An Era to Forget

By John Feinstein
Special to
Monday, April 30, 2007; 5:36 PM

Welcome to the latest chapter in Major League Baseball's ongoing nightmare: steroids, steroids and more steroids.

Last Friday's revelation that a former New York Mets clubhouse kid -- now apparently all grown up as a 37-year-old drug dealer had named names (at least 23 of them) of current and former major leaguers as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, sent another shiver down the collective spine of everyone in the game.

Chances are good that Kirk Radomski, the former Mets "clubbie," isn't the only guy out there who sold drugs to ballplayers who is going to turn evidence to try to cut himself a break with prosecutors. Chances are also pretty good that there are going to be some significant names showing up at some point soon.

Those who played in the big leagues during the 1990s are now starting to talk about circumstantial evidence they saw -- but for the most part ignored -- during that period. As they talk, it is becoming more and more evident that those who didn't partake were probably the minority.

"It's at the point now where you wonder if anyone was innocent," said Ron Darling, who pitched in the majors from 1983 to 1995. "The only reason pitchers from my era are pretty much in the clear is that no one had figured out back then that steroids could help us too. Clearly that changed somewhere along the way but I was out of the game by then."

Darling has a clear memory of when he noticed the sport changing. "When I first came up, I remember after games we'd all sit around and eat the postgame meal and talk about the game. We'd second-guess a manager or a play or wonder what maybe could have been done differently that night. When I got to Oakland in 1991, I noticed that wasn't happening anymore. As soon as the game was over, most of the guys would come inside, change out of their uniforms and go down the hall to pump iron for an hour. At least. Then they'd get up the next morning, workout again and eat 4,000 calories at lunch. And they never got tired.

"Looking back now, it's pretty clear what was going on. Back then, I just didn't give it much thought. I was worried about getting ready for my next start."

Beyond that is the jock code that you never turn in a teammate. Neither Darling nor anyone else was going to go to anyone in management and say, "that guy's cheating." After all, if the cheating was helping the team win, why would you stop someone from doing it? In a much larger sense, everyone running the game did the same thing: the cheating was selling tickets because home runs were flying out of ballparks and fans like to see home runs. Never was this more true than in the wake of the 1994-1995 strike.

Every pitcher you talk to from that era insists that the baseball's changed radically after the strike. "During the strike I worked out at home with baseballs we had used during '94," Darling remembered. "When the strike was finally settled and we got to spring training I picked up some of the balls we were given and said, 'what are these practice balls?' They were completely different. The stitching was much tighter, they were harder to grip. Before the strike, I could scratch the stitching and raise it a little -- which helped my breaking pitches. Afterwards, no way."

Mike Mussina, now with the New York Yankees, then with the Baltimore Orioles, remembers cutting open two baseball during a rain delay as a time-killing science experiment: "No comparison," he said. "The core of the old ball just laid down flat on the table. The new ball, the core literally sat up it was so lively."

Juiced balls, smaller stadiums and juiced players led to the monster home run years enjoyed, not only by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, but non-home run hitters who began reaching out and hitting home runs to the opposite field. Now, belatedly, baseball is paying a price for closing its eyes to what everyone could see just by sitting around a clubhouse and noticing everyone was in the weight room. And never getting tired.

The poster boy for this era is going to be Barry Bonds. Oh sure, everyone will remember McGwire's pathetic performance before Congress; Sosa's sudden inability to speak English at the same hearing and Rafael Palmeiro's theatrical finger pointing -- "I have never used drugs" -- four months before he became the biggest star to test positive for steroid use.

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