A Dream Gone Bad

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, April 28, 2007

For generations, one of the pristine images of Americana has been the teenage boy who gets the chance of a lifetime, the opportunity to work for a baseball team and rub shoulders with the big leaguers. What could be a better life-influencing experience for a 15-year-old? Pick up dirty towels, fetch coffee and maybe even get to put on a uniform and be the batboy.

And what better locker room to work than that of the mighty Amazin' Mets, world champions in '86? What an opportunity for a boy like Kirk J. Radomski, who worked for the Mets for 10 years, starting in '85. Everywhere he turned he could see baseball's modern life lessons displayed in the flesh.

There's Doc Gooden, just beginning to get addicted to cocaine. But it hasn't ruined his pitching yet. And there's Darryl Strawberry, the Ted Williams of his generation, also careering down the same soul-shattering path. As the years pass and you work for the Mets in minor capacities, you reach manhood and what do you see? Then suddenly, players are growing 20 pounds of muscle in one offseason. How do they do it?

Anabolic steroids, clomiphene, insulin growth factor, clenbuterol and human growth hormone -- those were the substances that the FBI found when they raided Radomski's house on Dec. 14, 2005. The guys who brought down Balco have now busted the batboy.

After the big Balco crackdown in '03, somebody had to take up the drug-dealing slack. The FBI says Radomski was that man -- in the end distributing various steroids and HGH to dozens of major league players. The investigators even have canceled checks to Radomski -- 23 of them worth more than $34,000 -- that they claim came from big leaguers or their associates. Now 37, Radomski has come full circle from "here's a tip, kid."

Yesterday in San Francisco, Radomski admitted it all and took the plea bargain -- which still leaves him looking at up to 25 years in jail and $500,000 in fines for drug dealing and money laundering. Radomski says he'll help baseball's Mitchell commission by giving up every name he knows. Undercover work for the FBI? Sure, that, too.

No names of players were included in the court filings. But names and paragraphs were redacted from the federal search warrant affidavit. "Redacted" means crossed out. But the names are under there, lots of them. Just waiting to get out?

This may be the low point for baseball. Although the day Barry Bonds hits his 756th home run, hopefully on the road to a cascade of boos, will certainly hold its share of ignominy as well.

Baseball loves to cultivate its wholesome images and its catch phrases ("I live for this.") But other images haunt us, too. How many times was I in that Mets clubhouse, part of the scene Radomski watched, as the whole culture of the sport gradually shifted? Every year the players and owners got exponentially richer. Every year, the stakes in the labor-relations feud were raised. Both sides thought the money was at risk. But other priceless things were actually being lost. While everybody protected the millions, fought over the millions, almost every other aspect of the game was being neglected, ignored.

For 15 years, baseball tried to pretend it didn't have a steroid problem. The longer the denial, the worse the consequences. Now, another sordid chapter is about to unfold, another window into the game's shadowy recent past is opening. If baseball thought that its long performance-enhanced nightmare would recede once Bonds broke Hank Aaron's home run record later this summer, the game can keep right on dreaming. This isn't going to go away.

"This individual was a major dealer of anabolic steroids and performance-enhancing drugs whose clientele was focused almost exclusively on Major League Baseball players," said assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Parrella.

The original Balco investigation resulted in five criminal convictions and more than a dozen doping suspensions of track and field athletes as well as a perjury investigation of Bonds and indictments of a track coach and a former cyclist. Now, what will the final score be on the Batboy Bust? Is this the big break in baseball's steroid case?

Will those "dozens of players" cited by prosecutors as receiving steroids from Radomski, or the redacted names on those 23 checks, say to their lawyers, "I don't think this is the time to dummy up. People are going to crack. I better talk first."

Or will everybody claim that this random guy is just a dealer trying to get a plea bargain by smearing famous athletes? If the players take that route, they're gambling that the feds haven't hit a mother lode of physical evidence, complete with paper trail. Since Radomski was arrested 16 months ago, his customers may also wonder if he's been working undercover since then.

Law enforcement officials will go where the evidence leads them, as they should. However, the institution of baseball needs to do more than react to convictions and confessions, like those yesterday. The sport does not need to conduct a private witch hunt or attempt to retroactively condemn every player by name who, until a few years ago, it was perfectly happy to encourage in any form of muscle accumulation that boosted home run totals and attendance.

What the game needs is for everyone -- from players, union leaders and agents to owners and executives -- to rediscover their collective conscience. It's not lost, just misplaced. If they need help in that task, perhaps they should focus on the image of a 15-year-old boy who came into a culture they created and controlled and who, after 10 years of intimate contact with their game, chose to become a criminal who enabled their wealthy cheaters.

Hold that thought as you decide what forms of drug testing -- including blood tests to detect HGH -- are appropriate. Think of this Batboy Bust as you decide whether baseball should transform itself from the most lax of American team sports into the most stringent. Think twice before calling Bonds your "all-time home run champion" until all the evidence of active investigations have been completed. And when the Mitchell Report finally comes out, make us want to read it for its thoroughness and painful candor, rather than laugh at its whitewash.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company