Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Who the steroids really hurt

There was a day, at least as far as I knew then, when the only performance enhancing substance you needed to play baseball was a box of Wheaties.

The crap tasted virtually the same as would the cardboard box that contained it, but if it had Nolan Ryan on the outside, it could be fish bait and I'd eat happily, believing to my very core that it must be good for an additional three miles per hour on the Little League fastball.

I got over that addiction by junior high, but I wonder if I would be in the same beefy stew as Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Ken Caminity, Sammy Sosa and the rest if faced with the choice they encountered. A chance to be a star, to realize every dream, to win and set records, to stay on top another season, to make more money than you could spend in 100 lifetimes. Your sport, the law and your employer will just wink. Would you cut the corner for that kind of reward? I honestly don't know if I can answer that.

It's not exactly a new thing. Players have used every cheater's edge they could find since time immemorial - from sharpened spikes to Vaseline pitches. More than a few of the sport's all-time heroes were drunk on their butts much of their careers.

In the 1960s and '70s, drugs were becoming a part of the culture. Ask Lyle Alzado - well, you could ask him, if he hadn't died a slow and terrible death after years of steroid abuse.

Some sports franchises almost celebrated it. People almost fondly speak of the "Cocaine Cowboys," and I recall that one baseball star used to slide into base on his stomach, since he reportedly carried a vial of nose candy in his back pocket.

We are a society attuned to giving second chances, and that's not a totally bad thing. We forgive and forget a lot, especially when it comes to our sports heroes.

And yet we never learn. We idolize and identify with people who will mostly let us down.

They are coddled, obscenely rich, overgrown children, in a great many cases. And yet we are surprised when they are caught violating some imaginary code that we wish to apply to them.

That summer of love was something, wasn't it? The lead story every day - not in the sportscast, but in the danged world news - was McGwire and Sosa hitting balls over walls like gorillas lobbing banana peels.

The 40+ home run seasons are piling up so fast that we have nearly as many since 1996 as in the whole century before it. Could there be something fishy? Nahhhh...

Players gaining 30 pounds of muscle in a couple of months between seasons, and doubling their usual slugging output? Wow, he must have been doing yoga or something with Jane Fonda. Right...

They were heady times, that summer of McGwire and Sosa, and we should have known we would pay for it all.

After all, who do we have to blame? We don't want to watch baseball any more, we want to see a sideshow of guys who look like pro wrestlers instead of ballplayers jacking the ball into the bay. We don't want to see classic pitchers' duels and lay-out catches. It's home run derby, baby, just like we wanted.

Now we have our big stars sitting in Congressional hearings, failing to even muster up the courage to admit what they have done to meet our expectations.

We have them writing tell-all books and giving expose interviews, ratting others out for a few more bucks.

They are only human, we realize at last. As weak as any of us, for as strong as they appear with their hamlike biceps. And we could forgive them instantly for that.

One of my son's treasured items was a plexiglass card of McGwire's home run season. That was the summer of his young life. He will remember it forever.

That card's been in a prominent place on his dresser since the home run record was set. He watched the out-takes from the hearings on SportsCenter, and in the process, lost a little of the innocence that goes along with the green diamond fields, and now that card is nowhere to be seen.

I'm not so sure I want to forgive them that.

A whole generation is being taught a lesson here. Take anything to succeed. Screw up your health for a lifetime if it will make you some money today. Cutting any corner and cheating in any way possible is perfectly okay if you don't get caught. Take the fifth, kid, take the fifth.

Your child might not get his hands on steroids. But I'll bet you he could get speed, which is almost certainly even more abused in sports. He could stroll to the Wal-Mart and get a big vat of creatine (you'll remember that term from McGwire's past controversies). He can easily buy muscle-builder or fat-burner full of ephedra or super-concentrated caffeine.

The world has come a long way since we counted on those relatively harmless boxes of Wheaties to make us hit that ball.

Whatever baseball, the players, the politicians et al choose to do about it, I hope they consider the one thing in this whole mess that really matters.

The kids are watching.