Commentary

Jose Bautista and the question of trust

How can we be sure that his power is legit? Because of his predecessors, we can't.

Originally Published: August 30, 2010
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Thank you, Barry Bonds.

And while we're at it, thank you, Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Roger Clemens. And you, too, Sammy Sosa. Thanks for turning us into cynics and skeptics, even nonbelievers.

[+] EnlargeJose Bautista
Kyle Terada/US PresswireJose Bautista really might be doing it naturally. But some of the sluggers who came before make it difficult to believe in him wholeheartedly.

Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista hits his 42nd home run of the season -- only one fewer than his combined totals for 2009, 2008 and 2007 -- and what's one of the first reactions?

He must be juicing. He's taking daily doses of Vitamin S. He somehow has evaded the HGH police.

Maybe Bautista did sell his baseball soul to performance enhancers. Or maybe it's as simple as he says: that a small, basic tweak to his swing unlocked this sudden burst of dinger power. After knocking around five different organizations during the past six-plus years, Bautista had a swing epiphany.

Of course, if he is cheating, the truth will eventually seep out, just as it did with the other members of the All-Pharmaceutical team. It usually does.

In Bautista's case, the worst part of the steroids era isn't that it compromised the game and sucker-punched the numbers that defined it. The worst part is that it redefined the way we trust players and their stats.

It's not our fault; it's theirs. Bautista's previous career home run high was 16 in 2006. At his present pace, he'll easily triple that total this season. And had it happened circa 1998, during the summer of Big Mac and Slammin' Sammy, we would have happily and willingly believed the numbers, no questions asked.

But that was 12 years, a BALCO investigation, a "Game of Shadows" book, a congressional inquiry, a "60 Minutes" confession, a McGwire admission and a Clemens indictment ago. If we've learned anything, it's to trust carefully.

In July 2007, with A-Rod only six home runs from becoming the youngest player to reach 500, I gushed in a column: "Rodriguez is Bonds, but without an asterisk and steroids controversy attached to his wristbands. At least, that's the hope."

Nineteen months later, Rodriguez admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs during his three seasons with the Texas Rangers. That's after he first lied to CBS' Katie Couric about using PEDs.

Bonds/Sosa
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsThe collateral damage of the Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa stories? Faith in Bautista's 2010 numbers.

In baseball terms, Rodriguez hit 156 PED-laced home runs while wearing a Rangers uniform. Using my PED-adjusted baseball math, A-Rod is still 52 dingers from 500. And that's if you believe he cheated only during those three seasons.

Bonds has admitted to taking PEDs. He just won't admit that he knew he was taking them. According to Bonds, he hit all those home runs because of magic dust and flaxseed oil.

McGwire came clean. It took him only five years and Jose Canseco to do it, but he finally admitted the obvious.

Sosa, the column gift that keeps on giving, recently emerged long enough to complain that his jersey number hasn't been retired by the Chicago Cubs. Give him time and he'll eventually demand a statue and that the Magnificent Mile be renamed the Magnificent Sammy.

If the Cubs do commission a statue, I know the perfect spot for it: in the players' parking lot, where Sosa ditched his team on the last day of the 2004 season -- then lied about it. The statue could feature Sosa holding a corked bat in one hand and the June 16, 2009, New York Times in the other hand. That's the day the Times reported that Sosa tested positive for PED use in 2003.

Sosa put a lot of money in the Cubs' wallet. Bonds did the same for the San Francisco Giants, McGwire for the St. Louis Cardinals and Clemens for the Toronto Blue Jays. And in return, those teams put tens of millions of dollars into Sosa's, Bonds' and McGwire's pockets.

What fans got: lots of fraudulent home runs, questionable wins and betrayal.

Now along comes Bautista and his freakish career season. There's Jim Thome and his Hall of Fame-quality 582 -- and counting -- career home runs. There's Albert Pujols and his 401 career dingers at age 30.

[+] EnlargeJim Thome
AP Photo/Jim MoneDoes anyone think Jim Thome hasn't come by his 582 home runs honestly? Well … how can we know?

I want to believe their numbers, but everything is a leap of faith these days, with some leaps a little longer than others.

Does anyone really think Thome did the PED deed? I don't. Since 1995, his season home run totals as a full-time player have never fluctuated more than 13 from one year to the next.

The same goes for Pujols, whose numbers have fluctuated an average of 7½ home runs between 2001 and 2009.

Meanwhile, Sosa had a 30-homer difference between 1997 and 1998, from 36 to 66. Bonds' homers bobbed from 49 in 2000 to 73 in 2001 back to 46 in 2002. I'm just saying. (And by the way, what is it about the jersey No. 25 and PED users? Bonds wore it. Palmeiro wore it. McGwire wore it. Sosa wore it earlier in his career. I'm pulling for Thome, who also wears it, to be the trend-breaker.)

What once was a given -- total and complete trust in a player and his numbers -- has been irreparably undermined. You hope that Bautista's, Thome's and Pujols' stats are legitimate, but does anyone know for sure anymore? That's the collateral damage of PEDs: trust.

Just ask Clemens. He was arraigned in Washington, D.C., on Monday. He pleaded not guilty.

Among the charges: lying.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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