BASEBALL’S CULTURE OF STEROIDS

It’s not like people didn’t know baseball players used performance-enhancing drugs, but when a former U.S. senator stands at a podium and delivers a 409-page report, and says the problem was “widespread” and “many players were involved” and that we “ought to be shocked into action”- well, that puts an official seal on it, doesn’t it?

And that is the big result – maybe the only real result – of the hammer that was dropped Thursday. It banged a nail in a box. You can put this on a shelf. The last decade or so has an official name now, “Baseball’s Steroids Era,” George Mitchell called it, and if you didn’t believe it before, you ought to now.

But beyond that, the report was not earth-shattering, only because we already have suspected much of what it contained. Sure, many more names were thrown on the bonfire, including All-Stars such as Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Miguel Tejada, and as you read this, analysts and fans are screaming over how to view their careers. (Should they play again? Should their numbers carry an asterisk?) But this is such a familiar exercise, already performed on Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Rafael Palmeiro and others that even brand new, it feels old.

What the Mitchell Report really did was gave in cold, hard detail accounts of player after player injecting themselves or being injected with steroids or human growth hormone, purchasing illegal products, writing checks, leaving behind shipping receipts. Reading it was like morphing “Dragnet” with “SportsCenter.”

It also showed the amazing indifference of the clubs themselves, with e-mails and notes referring to players as “a juice guy” or warning “steroids could an issue” as if they were talking about someone being left- or right-handed

Commissioner Bud Selig asked Mitchell to investigate a problem and Mitchell dutifully reported back. It took him 20 months. Here was his conclusion:

You have a problem.

So now what? Paying the price

Selig, at his news conference, said the report was “a call to action” and “I will act.” He’d better. Because he didn’t act quickly enough in the past. Maybe Selig wanted to believe the best of his beloved sport. Maybe he was just na├»ve. But until this report, he has been a too cautious man, wanting to be sure, logical, go by-the-book.

Here’s his book: 409 pages worth. And the truth is, it probably only skims the surface. Mitchell himself claimed there were “many more” that went uncovered. After all, one active player cooperated with his investigation. The most common phrase in the report is “asked him to meet with me; he declined.”

The bulk of the damning information comes from two sources, Brian McNamee, a strength and conditioning trainer who worked with the Blue Jays and the Yankees (and offered the evidence on Pettitte and Clemens, two of his charges), and Kirk Radomski, a one-time batboy for the Mets who became a major dealer of steroids and human growth hormone. Radomski spilled his beans only because he had to, as part of a plea bargain deal with the authorities after he was busted. So don’t be surprised if some of his accused start pointing fingers back, calling him a rat, a liar, a louse or worse. Already, baseball’s union chief, Donald Fehr, fired a warning shot, using the phrases “nature of the evidence” and “reliability of the source.”

Still, you’d have to be the craziest sort of conspiracy theorist to ignore the fire for the smoke here. Fehr can bark all he wants. What are all those checks from players to Radomski for? Car rentals?

And if they had nothing to hide, why didn’t any of them talk? The biggest defense Fehr offered at his news conference was that there were other legal cases going on that their testimony could tie them to. Yeah. Those cases are about steroids as well.

This is no small deal. Investigations of this nature don’t happen every year or even every decade in baseball. And for all it revealed about the past, the more important thing is what it means for the future. Mitchell basically called for amnesty, focusing instead on the road ahead. But Mitchell is the digger here, not the diviner. Selig will decide the punishments.

Should the active players be punished? Is the report alone enough to do that – if they never failed a drug test? What about those scouts or front office people who never reported a suspected player? Should they be punished, too? Should Pettitte have his records stripped? Should Clemens give back his awards – like Marion Jones had to return her gold medals? Should every drug be tested for, every day, in every way? Will baseball players become pin-cushions, cup-fillers, creating a cottage industry for urine and blood analysis?

Or will the net result be, as many suspect, a big fat nothing? An uneven playing field

Look. We all know the deal. There are those who will say “So what?” and those who will say “So everything.” I have never been one to confuse baseball historians with baseball fans. The former wants to keep the game clean and level and analytical and recordable, and for them, this is a black mark that must be noted, researched, fitted properly into the more-than-century-long history of the sport.

The fan? The fan just wants his team to win. Many just want to be entertained. They want home runs going over the walls. They want 100 m.p.h. fastballs. What they really want is all those things happening on their team’s roster. And for them, this is just another ugly off-season day.

But if you believe in fairness, you can’t say this is nothing. You can’t say it was meaningless. If, as some have suggested, at a low estimate, 5% to 7% of major league baseball took or takes performance-enhancing drugs, that is still 70 to 100 players.

Take one of those players. Maybe he was juiced. Maybe he took the last roster spot from another non-juiced guy. So he changed that other player’s life, and his wife’s and children’s lives, too, right?

Or say that juiced player is a guy like Clemens, who has hundreds of thousands of young fans. And now they see his name and accounts of him allegedly having needles stuck in his body to get an edge. And those thousands of kids lose their belief in him, or the sport. And when they grow up they tell their kids you can’t trust these guys. And on and on. This is no small pond, the sport of baseball, and a rock in these waters can ripple forever.

A big rock splashed Thursday. If you believe it is true, then no team can say it never had a steroid or HGH user. And no player in the last decade can say he never shared a roster with a cheater.

“Baseball’s Steroids Era,” Mitchell called it, officially and undeniably. The nail is hammered. The box is on the shelf. Where we go next is anyone’s guess. But when the biggest news of the summer game explodes just before Christmas, you know we can’t stay where we are.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). He will sign copies of his books for the holidays at 8 tonight at Barnes & Noble on Monroe in Toledo, 11 a.m. Saturday at Borders Express at Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills, 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble in Royal Oak and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Borders in Canton.

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