For months, baseball and its fans have been lying awake in a second-floor bedroom staring at the ceiling, waiting for The Other Shoe to hit the floor.
The first shoe fell long ago when it linked Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire to steroids. Bonds’ linkage was courtesy of the BALCO investigation, McGwire’s courtesy of Jose Canseco, whose green-eyed jealousy consumed him as he fingered former teammates who had better careers than he.
So we — Major League Baseball, commissioner Bud Selig, the Players Union and the fans — spent sleepness night upon sleepness night while Selig’s sleuth, Senator George Mitchell, who once brokered peace in Northern Ireland, hunted for clues and evidence in baseball’s attic.
When he had found the evidence he had been searching for and had rounded up the usual suspects, he dropped the other shoe. It was called The Mitchell Report
So here we are, you and I, lying wide awake — no longer innocents, no longer naïve, no longer trying to pretend at sleep. The other shoe has hit the floor.
Senator Mitchell has presented baseball with a bill. For all intents and purposes, Mitchell was the messenger sent by grocery clerks to collect on a bill, as the insane General (Marlon Brando) termed Martin Sheen’s job to terminate him with prejudice in “Apocalypse Now.”
Baseball — which means the commissioner, the owners and the players association — had, indeed, rendered itself as impotent as grocery store clerks while the game’s players juiced up. Was good for business. They saw nothing, they heard nothing, they knew nothing. Wink, wink. Meanwhile, the juice and the powder, the cream and the clear, disappeared off the shelves.
So now the bill. Better now, and better late, than never at all.
Today — a couple of days after Black Thursday, the day The Other Shoe fell — I am ready to move on. It is what it is, The Mitchell Report — the bill for the juice and the powder and the cream and the clear. It was the shadow that threatened to devour the game. From this moment forward, let the record officially show that this shadow that moved across our national pastime was The Steroid Era.
Truth to tell, I viewed the 80-plus names on The Mitchell Report with some relief. I expected worse. Mitchell himself indicated the list was but a part of those who may have cheated. That was the worst part. That the 80-plus ruined the reputations of the many who played the game on the up and up during the Steroid Era.
Clemens. No surprise, really. Like Bonds, his career caught a suspicious-looking second wind in his mid-30s, after the Red Sox said he was in decline and let him go. Sheffield? He’d been fingered before. Lenny Dykstra? He broke into the majors as a slap-hitting singles hitter and became one of those biceps guys who was frequently injured. Pettitte was a surprise. Probably talked into it by Clemens, his buddy.
If there is a thread that runs through the list of names it is this: Most (roughly 85-90 percent) of these guys were hanger-on types and players whose careers were decidedly riddled with injuries.
The only real stars were Bonds, Clemens — the Big Kahuna of Mitchell’s report — Rafael Palmeiro, Mo Vaughn, Juan Gonzalez, Miguel Tejada, Sheffield, Wally Joyner, David Justice and Pettitte.
The only players with Hall of Fame careers are Bonds, Clemens, Palmeiro, Gonzalez and, maybe, Sheffield. Period. McGwire did not have a Hall of Fame career. Had a couple of huge home run years to go with a very low batting average is all.
So what we have is a bunch of guys who cheated. What we don’t have is a clue as to what point in their careers they began to cheat. Some did it to overcome injuries, some did it so they could make a major league roster and stay in The Show and collect a paycheck, some did it to just flat-out perform better so they could draw even larger salaries.
The most interesting case is still Palmeiro. Of all the names, he is the Waldo in the maze of players whose careers were dotted with injuries. The dichotomy of steroids is that while it helps athletes to bounce back and heal from injuries, it also makes athletes susceptible to things like pulling their hamstrings because of increased muscle mass.
The only player to ever appear in a lineup more frequently than Palmeiro during his career was Cal Ripken, who broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played. Palmeiro never got hurt. Never pulled a hammy. Played 155-162 games every season. And he always looked the same. Never gained muscle mass or grew a big, fat pumpkin head or biceps out to here. Although Palmeiro tested positive late in his career, somehow it just didn’t compute. More so now even with the publishing of Mitchell’s list.
As for the Hall of Fame thing, I admit to being totally torn. I also admit to being human, which is to say I am riddled with flaws and prejudices. Just like you. Just like everyone who votes on the Hall of Fame.
I would — just like Bud Selig says he will do in deciding whom to mete out punishment – decide on a “case by case basis,” with all my attendant prejudices attached.
At this moment in time, I would vote for Clemens, Bonds and Palmeiro to the Hall. Their career and their numbers are just to damn good to ignore. Can’t stand either Clemens (mean) or Bonds (arrogant), but if you vote one in the other has to go in, too. Palmeiro, quite simply, was always a class act and a pure hitter. Did he cheat? Maybe. But probably not until very late in his career.
Gonzalez was a Hall of Fame-type player whose career was so riddled with real and imagined injuries that he came up short of having actual Hall of Fame numbers. His muscles and his injuries lent credence to suspicion of his having used enhancers.
In the end, we know what we know: That a cancer grew on the game … that it was permitted to grow … and that it grew big enough to cast a shadow on the game for a long enough period of time that it became known as The Steroid Era.
Let us, from yesterday on, begin the healing. Let Selig and the players union take the steps that are needed to purify the country’s pastime. But retroactive punishment? Being named on Mitchell’s List should be enough.
Today’s players, even the clean ones, have a taint on them that no amount of cleansing will ever quite erase. That’s the shame of it.
The beauty of it is that it’s still a heck of a game. The best one of all, really. And it goes on from here.
Contact Doug Clarke at firstname.lastname@example.org.