankees and Red Sox opening the season tonight -- in prime time, on national television -- baseball has its best on-field story front and center.
Last October, the Red Sox won eight straight postseason games, first vanquishing the hated Yankees in a riveting American League Championship Series -- in which they became the first team in history to overcome a three-game postseason deficit -- then sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals to win their first World Series title in 86 years.
In many ways, the game is as healthy as it has been in years, certainly since the players' strike of 1994-95. Baseball set an all-time attendance mark last season, with more than 73 million fans passing through the turnstiles, and the television ratings from the Red Sox-Cardinals World Series were up 23 percent from the year before. The attendance figure is likely to climb again this season, with the baseball-hungry Washington market replacing the burned-out Montreal one.
"The sport has never been more popular," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "I think the numbers prove that. The business of baseball is doing very well."
But even tonight, when baseball celebrates its annual rite of rebirth and ponders what spectacular moments await over the next seven months, the specter of the steroid scandal -- widely viewed as the sport's biggest crisis since the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal -- lurks barely below the surface.
The Yankees' probable cleanup hitter tonight will be Jason Giambi, who, with Bonds sidelined and Mark McGwire back in hiding, is once again the public face of the steroid story. Nearly four months ago, Giambi's grand jury testimony, leaked to and published by the San Francisco Chronicle, showed that he had admitted using steroids and a human growth hormone -- one of the bigger explosions on the steroid front all winter.
Unlike McGwire and (for now, at least) Bonds, Giambi has the chance to rehabilitate his image by proving he can produce without the juice. Unfortunately, however, he must prove it while playing in the pressure cooker that is New York, where even the home fans still blame Giambi for being a non-factor during an illness-plagued 2004.
"It's going to be an interesting study this year," Torre said this spring. "He has a lot of things he has to get through, not the least of which are the questions about the supposed steroid stuff. But also the fact that he hasn't played [much] in a year. He has to carry the major part of that responsibility."
Despite the wishful thinking of Torre and others, baseball's ability to push steroids off the front page can only last so long. The next big bombshell, in fact, could await when the first player tests positive this season, triggering a 10-game suspension and public revelation. Woe be that player.
"I don't think the first player to be identified in testing is going to recover," San Diego Padres veteran outfielder Dave Roberts said this spring. "I think his career is going to be done. Just the stigma of being the first who might be caught now is a great deterrent."