LET'S BE HONEST: Who among us hasn't felt a little self-righteous satisfaction over the embarrassment of some celebrity, politician or multimillionaire athlete who got on the wrong side of the law or the ethics committee or the accounting ledger? There can sometimes be a sense of well-deserved comeuppance in the fall of the rich and famous. But there is no schadenfreude in Mudville today -- or anywhere else in baseball -- over the suspension of Rafael Palmeiro for alleged use of steroids. Mr. Palmeiro, the Baltimore Orioles' first baseman, is known as one of baseball's nice guys: modest, steady, valuable to his team. And to judge by his statistics (he is one of four players with more than 3,000 hits and 500 home runs) he also ranks among the greatest hitters in the history of the game.
But now and forever, in the wake of Mr. Palmeiro's 10-day suspension, those statistics will be questioned. If other allegations of past steroid use -- allegations that he fervently denied in March in testimony before a congressional committee -- can't be dispelled, the question hanging over Rafael Palmeiro's career will always be: Was it all him or was it partly the drugs? Mr. Palmeiro says that although a test showed traces of a banned substance in his system, he never knowingly took steroids, and he hinted that the positive test may be due to contamination of some legal supplement he used. People who know a lot about the subject say that's most unlikely.
It will be interesting to see how the fans react to these allegations. Many have already voiced their disappointment, but Mr. Palmeiro's denial of wrongdoing was promptly accepted by others, among them President Bush. "Rafael Palmeiro is a friend," Mr. Bush said in an interview with the Knight Ridder news service. "He's the kind of person that's going to stand up in front of the klieg lights and say he didn't use steroids, and I believe him. Still do."
Many ballplayers have misbehaved in many different ways over the past century or so, but the steroid scandal is something new and extraordinarily dangerous to the game. It is, to be clear, not just bad behavior; it's cheating, with players among the primary victims. Some players are taking highly dangerous drugs to enhance their performance and thereby are achieving things that their competitors who stay clean cannot. They are also implicitly encouraging kids to use substances that could do them lifetime damage. Yesterday a Seattle Mariners pitcher, Ryan Franklin, was given a 10-day suspension for steroid use, bringing to eight the number of actions under baseball's new, tougher drug policy.
Commissioner Bud Selig wants to toughen it further, as follows: a 50-game suspension for the first steroid offense, 100 games for the second and a lifetime ban for the third. He can do this on his own but, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune, would prefer to have the union agree to go along. Either way is fine; just get it done.