VIERA, Fla. — The baseball public isn’t going to be convinced whether Gio Gonzalez of the Washington Nationals is clean or dirty for quite some time. And they probably shouldn’t be. In a sport riddled with performance-enhancing drugs for at least 25 years, suspicion is endemic and inevitable. “It’s not fair,” Nats Manager Davey Johnson said, “but that’s reality in this day and time.”
The Nats organization, however, seems far closer to its own provisional conclusion. Through circumstantial evidence, MLB back channels and their own observation of players who’ve been PED users, they believe Gonzalez will end up in the clear.
Fans will wait until they find out whether Gonzalez passed his surprise out-of-season drug test (both blood and urine samples) taken two weeks ago after Gonzalez’s name appeared in a Miami New Times story about a South Florida clinic that had links to players suspended for PED use. MLB used the “probable cause” clause in the basic agreement to get Gonzalez to test.
And fans, especially those of the Nats, will wait to see what MLB’s investigation of Biogenesis and its chief, Anthony Bosch, produces. Will any 50-game suspensions result from the probe? Will Gonzalez, who has forcefully denied ever taking PEDs or even knowing Bosch, come out unscathed?
If he does, the final proof of his innocence, at least to the most skeptical, will be in his pitching. If the 27-year-old has the same dominant southpaw stuff when he’s under a microscope as he has throughout his career, then he’ll have more than a refurbished reputation. He’ll be a star who was “stunned and shocked” to see his name in the mud primarily because his dad bought legal anti-aging drugs from Bosch.
When Gonzalez did his first throwing Thursday, he pitched alongside Stephen Strasburg, the toughest possible comparison.
“Gio looked better than anybody,” Johnson said. “I may have to sit on him to hold him back.”
Despite all these provisos, the public may be behind the curve in evaluating Gonzalez. It might be the Nats themselves who suspect they have the inside track on the correct story. On Jan. 31, when the story broke, they were shocked and concerned. Now, they suspect the worst may have passed.
The reason they seem so unfazed by the flap, the reason Gonzalez is as cheerful and available in the clubhouse as always, is because the team is convinced that he’s clean. According to a franchise source, a knowledgeable MLB insider indicated several days ago that the Nats “shouldn’t worry about it.” By the time players came to camp, the atmosphere was calm.
We’ll see about that. But we should note one significant data point: Eleven days after the New Times story and nine days after Gonzalez’s drug test, MLB announced that Gonzalez would be a starter for the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic this month,
Would baseball, and WBC Manager Joe Torre, put Gonzalez on such a prominent international stage — after his name was linked to PEDs and after he’d been tested — if they thought there was a significant chance he would be disciplined while the showcase event was watched around the world?
“Obviously not,” said Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki, who has caught Gonzalez for the past five years, four of them in Oakland. “Every year he’s the same guy: good fastball, great curve. He’s nasty. Always has been. Everybody in here has his back.”
In six minor league seasons, Gonzalez struck out 783 batters in 684 innings. The last three years in MLB, he has finished eighth, 10th and sixth in ERA in his league — about as consistent as you can be. All his stat ratios have shown gradual — but slight — improvement with age and better command. It’s either the stat portrait you would expect of a non-PED user or one who has been cheating since the beginning of his career.
“I’ve been around players where you could tell,” said Johnson, citing change in appearance over a winter, mood swings, ’roid rage or, in the case of pitchers, lots of workouts in the offseason when they’re cycling PEDs and want to maximize their improvement.
“I missed it with Raffy [Palmeiro] in Baltimore,” Johnson conceded. “But Gio is always happy, grinning. You never see any mood change, even when he pitched badly or I take him out an inning early.”
Nats coaches have scrutinized his workout and offseason patterns. Instead of the heavy winter workload expected of a juicer, Gonzalez hardly throws at all, usually only once before spring training when almost all other pitchers throw six or seven sessions. How does he do it? “Gio’s just a gifted athlete,” Johnson said, shrugging.
The manager understands why fans would be suspicious and expects Gonzalez to cope with the controversy even if it proves unfair. But he insists his left-hander explodes the profile of a pitcher who uses PEDs.
“You can look at some people and know that they probably aren’t using” PEDs, slope-shouldered vet Adam LaRoche said. “For example, me. And Gio.”
The worst-case scenario — a positive test and a 50-game suspension — would throw all this talk in the trash. That could happen. The rule in baseball now: Suspicion is wiser than gullibility.
For now, however, Gonzalez is entitled to something more than just the benefit of the doubt that we accord anyone whose reputation is cast in doubt without conclusive evidence. To date, the only Gonzalez with a Biogenesis connection is Gio’s father, Max, who acknowledges buying anti-aging products from the clinic. There’s also a photo of Gonzalez with a Miami trainer who’s entangled in the web. That connection may need more light.
Dark clouds, threats of rain and chill winds have muted the mood of the Nats’ first two spring training workouts. That seems an appropriate metaphor for their 21-win southpaw who is under his own cloud and probably will remain there, at least in the public mind, until he passes every MLB test, then reproves himself on the mound this summer.
No one has a Cheater Detector. You just let things play out. Sometimes the news is so bad and unexpected that the most jaded are still stunned. If Gio is dirty, the Nats will be in that flabbergasted category. Take it for what it’s worth: The Nationals are certainly annoyed. But they don’t seem worried.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.