It's Time to Realize that Every Baseball Player is a Steroids Suspect

In a way I'm sorry to bring this up again, because, having already written about steroids in baseball a month or so ago, I may seem to be getting compulsive about the topic. But the newest revelation, broken yesterday by The New York Times, names the very player who this season has illustrated the principal point that I made back then. And it reinforces my further point that steroid-use has become so widespread in the game, and dishonest denials by users so prevalent, that it is no longer possible to assume that any player is clean, or to believe anyone who states that he does not now take or never has taken anabolic steroids. Anyone.

The player of the day is David Ortiz, the gregarious, beloved "Big Papi," who in 2004 and '07 was a primary contributor, along with fellow-user Manny Ramirez, to the Boston Red Sox' first national championships in more than 80 years. I've been shaking my head all season about this guy Ortiz, convinced -- though of course without proof -- that his was one of the biggest names on the list of juiced players, because his performance this year and through his career illustrates what I have suggested is a clear and reliable guide to steroid use: "Look for the anomalies."

Anomalies such as night-and-day contrasts in performance within a single season. In my previous discussion, I pointed out the extraordinary disparity in New York Met first-baseman Carlos Delgado's production in the first two months and last four months of the 2008 season, and strongly implied that the improvement was the result of his falling off the drug-free wagon -- a suspicion reinforced by his being felled this season by a ravaged hip, the steroid-user's injury of choice. In May of this year, I watched the Delgado-less Mets take on Ortiz's Red Sox in an interleague series in Boston. Or so I thought I was doing, but in fact those Sox were Ortiz-less, although his full 240-or-more pounds appeared in each of the games. Seldom have I seen a more inept batter. He really did not seem capable of driving the ball out of the infield. Slugger of 54 home runs in 2006, he had, after six weeks of the 2009 season hit only one. Then in June and July, he smacked 13.

But he was already a suspect in my mind. When Ortiz arrived in Boston from Minnesota in 2002, he had not hit more than 20 home runs, nor knocked in more than 75, nor batted .300 in any full or near-full season. The Twins didn't think enough of him to play him every day. Then in his first five years in Boston, his home runs ranged from 31 to 54, his rbi's from 101 to 148, his average from .287 to .332. Anomalies in performance between seasons or longer portions of a career are also indicators of drug-use.

Now I know that respondents to this blog will argue about other players before the "steroids era" who improved dramatically during their careers. To those readers I say, I am proving nothing. But this is the steroids era, and I am recording what I very strongly suspect. And what I already suspected about this player is now reinforced -- not proven -- by the test evidence just leaked to the press. I would add, as I also indicated in my previous piece, that I think that there have been steroids in baseball for far longer than the steroids era is usually considered to cover.

I have been saying for some time, to sometimes disbelieving companions, that if the full extent of steroid-use in baseball ever becomes known, I expect that the number of users will be legion. And maybe only then will fans fully realize how severely this plague has infected the integrity of the national game -- and yes, other sports, as well. I write this fully understanding that athletes who feel that they are at a competitive disadvantage to rivals using pharmaceutical enhancements will naturally be tempted to use them in turn. This still would not justify the intake of substances that are dangerous and illegal. But, beyond that, steroids are not an equalizer. They affect different athletes to different degrees, just as, for example, antidepressants have varied effectiveness for different psychiatric patients. The uneven effects of steroids also seems to depend on the regimens being applied and on whether or not accomplished practitioners are constructing those regimens. So one player may be minimally improved by steroids - might even be more harmed than helped by them -- while another -- first to mind is Barry Bonds - will achieve dramatic, exorbitant results. The consequence is that a modern fan can never trust that he or she is watching an honestly competitive game, nor that the statistical records that the baseball fan closely follows and compares to those of seasons past are even remotely legitimate.

Steroid-use thus makes fools of fans and of all non-participants who study or follow or report on the game. I am thinking particularly of broadcasters and sportswriters. I remember feeling embarrassed several years ago when one of the most articulate and intelligent play-by-play men in the game, Gary Cohen of the Mets, was expounding on the radio about how great and underappreciated Roger Clemens' pitching achievements were for a man his age. "Gary, Gary," I thought, "Stop it! Don't you realize that the man is saturated with steroids?" We have since learned, of course, that he almost certainly was. And just this week, a couple of days before the Ortiz-Ramirez revelation, a very good New York Times baseball-writer, Tyler Kepner, exposed his naiveté in a piece about the slugger Fred McGriff in which he compared McGriff's career numbers to other offensive stars of his time and seemed to accept on faith that his subject was the only man among them who had not been juiced. How exactly does Kepner know that, and is he as credulous today? I'm sure that if he ponders the subject a bit more, he will conclude that it is far from certain that any baseball-player of the past 20 years was entirely clean, and that not having been caught using drugs is no proof that he never did. Likewise Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, who last February extolled Carlos Delgado as "the lost slugger of the Steroid Era." Journalists, I know, have to file pieces, but I'm sorry they have to file pieces like these.

I'm also sorry to state that I believe that every player is suspect to a lesser or greater degree. Except David Wright of my Mets. What? You want me to explain why he's hit just six home runs this year after knocking 33 last year and more than 25 in each of the past four. Simple. The new Mets ballpark. Huh? What about road games? Hey, what the hell are you insinuating!