Puttin' Out the Bone

Players, Owners and Journalists All to Blame for Steroid Mess -- But Not the Reds

If 1998 was the year that brought baseball back, 2005 is the year that brings baseball back to 1998. It should be a rather unsettling journey down memory lane for the flacks and fat bellies who were then so full of fuzzies over home run magic that they failed to raise obvious suspicions that are just now being addressed the hard way.

Locally, the news is much brighter, for 2005 could be the year that brings the Reds back to winning. The Reds are a winning team on paper for the first time since 2000, which also was the last time they were a winner in the standings.

Unfortunately, '98 looms wherever Major League Baseball (MLB) is played, even though many don't care if top sluggers of recent years used steroids. Some mouth breathers like Barry Bonds suggest he would just be giving fans his best if he used steroids. To which the feds rightly say "phooey."

Apart from whether MLB had itself together to ban steroids, unprescribed possession is a federal offense punishable by fine or prison time under a 1990 crime bill signed into law by the first President Bush. In a society that's increasingly skittish about law and order, lawmakers could hardly ignore revelations of lawlessness run amok in America's pastime.

Congress, which has taken to demagoguing issues of popular fancy, began hearings over baseball and steroids this spring, lacking satisfaction with the grand old game's initiative.

It's true the players union, finally nodding to its broader membership, decided over the offseason to go along with halfway serious steroid sanctions that would jeopardize its star constituents. It's also true the commissioner's office realized it needed to twist arms once Congress began whistling, because threats to the game's anti-trust exemption are always part of that tune.

But when Congress began asking questions, baseball management and players offered tepid answers, if any. Those two decorated lords of '98, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, slithered without convincing anyone that they couldn't speak in English or about the past, respectively.

And one could almost hear the screams from Capitol Hill when legislators noted an option in baseball's new steroid agreement allowing the commissioner to sanction first offenses with minimal fines or less minimal suspensions at his discretion. Reports from spring training camps said the players agreed to no such provision, adding that the commissioner obviously sought an out to protect stars with fines and to grandstand by suspending mediocrities, depending on the warrants of expedience.

Now the fine option has been dropped, but the remaining questions about 1998 and Barry Bonds haven't. It should be emphasized that questions as to whether Bonds, McGwire or Sosa illegally bulked up with steroids remain questions, and it should be emphasized likewise that guns are smoking from their directions.

But we're asking the questions today and we weren't asking them in 1998, and that leads to a really interesting question: Why weren't we asking them in '98?

The media covering baseball, which often has proved susceptible to easy confusion, entirely blew this one, which makes it doubly difficult to accept the indignation its leaders pen today casting the stars of 1998 as "cheaters." No one cheated us in '98 more than the media covering baseball. Even if players cheated, too, well, conscience demands that the media hold itself to a higher standard.

If anyone outside CityBeat raised suspicion or discomfort over the 1998 home run race back then, it's desired that the record be produced. Baseball journalists, particularly columnists who are freer to voice possibilities without hard evidence, rolled over like trained cocker spaniels about the home run chase. Men and women purportedly in the business of critical analysis seldom raised a skeptical eyebrow over the situation of the day.

How could they have missed it? Do baseball journalists travel by turnip truck?

Setting the scene: In 1927, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in a 154-game season, setting a single-season record that stood until 1961, when Roger Maris his 61 homers in a 162-game season. The commissioner's office decreed that an asterisk be placed next to Maris' mark on account of the longer season he played.

That was the standard of human performance in a game celebrated for the justice of its proportions. In 70 seasons between Ruth's standard and 1998, no one except Maris sustained a run for 60 homers. Then along came '98, when a seven-decade standard that had seldom been approached suddenly was demolished by two players at the same time.

The story-tellers in the newspapers and TV studios were unmoved by the oddness and all too happy to join Major League Baseball's spin chorus in the joyous refrain that baseball was back on the backs of these two great men, Mark and Sammy.

One can't blame baseball journalists as baseball fans for loving baseball and delighting in its renewed popularity. They love their jobs as baseball reporters, and their vested interests in the game's prosperity are obvious.

But one can blame baseball journalists in this instance as journalists whose role before the general public is to keep an eye out for suspicious activity. Journalists who are ideally critical thinkers lap-dogged the story almost from beginning to end, so intoxicated that they refused to check and balance each other with even the simplest observation — that something was wrong with this picture.

Readers and writers alike chastised and blew off the insistence from this columnist that something was terribly wrong with the picture. High-profile journalists refused to curb their enthusiasm when they should have known better, even if they didn't know about steroids.

But events have proved our cynicism was warranted, even if we didn't pin it on steroids. See "Home Runs: The Great Lie" (issue of July 23-29, 1998) and "The End of Baseball As We Know It" (issue of Oct. 8-14, 1998).

We produced arguments that McGwire, Sosa and other sluggers of the homer-bloated time benefited disproportionately from weak pitchers wrought by rapid expansion, as well as a shrunken strike zone and the openings of small ballparks. The lords of baseball didn't mind tiny parks, tight strike zones and the historically distorted home run totals that came with them. After all, the game was trying to recover from the 1994 strike and there seemed no end to the gimmickry they'd endorse.

The new parks especially influenced home run expansion in the National League, which played in large, round parks for the previous three decades. With more room for error, N.L. pitchers were used to being bolder with the fastball because their mistakes more often stayed in the yard. With smaller parks, those mistakes cleared fences.

Those were reasons we gave for home run expansion that finally went haywire in 1998. We wondered about steroids — lots of observers wondered about steroids because there already had been whispers and accusations about steroids in baseball. But two legitimate considerations kept us from saying so.

First, if you're going to say Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa used steroids, you'd better know it or at least have probable cause for saying it. Second, the prevalence of steroid use in baseball was understandably lost on those of us who follow the Reds.

There has never been an account of a Reds player, in or around '98 or since, being named as a steroid user. The closest is Bret Boone, named in Jose Canseco's book, but that wasn't until Boone moved on to the Seattle Mariners. And Canseco's account of Boone has been mostly discredited.

Unquestionably, though, steroids have been around baseball for a good bit more than 10 years. It's truly remarkable and upsetting, even more so in retrospect, that more journalists didn't pop up with some skepticism about all those home runs.

Oddly enough, it was a temporary blessing for McGwire and baseball when revelations of his androstendione use surfaced in 1998. Andro is a steroid precursor that was legal and not banned by baseball. And it seemed andro was sufficient to account for McGwire's increased bulk. As it turns out, there might have been more to the story.

It's one matter if baseball officials know about steroids and keep their mouths shut, wishing to grease the good publicity machine. We wouldn't expect anything else from them.

But what about journalists who are around the game a lot, whose professional life is covering baseball? Even if they couldn't substantiate steroid use well enough to report it in 1998, they could have resisted the fawning hype about the home run chase.

It's not the journalist's job to police baseball. It's the game's job to police itself. But it is the journalist's job to say the game isn't policing itself or to at least point out obvious discrepancies and maintain a stance of proper skepticism.

Now skepticism is everywhere, and so are the feds. Bonds, only 12 homers from surpassing Babe Ruth and 53 from overtaking Henry Aaron, now talks as if he might not hit any of them this year. No one believes it, but accounts suggest he's haggard after turning the spring training press conference into an art form of self-immolation.

Stories out of San Francisco telling of the feds investigating his trainer in connection with steroids have clearly gotten to the slugger who miraculously grew and improved after age 35.

At his first press conference this spring, Bonds accused journalists of re-running the same story over and over again, evidently not understanding that real events, unlike episodes of Sanford & Son, don't always wrap up in 30 minutes. At his next mass briefing, Bonds tried to soft-peddle the steroid issue entirely. Then he went out to the media a couple weeks ago with his teenaged son as a prop and offered one of the great self-fulfilling prophecies, saying the media's attention to the story has been a strain on his family.

Bonds is recovering from a recent arthroscopic knee surgery, which enables lesser athletes to return quickly. Bonds is saying it could take him half the season, or all of it.

It might be just as well if Bonds misses the entire season, because it's hard to believe anyone who isn't on baseball's publicity payroll would take his passage of Ruth or Aaron very seriously. Bonds has never been the most loveable man in baseball, but his achievements merited grudging respect. By now, the grudges run much too deep.

Locally, as steroids have never been a local issue, a return to the good times of the Reds winning more than they lose is in the plans, even if the Reds don't win a division or playoff spot. But any team that wins more than it loses is within a punch of the playoffs, and that's reason enough for optimism as the Reds open their season Monday with a group of proven veterans.

Wherever one looks up and down the lineup, the dugout, the bullpen or the pitching rotation, it's not a question if the Reds are pinning hopes on a player who's going to hurt them. And that already means they're not, on the face of it, a losing team. The questions are whether they can survive injuries, which would keep them average, or if players can produce career years, which would make them contenders.

The Reds have no evident weaknesses and one evident strength, a deep and powerful outfield. Austin Kearns returned this year with a 10-game hitting streak at the start of spring training, and the addition of Joe Randa at third base means Kearns shouldn't have to worry about anything but playing right field. If Junior Griffey can't run through the entire season in center field, Wily Mo Pena showed last year he should suffice. There's only one home run hitter in the league better than left fielder Adam Dunn, and he's being linked to steroids.

We understand, at least, that there's no such problem as a fourth outfielder wasting on the bench. Every ball club needs a good one to account for rest, injuries, match-ups and late-inning situations. Lots of trade rumors will crop up involving Pena, and all must be weighted against the possibilities he creates. He and utility man Ryan Freel give manager Dave Miley a good bit of flexibility, which is valuable in itself.

Offensively, the Reds' infield won't scare anyone, but this isn't a group that gives away at-bats either. On the left side, Randa and shortstop Rich Aurelia are role players, which isn't a knock. They're big leaguers of long standing who won't foul up from lack of experience. Second baseman D'Angelo Jimenez doesn't make every play, but he doesn't kick the ball around and he can hit a homer or steal a base.

When the Reds showed Barry Larkin the door last fall, at least they could rely on a solid fall-back position for leadership in the clubhouse. Sean Casey at first base is a good cornerstone, twice a 99-RBI man, always the mayor and now the inside manager. The culture of the ball club is changing in a big way, which could be a big load on Casey. Then again, he might not even feel it.

We'll see how catcher Jason LaRue does with a decent pitching staff. Chances are, the game will be a lot easier for him.

Now that Paul Wilson has shown he can carry innings and the front office has shown a commitment by signing Eric Milton, along with others, the look of this ball club should be a lot different. Much more competent all the way around.

Remember, with respect to the pitching staff, that it's a long baseball season. We might expect to not see the usual walks in April due to the experience within this group, but we'll always see ebbs and flows.

This season, though, the ebbs should be shorter and the flows smoother, thanks to a pitching staff that belongs in the major leagues. In that sense, the major leagues are back in Cincinnati this year, even while the headlines and back stories throughout the game are back in 1998.