MLB column: Steroid Era’s real mystery: Not who, but how many
By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Columnist
The most important mystery of the Steroid Era was never who, but how many. In order to gauge how legit the baseball we saw the last 20 years was, not to mention the next 20, knowing the number of users is much more useful than the names.
But we couldn’t let the latest name pass without a few final words: While his apology was sincere, the more Mark McGwire opens his mouth, the harder it becomes to forgive him.
Whether he genuinely believes it, or simply can’t bring himself to see his accomplishments the way everybody else does, McGwire’s home runs were not just the result of God-given ability and a terrific work ethic. Pretending steroids played no part because they don’t improve hand-eye coordination is being disingenuous or just plain dumb.
When McGwire’s defense was presented to Dr. Gary Wadler, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency committee that draws up the list of banned substances, he was nearly speechless. He had just finished testifying as an expert witness on the topic in a federal court trial Tuesday in Mobile, Ala.
“There’s such a huge body of evidence that there’s no question — none — whether anabolic steroids enhance performance,” Wadler said finally. “Period.”
When Charles Yesalis, professor emeritus at Penn State and another of the country’s foremost experts on steroids, was asked about McGwire’s contention, he was more expansive.
“Some players have made the argument that you can’t make some guy a big behemoth and he’s going to be in the majors. But if you have that rare, God-given skill of hitting 100 mph fastballs, and curveballs, and then you make that person bigger, the notion that being bigger after that skill doesn’t help you, I can’t even take seriously,” Yesalis told SI.com. “You take Bambi and Godzilla with the same skill level, who’s going to hit the ball better?”
Now back to the numbers.
To compare the accomplishments of McGwire’s generation with past ones — the fabric that supposedly binds baseball through the years — we need to know how extensive the use of steroids was. I picked an All-Performance-Enhancing team for a column in 2006, and every year since, more and better players have become eligible.
Either because of their own admissions, as well as indictments, investigations or positive tests, we’ve nabbed sluggers, slap hitters, infielders, outfielders, power-pitchers and rag-armed relievers, whites, blacks and Latins, nobodies and used-to-be-first-ballot Hall of Famers.
We also know that it wasn’t just ballplayers who gamed the system, even if they’re the only ones called on the carpet so far. Everyone was focused on squeezing every last dollar out of the long ball. Most of the ballparks that came online featured short home-run porches and several owners sought, and received, exemptions from commissioner Bud Selig to make them shorter still.
Conveniently, the people in charge much closer to the field always seemed to be looking away. The only general manager to accept any responsibility was former San Diego executive Kevin Towers, who expressed his guilt about doing nothing to stop the abuse shortly after the death of former Padre and admitted steroid abuser Ken Caminiti.
“We all realized that there were things going on within the game that were affecting the integrity of the game,” he said in a 2005 interview. “I think we all knew it, but we didn’t say anything about it. ...
“I hate to be the one voice for the other 29 GMs,” he added, “but I’d have to imagine that all of them, at one point or other, had reason to think that a player on their ballclub was probably using. “
Within days, Selig called Towers for a clarification and got one. The Padres GM, an MLB spokesman said, “assured us that he didn’t know. He said he suspected.”
Jose Canseco said a few years ago that 80 percent of major leaguers had taken steroids and stuck to it. Everybody else in the game has been tripping over themselves trying to blur the lines between fair and foul ever since. By default, that made a frequent troublemaker and shameless publicity hound like Canseco as reliable a source as any other.
In the meantime, the line already backing up at the entrance to the Hall of Fame is only getting longer. The shame for a lot of the guys queuing up in the coming years is that it’s still tough to say with any certainty whether justice is being delayed or denied.