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.

Bonds is going to break baseball's most cherished record and stain the game by doing so. Hank Aaron won't be there to congratulate him when he breaks the record and you can bet Commissioner Bud Selig won't be there either. He simply cannot be there to shake Bonds' hand because the minute he does that he is saying that cheating is okay. Yes, Selig is tacitly guilty of all this because he was one of the people who closed his eyes when the steroid outbreak occurred. But he can't continue to endorse what Bonds and others have done to the game by going along with the notion that Bonds is the greatest home run hitter in history.

He has to turn his back. And please let us not continue with this foolish notion that Bonds and the others must be convicted beyond a reasonable doubt. This isn't a court of law. Being considered a hero is a privilege, not a legal right. Even if you want to take Bonds at his word -- which is a little bit like taking anything Alberto Gonzales says seriously -- he has taken steroids (accidentally, he told a grand jury) and amphetamines, for which he tested positive last year. (Another accident of course. Athletes and drugs are a little bit like Claudine Longet, the beautiful French singer who killed her lover, skier Spider Sabich, and then claimed she'd shot him accidentally. Saturday Night Live once staged a "Claudine Longet skiing invitational," in which every competitor was accidentally shot by Claudine Longet).

Every single athlete who has ever tested positive for drugs ended up with them in his or her system accidentally.

If you are paying even a little bit of attention -- ala Darling in the Oakland clubhouse in 1991 -- it is pretty clear that the number of players using steroids in the last 15 or 20 years has been epidemic. Bonds is just the best of them and, while the apologists will claim that the reason people don't want to acknowledge his pursuit of the record is that they don't like him, that's just not the case.

Make no mistake, Bonds is a bad guy. He's obnoxious, condescending and rude. Forget his relationship with the media (no one cares if he's not nice to the media) ask his ex-teammates or his ex-wives or ex-girlfriends. Don't ask current teammates (for obvious reasons) especially pitcher Barry Zito, whose behavior in trying to ingratiate himself with Bonds this spring has been close to disgusting.

Lots of bad guys have set important records. Rickey Henderson was as hard to take as anyone. Who can forget his, "I am the greatest of all time," speech after breaking Lou Brock's record for stolen bases. Pete Rose is a liar and a moron. There aren't a lot of people around baseball shedding tears for Alex Rodriguez after his postseason meltdowns because they think he's a phony. Ty Cobb was truly an evil man according to just about anyone who ever met him.

But no one has ever tried to demean their baseball accomplishments of any of them because there's never been a shred of evidence any of them cheated. There's plenty of evidence Bonds has cheated and there's no one inside the game who doesn't think he's lying every time he claims his innocence.

He's not alone by any means. In fact, every day it is becoming more and more apparent that he was probably a part of the majority. He's just the symbol of an era that baseball can't forget soon enough.

The problem is it is going to be a long, long time before anyone is able to forget. Baseball has been stained. Perhaps not forever and probably not irreparably but in ways that won't be forgotten, and shouldn't be forgotten, anytime soon.

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