GORDON WHITE: Steroid Era Becomes a Real Sticking Point for Baseball
Eight members of the favored Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series in what will for ever be known as the "Black Sox Scandal."
They were arrested, tried and acquitted. But after their trial in 1921 they were banned from the sport by Major League Baseball's new commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
The most prominent of those infamous Chicago "Black Sox" was "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, a very popular, slugging outfielder who batted .375 in the eight-game, 1919 World Series won by the Cincinnati Reds, 5 games to 3.
Charles Owens of the Chicago Daily News wrote that as the eight players walked out of the Chicago Federal Court Building after they were booked in September 1920 a boy went up to Jackson almost in tears and pleaded with his hero, "Say it ain't so, Joe."
Although Jackson later denied anyone said that to him, those five words from the Chicago Daily News have resounded loudly through the years as the most plaintive cry in the history of American sports. It is the cry of all fans hoping for honesty and integrity in our national pastime.
MLB's credibility has once again been seriously tested.
The majors recently went through two decades during which many players misused steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (PED) while MLB executives and the players' union fought like cats and dogs over how best to sweep the drug issue under the rug.
Finally these two bumbling entities got around to admitting there was a drug problem. As a result, MLB established a mandatory drug testing program in 2004.
The "Steroid Era" contaminated the sport and placed the integrity of MLB in serious jeopardy. And right in the midst of the "Steroid Era," a lengthy players' strike in 1994 hurt MLB attendance greatly.
Ironically, following the strike it was the record home run hitting of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that brought fans back to MLB. Then prior to the year 2000 McGwire and Sosa were suspected of using PED and they quickly became non-heroes.
Alex Rodriguez, the latest Yankee super hero who is rated the best MLB player extant, was thought to be the drug-free slugger who would salvage MLB's reputation after the "Steroid Era". A-Rod, the Yanks' all-star third baseman, was headed for the Baseball Hall of Fame and would surely become the first man to hit 800 home runs in a career.
Rodriguez stated loudly and clearly in a 2007 TV interview that he never used such stuff as steroids or PED.
But something ugly happened on the way to the recovery room. A-Rod lied.
Whereas "Shoeless" Joe Jackson was acquitted by a jury of his peers 88 years ago, A-Rod was forced to admit during an ESPN interview, Feb. 9, that he was not Mr. Clean.
Rodriguez acknowledged that he was guilty of using PED and of publicly lying about it. A story Rodriguez could not deny broke on the Sports Illustrated Web site, Feb. 7, in which the magazine wrote that A-Rod took PED while playing for the Texas Rangers, 2001--2003.
Rodriquez, who joined the Yankees in 2004, is the highest-paid player in MLB history. The 33-year-old A-Rod has nine years remaining on his Yankee contract.
Stunned and wondering what happened to their great hope for the future, many Yankee fans did just as Charles Owens' Chicago youngster did so many years ago. They uttered the poignant lament, "Say it ain't so, A-Rod."
Sorry, folks. It is so. He did it.
Now what does MLB do? Who will be its savior? How do Yankee fans react? How does A-Rod perform? How do the Yankees, who looked unbeatable three weeks ago, play against the backdrop of this major distraction?
We know how opposing fans will react. They will yell such things as "A-Fraud" and "A-Roid" while loudly booing the Yanks' third baseman.
Rodriguez is a spectacular athlete who has, in just 15 MLB seasons, amassed 553 home runs, 2,404 hits, a lifetime batting average of .306, 1,606 runs batted in and a .967 slugging percentage. These numbers would, without drugs being involved, get him into the Hall of Fame if he retired from MLB today.
If he continues at his current pace of 37 home runs per season for the nine years remaining with the Yankees, A-Rod will end with a major league record of way over 875 home runs.
That would far exceed the current career record of 762 home runs held by Barry Bonds, who is scheduled to go on trial for perjury in California next month. He is accused of lying before a grand jury when he said he did not knowingly use steroids during his MLB career.
Five of the top 12 career home run hitters in MLB history played during the "Steroid Era" and have been linked to PED use. They are: No. 1, Barry Bonds, 762 home runs; No. 6, Sammy Sosa, 609; No. 8, Mark McGwire, 583; No. 10, Rafael Palmeiro, 569, and No. 12, Alex Rodriguez, 553, who is the only remaining active player in the top dozen.
Such statistics, when combined with steroids, leave fans asking for proof of MLB integrity before they believe fully in record performances.
A recent Associated Press poll indicates that 62 per cent of these baseball fans take records "less seriously" than they did in the past. But statistics and records have been the lifeblood of MLB throughout its history.
MLB tested many players for drug use in 2003 during a voluntary program. It is reported that 104 of those players tested positive. One of them was Alex Rodriguez, who allegedly tested positive for Primobolan, a steroid that is illegal in the United States.
The players' union and MLB officials said all of those tests would be kept confidential. But Sports Illustrated got wind of A-Rod's positive test and ran with it.
As for A-Rod's future, he will forever be linked to PED and steroids. Every time he hits a home run or has a big day at bat the drug issue may come up. It will come up in the form of questions: Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Should his home run records stand? Can he be trusted to tell the truth?
During a strictly choreographed and staged press conference at the Yankee spring training site in Florida, last Tuesday, A-Rod pleaded to the public and the press, "Judge me from this day forward."
That won't happen. A baseball player is judged, as are most people, by the sum of his career. In A-Rod's case, it means the "Steroid Era" plus what is to be in his Yankee future.
Rodriguez has danced a rare tango in the Bronx while playing for the Yankees. Moved from shortstop, where he was a MLB All-Star, to third base because Derek Jeter is irreplaceable as the Yanks' shortstop, Rodriguez took time to become an excellent hot corner defensive player.
He hit many home runs for the Yanks during his first five regular seasons in the Bronx and drove in oodles of runs. But he has not produced as expected in Yankee post-season play, that part of Yankee campaigns where the sluggers are supposed to crush the opposition and win the World Series. He has taken part in Yankee post seasons four times, 2004--2007. And he has received, appropriately, loud Bronx cheers for his post-season failures.
Although a significant member of the large pantheon of Yankee heroes throughout the team's history, A-Rod is yet to be accepted as warmly by Yankee fans as were Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter and a host of others.
Overly conscious of his public image, A-Rod behaves very strangely for a man so possessed of such vanity. He was linked romantically with Madonna and other women prior to a very nasty recent divorce. This drew criticism and loud fan ridicule.
He also said his once long-standing friendship with Derek Jeter had cooled. You don't mess with the team captain, who is Mr. Yankee to adoring New York fans.
Then along came the steroid admission. What impression does he exude now?
In order to improve his tarnished image, Rodriquez hired a former member of John McCain's presidential campaign staff to salvage what he can from the wreckage of the current version of the Yankee third baseman.
During the rigged Q and A press conference at Yankee training camp last Tuesday, we learned that Rodriguez was injected by a cousin twice a month with "boli" for more than two full seasons. Boli is believed to be the drug that resulted in A-Rod testing positive for Primobolan.
Rodriguez also said he used an over-the-counter supplement called "Ripped Fuel" during his years with the Seattle Mariners, 1994--2000. This is now banned by MLB.
The Yankee third baseman has lied too many times to make believers of us despite these two staged TV interview performances. But if the Yankees win this season, as predicted, maybe their fans will get behind Rodriguez---to a degree.
However, he will never receive the adoration and respect accorded Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle and Jeter.
Rodriguez dutifully apologized to everyone for his drug use and said he was sorry during his mandatory televised mea culpa act that he has performed twice so far. A-Rod had no choice since he was caught with both fists deep in the cookie jar.
But that raised the question: Was he sorry for what he did or sorry he was caught?
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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