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Without a Clue

In the steroid age, those who cover the game struggle to describe what they see

The strange part is that even now, after all this time, those of us who cover baseball—players call us The Media—still seem to have no idea how to write or talk about performance-enhancing drugs. Best I can tell, the time line goes something like this.

1901--1958: Baseball players drink milk to build muscles.

1959--1986: Weightlifting is bad for baseball players—it tightens the muscles!

1987: The baseball is juiced.

1988--2000: O.K., well, apparently weightlifting is good for baseball players.

2001--2005: How could we have missed the steroid story?

2006--2009: None of these guys are going to the Hall of Fame. None of them!

Obviously, this is a generalization. There were people writing about steroids before 2001, and there were outraged writers long before 2006. And Mark McGwire does receive the occasional Hall of Fame vote.

But, all in all, we sportswriters have been at least one step behind the Selig Era, caught in a rundown between what we think and what we know, what we suspect and what we hope, caught celebrating big home run numbers or being sickened by them. Smoke is to the left of us, fire on the right, and here we are, stuck in the middle with the Mitchell Report, congressional hearings, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and a disbelieving public.

This all surfaced again last week when a young man named Jerod Morris wrote a blog post for an Internet site he started, Morris says his posts generally get 300 or so hits—many of those from friends. He decided to write about his most excellent fantasy baseball draft pick: Raul Iba√±ez. At the time, Iba√±ez led the NL in homers (he had 22 through Sunday) and RBIs (59)—a fantasy gold mine—and Morris wanted to respond to a jealous team owner who (in the lowercase-letters-and-multiple-question-marks way of e-mails) pointed out that Iba√±ez is 37 and having an out-of-character power surge. To quote the owner: "i thought they were testing???"

Morris wrote a long post that included charts and statistics. He wanted to prove that Iba√±ez's hot start is more likely explained by factors other than PEDs—the size of the Philadelphia ballpark, a history of Iba√±ez's early hot streaks, the quality of opposing pitchers. In the end he did not find the numbers persuasive. While he said that he was withholding judgment, he admitted that he could not eliminate the PED possibility. "It will be a wonderful day when we can see a great start by a veteran like Iba√±ez and not immediately jump to speculating about whether steroids or PEDs are involved," he wrote. "We certainly are not at that point yet, however."

What followed was the 2009 information dance. Shades of gray were darkened. Morris's careful analysis was reduced to a few words on Twitter. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist John Gonzalez saw the blog and felt it was too hot to be ignored. His column appeared under the headline A CHEAP SHOT AT IBAÑEZ. The paper's Phillies beat writer, Jim Salisbury, asked Ibañez how he felt about a blogger speculating that he was juicing. It's fair to say Ibañez didn't like it.

Then, suddenly, Morris's blog was hit tens of thousands of times, and Morris found himself on ESPN's Outside the Lines getting beat up by mainstream reporters. "We're all skeptical," Fox Sports's Ken Rosenthal said on the show. "We all have these feelings. That doesn't mean you simply go write which players you think might be using, whether he's hot or not. It's ridiculous."

The shame of it was that the conversation reignited the tedious mainstream-media-versus-bloggers conflict when, instead, it should have been about how Morris was simply wrestling with the same thing we all wrestle with. Four weeks earlier Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times led off a column with, "Sorry, Ryan Theriot, you're a suspect"—after Theriot had hit his fifth home run. In May, Rosenthal himself wrote a column about how irresponsible it is to pin David Ortiz's plunge on steroids ... while adding, "For all I know, Ortiz might have been a user; the Steroid Era, sadly, has taught us to view all players skeptically."

This is the Twister game sportswriters play now. We are skeptical but hopeful, cynical but cautious, vigilant but docile. In other words, we are lost. Nobody can ignore the PED issue or the fans' mistrust, not in these times. Yet to merely bring it up is to unfairly smear someone like Ibañez, who has beaten odds his entire career, who has had remarkably similar 60-game streaks before and who is so adamant about the PED issue that he says he will return every dime he's ever made on the game if he ever tests positive.

So now what? Maybe what we need are code words. Baseball writing has always been filled with code words, compliments that can mean two different things. Fans know crafty probably means can't throw hard. Grizzled veteran can mean washed-up old guy. Gamer might be a polite way of saying can't hit, and talented player can mean doesn't hustle.

So—PED code words. Brawny? Vibrant? Ageless? Or maybe we could just start writing that players are drinking milk again.

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Sportswriters are lost: Should we celebrate big home run numbers or be SICKENED BY THEM?