By Jason Keidel
The PED crucible, which we hoped would be microscopic by now, just won’t go away. It’s turned into a twisted game show of “Name That Cheat.”
Jack Clark, the latest contestant, was shown the door days after he entered it. The former slugger, who made his bones with the Cardinals and then recently returned to co-host a radio show, asserted with great certainty that Albert Pujols, the patron saint of St. Louis, used steroids.
Clark’s source denied saying so, hence Clark’s bum rush from radio. For all his time around sporting deities, he didn’t learn one essential lesson: Don’t go after gods unless you have a full clip.
But no matter the accused or the accuser we need to stop the indignity or delight whenever someone burns under the PED lens. There are no winners here. Baseball loses every time a new toxic list is churned out by the machine that rewards players for performance, no matter how they got there.
Skip Bayless ignited quite a furor from the Big Apple last year when he said it was fair to question Derek Jeter’s sublime 2012 season after a year or so of decay in his game.
And I led the conga line of appalled apologists, calling Bayless all manner of sinner. But after stepping back and lifting my pinstriped goggles, I realized Bayless was right.
Not that Jeter has gulped anything stronger than Tylenol. Most of us would bet our lives his path to Cooperstown was paved with dignity. But the era doesn’t discriminate. The needle on the suspicion gauge doesn’t just point to players we dislike.
It’s not a coincidence when the blowback is commensurate to a player’s popularity. Jeter can’t be a cheater because he’s beloved. So many have invested so much in him, projected biblical qualities upon the Yankees shortstop that anything less than a bat, ball, and halo is unacceptable.
David Ortiz was on the infamous list that first exposed A-Rod. But he’s Big Papi, charming and cherubic, so any dirt was swept under the media rug. Andy Pettitte admitted using HGH twice – which sounds rather dubious – but he too was forgiven because of his humble, aw-shucks refrain. His southern cadence coated his mea culpa and, honest or not, it won us over.
But Ryan Braun has assumed satanic qualities because he was so smug when he slithered through that legal loophole last year, and then preened from his soapbox while sermonizing about fair play. It’s impossible to defend Braun after he mauled the lab employee who handled Braun’s nuclear urine. But if Braun were more modest, he would have been less reviled.
We bristle when our guys are accused, but beam with self-righteousness when your guy does it. The world is an echo chamber of A-Rod animus only because he makes it so easy, flouting every rule he signed to obey. He even joined the board of the Taylor Hooton Foundation, lecturing kids on the perils of PEDs while his veins pulsed with them.
Alex Rodriguez, now reduced to the solemn cheers of his most ardent apologists, is not alone in the bowels of our consciousness, even if it feels that way. Just ask Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro. As always, life is just plain better when you’re liked.
But the swath of doubt fans out all over the sport. There are no exemptions, exceptions, or limitations, no nook reserved for the good guys. Because even they, the ones who brought clean veins to the game, were accessories when they did nothing about the others.
There wasn’t one player – not even Dear Derek, or the always loquacious Curt Schilling – who spoke one foul vowel about the guy in the next locker, who ducked into some stall and jammed a needle into his bulging buttocks. No one knows better than the athlete that athletes don’t morph into Wolverine after 30.
We’re killing Johnny Manziel for his frat-boy proclivities, for acting like the college student he is, yet we give the silent minority of baseball a pass because we are afraid to admit we were wrong about them. They witnessed crimes, real or symbolic, and were universally mute, all of them brothers in a gold-plated Omerta that rendered honesty relative.
MLB revenues totaled $1.4 billion in 1995, the year after the gory lockout and cancelled World Series. Then steroids saved the day. The number mushroomed to $7 billion in 2010. The average team is now worth $744 million. The average player salary has tripled since ’95 (from $1 million to $3.2 million).
Baseball will never be entirely clean because the fantasy of fame is too alluring, too vivid, too close. If only I take this I can be that guy. But let’s not anoint the honest ones just for doing what they were supposed to. They too profited from the Summer of Sammy. And not one of them turned down a check because they didn’t like how the income was generated.
Their loyalty had a price. And you, the fans, have been paying it ever since.
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