Baseball begins anew this week as it always does, a morning game, pure as can be. Dew sparkles upon carpets of fragrant grass as the late winter sun, yet to work up its anger, rises gently over Florida and Arizona. Mocha base paths are Zen gardens of smoothly combed perfection. The dawn of a spring training day could stir the soul of a Franciscan monk. Or even, given the lack of standings this time of year, that of a Milwaukee Brewers fan.
The dawn of this season, however, may be the beginning of a whole new era. After all, the Boston Red Sox are defending world champions. (How long has it been since that could be said? The last such season, 1919, ended with baseball's original sin: the Black Sox throwing the World Series.)
Major league baseball will be played in our nation's capital for the first time since 1971, the National League will play its games entirely on grass fields for the first time since 1965, and the 714 home runs of Babe Ruth will be surpassed for only the second time since he smote his last in 1935.
But none of that, noteworthy as it all may be, is why a new day may be upon us. After 15 or more years of ballplayers' enjoying unfettered use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, baseball has instituted real measures to try to stop it: the possibility of multiple random tests (even in the off-season) and 10-day suspensions upon first offenses--which is, to judge by the harsh public treatment of New York Yankees designated hitter Jason Giambi, the modern equivalent of doing time in the stocks on the town square, getting mocked and blasted with rotten tomatoes.
"The knowledge of it being public will be a huge deterrent for a player," commissioner Bud Selig said last week.
The policy does have its significant loopholes. Players can still use human growth hormone. (Though it is listed as a banned substance, baseball does not screen for it because only a blood test can detect its usage.) The rampant use of amphetamines and other such stimulants is tacitly approved by their omission from the banned list. Designer steroids manufactured to be undetectable in tests--the successors to THG, the steroid at the center of the BALCO scandal--will continue to be invented. Players can also use lower doses of steroids to avoid detection.
Baseball's Maginot Line will be breached. But the Steroid Era as we knew it--the days when anyone could juice up with impunity, which meant everyone was under suspicion--appears to be over. Maybe now we will allow ourselves to believe that what we see is genuine. Time and an effective testing program will tell.
Turn-of-this-century baseball will likely be remembered for steroids, just as the early 1900s were for the dead ball, the '30s for a lively one, the postwar years for integration, the '60s for expansion, the '70s for free agency and the '80s for cocaine.
The history has only begun to be written, including the just-released gossipy tome by former MVP Jose Canseco, the very embodiment of the Steroid Era, as Tony Manero was for the Disco Era, only all too real. If in just one year (2003) about 70 major leaguers flunked anonymous tests for steroids when they knew the tests were coming, how many players used steroids over the previous decade and a half when no tests or repercussions were in place? Hundreds?
Counting Canseco, we know of 11 players--through admissions to SI (Ken Caminiti, Gary Sheffield), grand jury testimony as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle (Barry Bonds, Jason and Jeremy Giambi, Benito Santiago, Bobby Estelella and Armando Rios) and Olympic-sanctioned testing (Derrick Turnbow, Terrmel Sledge)--who used steroids or performance-enhancing drugs or failed a test for them while on major league rosters. Eleven. That's it. (If you give credence to Canseco's accusations, you can add six others.)
What the dirty have done, though, is leave to our imagination which other players might have also juiced up. A sudden gain in muscle mass? A spike in home runs? A seven-mph boost on the fastball? A bigger head? As unfair as it seems to play this variation on the old "Does she or doesn't she?" commercial, it is human nature to extrapolate from what those 11 players and their abetting owners have done.
Likewise, what to make of the records? To borrow from the late Jack Buck, Do you believe what you just saw? Or do you discount the numbers from the era, like a Canadian dollar?
Canseco, for his part, once the best, richest and most popular player in the game, exposed himself as a fraud. His 462 home runs mean ... what exactly? His literary attempt to throw other contemporaries into the fray may or may not stick, but it does add to the clamor of the steroid war.
Canseco claims to be Patient X--baseball's first documented steroid user--but Bonds is the petri dish of the month. The Chronicle reported that prosecutors grilled Bonds for three hours in December 2003 about his knowledge and use of a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals: "the cream" (a testosterone-based balm), "the clear" (THG), human growth hormone, Depo-Testosterone and trenbolone (steroids), insulin, Clomid (a female fertility drug used to enhance the effects of testosterone) and Modafinil (an antinarcolepsy drug used as a stimulant). According to the Chronicle, Bonds testified that he used the cream and the clear but did not know they were steroids. Bonds has not been charged with any crime. His personal trainer, Greg Anderson, is under indictment as part of the BALCO investigation.
Last week Kimberly Bell, who claims to be Bonds's former mistress, told Fox News Channel that he admitted to her that he used steroids in 1999 and 2000. Bell, 35, described physical changes in Bonds, such as bloating and acne on his back, and said that he told her he was using the drugs to help speed his recovery from injuries and that "everyone was doing [steroids]."
Bonds, 40, begins this year with 703 home runs. But is that in Canadian dollars? Assuming Bonds recovers, as expected, from arthroscopic knee surgery that will limit his activity in spring training, he will pass Ruth before the heat of summer arrives, leaving only Hank Aaron and his 755 home runs ahead of him. And a once-in-a-generation colossal event that should set the MLB marketing people aglow will be met by ... what? A shrug? Worse?
"In San Francisco? It will be received very well," Selig says about number 715, keen to sports' tradition of provincialism. "Elsewhere? I don't know. Time will tell. I'll be very interested to see what happens."
Geez. Somebody passes the Babe and it's as uncomfortable as when that uncle of yours passes wind at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Bonds, remember, was actually booed making a World Series appearance last year in St. Louis--St. Louis!--the Mayberry of baseball.
"We'll have a great year as long as we keep the focus on the field," Selig says. "I am confident our attendance will set an alltime record."
Baseball did set an attendance record last year by drawing 73 million fans (though per-game attendance still lags below the pre-1994 strike level). Nine teams surpassed three million fans. A team that lost 111 games, the Arizona Diamondbacks, outdrew every one of the 20 Yankees world championship teams from 1923 to 1962.
The last World Series, though a sweep, was the most watched Fall Classic since 1995, including a 44% jump in teenage male viewers from the previous year. XM Satellite radio is paying Major League Baseball $650 million over the next 11 years to broadcast games.
Baseball is enjoying the rare synchronicity of its three most storied franchises--the Yankees, Cubs and Red Sox--winning at the same time. Each has won at least 88 games in the same back-to-back years for the first time ever. They finished one-three-four last year as the game's top road attractions, with Bonds's Giants second.
The Yankees' largesse is enriching other clubs as well as their own players. One out of every 10 fans who purchased a major league baseball ticket last year watched the Bronx Bombers play. The Yankees spent about $88 million in revenue-sharing and luxury-tax payments to be shared by the other 29 teams in '04.
The system even put the brakes on the Yankees' spending, though it took a $195 million payroll for owner George Steinbrenner to put away his checkbook. New York decided it could not afford ace lefthander Randy Johnson and centerfielder Carlos Beltran last winter, so the Yankees traded for Johnson and watched Beltran sign across town with the Mets for $119 million, though Beltran offered to take $19 million less to come to the Bronx.
"Pitching wins championships," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says. "And looking at Beltran, $100 million became $140 million because of the [40%] luxury tax. We'll pay Randy Johnson about as much over the next three years as the tax alone on Beltran would have been."
Awash with new cash from revenue sharing, satellite radio and, for many clubs, new ballparks, owners jumped off their fiscal diet of the last two winters and went on an old-fashioned spending spree. Contracts of at least four years were given to 15 players--up from five the previous winter. Shaken Pittsburgh Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy, whose biggest off-season signing was outfielder Ben Grieve to a minor league contract, wondered if his brethren had consumed "some funny water."
Prohibition is over. The owners shelled out more than $1 billion on free agents, including $491 million by four teams that each lost at least 90 games last year: the Mets, Diamondbacks, Tigers and Mariners. They can dream, can't they? More than one fourth (21 of 80) of the postseason teams since the wild-card system debuted in 1995 had a losing record the previous year, though only five went from 90 losses to the playoffs.
Yes, the Yankees and the Red Sox are still the axis of power, but the rest of baseball, particularly the National League, is balkanized. The league has sent a different team to the World Series seven years running; overall, 22 of the 30 clubs have made the playoffs in the 10-year history of the wild-card format.
"By any measure you choose," Selig says, "the game is more popular than it's ever been."
If, as Selig hopes, the focus remains on the field, the game will persevere. Roger Clemens needs two victories to surpass Steve Carlton as the winningest living pitcher. Former teammates Greg Maddux and Rafael Palmeiro could each answer to Mr. 3,000--Maddux needing 84 strikeouts and Palmeiro 78 hits for the magic number. As many as five players could join the eight active sluggers in the 400-homer club; Andres Galarraga (399), Manny Ramirez (390), Alex Rodriguez (381), Mike Piazza (378) and Larry Walker (368) are all within striking distance. Sammy Sosa needs 26 homers for 600 and, having worn out his welcome with the Cubs, will attempt to hit them as a Baltimore Oriole.
Even with tougher steroid testing, home runs will continue to fly because for this generation the game has been taught, played and tailored with an emphasis on power. Until 1996 only one team in baseball history, the fabled '61 Yankees, hit more than 225 home runs in a season. Twenty-six teams have done it in the past nine seasons.
As spring training begins, Selig has no major crisis on his desk, though it's safe to assume that the cache of BALCO bombshells has not been emptied. Having at last worked with the players to create a steroid-testing program with some teeth and moved the unloved Montreal Expos to Washington (where 15,000 season-ticket holders have welcomed them), baseball owners have finally addressed the two most corrosive issues that had plagued the game for three years. Another nagging issue was removed when an awkwardly repentant Pete Rose wrote himself into exile last year.
Selig even sold his family's ownership stake in the Brewers this winter, ending the conflict-of-interest question that had hung over his commissionership. And maybe that is as solid a statement as we have on the health of the game: Somebody paid $223 million for the Milwaukee Brewers. It is as good a time as any to hope for the best.
Maybe now we will allow ourselves to believe that what we see IS GENUINE. Time and an effective testing program will tell.
Canseco claims to be Patient X--baseball's first documented STEROID USER--but Bonds is the petri dish of the month.
Awash with NEW CASH, owners jumped off their fiscal diet of the last two winters and went on an old-fashioned spending spree.
Photograph by Bill Frakes
Even the commissioner wonders what sort of reaction Bonds will get when he passes the Babe this year.
BRAD MANGIN (LEFT)
Maddux (left) and Clemens (center) are nearing milestones, while Johnson prepares for his pinstripe debut.
¬† [See caption above]