By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, August 3, 2005
The discussion that dogs baseball the most, the one about steroids, is back and the tone is angrier this time. Folks trust the game even less now than they did in March when Congress summoned the game's big stars and caretakers looking for some answers. Baseball is facing a full-scale crisis. Denials, even eloquent ones, aren't good enough, not after the Rafael Palmeiro revelation. Blaming Jose Canseco doesn't work because even a dope like him now has more credibility than some of the people he has been outing as steroid users.
In the first week of August, when baseball folks would love to be immersed in the drama of division and wild-card races, they instead have to see the results of polls on whether Hall of Fame voters would cast a ballot in favor of Palmeiro, who could very well be the only player besides Hank Aaron and Willie Mays to retire with 600 home runs and 3,000 hits. Yes, it's a crisis when the story starts not on the sports page but on the front page and leads not just ESPN but "The Today Show." Yes, it's a crisis when just about every A-list player of a generation is operating under some renewed suspicion or implication.
Go ahead, make a list. Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, Pudge Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield. Talk about eight men out. Four of those men (Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro) have been thought of as first-ballot Hall of Famers. Now more than ever they're all steroid suspects. Oh yes, baseball is facing a crisis. Before yesterday the prevailing wisdom was that starting pitchers didn't need to bulk up and therefore didn't need to take steroids. Then we find out Ryan Franklin, a starting pitcher for the Mariners, tested positive for steroids. So now, in this current climate of suspicion, is it fair to start looking at any pitcher with biceps with increased skepticism, too? Well, maybe it isn't fair. But that won't stop anyone.
It's difficult to imagine a worse week for baseball and it's only Wednesday. Sandwiched between Palmeiro and Franklin was the news that Bonds probably won't play again this season. Actually, that could be good news for baseball and for Bonds, who can now stay at home for the rest of the season and let Palmeiro take all the heat.
I wouldn't be surprised if Bonds never plays again, and I've felt that way since the moment it was reported he told the grand jury investigating the BALCO scandal that he had taken "the cream" and "the clear" without knowing they were steroids. Less than two years ago Bonds told me he didn't know if he'd be able to surpass Aaron's 755 home runs because his knees were killing him. He talked about the pain of arthritic knees, about having so little cartilage. "Just about bone on bone," is the phrase he used, and this was before the three knee operations and the ensuing complications that have him on the sideline now.
If you're a cynic -- and who isn't when it comes to ballplayers and steroids these days -- you can pretty easily make the case that it's damn difficult to stay healthy in your 40s when you can't work out every day because your body won't let you. This is the case Aaron makes, that when he turned 40 he could no longer replenish his strength in the offseason, which is why his home run totals dropped from 40 at age 39 to 20 at age 40 to 12 at age 41. The argument that steroids don't help you see the ball or make contact is stupid because it doesn't address the point. Steroids help you stay fit, help you recover from injuries and wear that are accelerated by age. Isn't it curious that Bonds, now that there's steroid testing, can't seem to get healthy for the first time in years and years?
The thing about Bonds coming back in 2006, possibly, is that it won't matter much to anybody except him and his sycophants. He could hit 780 home runs but, in the main, baseball fans (not to mention many of his own peers) aren't going to think of him as the greatest home run hitter in history. The number, whatever it is, will be widely perceived as somewhere between flawed and fraud. Fair? Perhaps not, since Bonds hasn't tested positive for anything and was a great player long before "the clear" and "the cream." But this is what baseball wrought, particularly its players union whose leaders have been too stupid or too arrogant (I can't figure out which) to see how drug testing should have been used to protect its innocent members, who despite our cynicism surely must outnumber the lawbreakers. Because the union didn't use testing for its own purposes and because Palmeiro of all people appears to have violated our trust, rampant suspicion rules the day.
And where, exactly, is the commissioner of baseball while such an obvious crisis breaks out? Apparently hiding under his desk. As of Tuesday evening we hadn't had a whiff of Bud Selig. Don't get me wrong, Selig's proposal that first-time steroid offenders should be suspended for 50 days and second-timers for 100 days looks even better now than it did 4 1/2 months ago. And Selig has more leverage now than ever to use against the union. But we should have heard from him directly by now.
Selig needs to be front and center because it's not just the players who are facing a crisis, the entire game is. It isn't as severe as the Black Sox scandal of 1919, nor as ominous as the work stoppage in 1994 that led to the cancellation of the World Series. But this steroid scandal threatens to rock the foundation of the game, too, because all any league selling competition has is its credibility.
And when people perceive a previously likable player such as Palmeiro has lied to them, through Congress, and that the best players and their accomplishments are at the very least tainted (and at worst, fraudulent) there is a serious, serious problem.