Living in the shadow of steroids
I never think about tenses when I hear Latin Americans speak English. If it's their second language, you can't blame them for being technically imperfect. Then again ...
I definitely was a little bit careless back in those days when I was buying supplements, vitamins over the counter. Legal supplements, legal vitamins over the counter. But I never buy steroids or use steroids.
Past tense for the first sentence, present tense for the second. Was that an intentional slip by David Ortiz in Saturday's news conference? Did he pull a Sammy Sosa and dumb himself down? Technically, he didn't lie if he isn't buying or using steroids right now. Of course, nobody was asking about right now. We wanted to know what caused Big Papi's positive PED test in 2003. And the answer was, "I never buy or use steroids." Present tense intended to be past tense. Or maybe not.
These are the things baseball makes you consider in 2009. You study favorite players the same way you'd study a potentially cheating spouse or girlfriend. You analyze tenses, soak in body language, search for double meanings. You try to catch them in lies. You compare their facial expressions with ones from the past, almost as if you're sitting at a poker table with them. You evaluate a pattern of performance and hope everything adds up. You worry about good memories becoming tainted by other ones. You worry.
The word "taint" can go a number of ways. Some interpret it as "ruin." I think of it more like "affect." The shadow of that effect depends on the person -- how optimistic you are, how forgiving you are, how spiteful you are -- but the shadow never totally disappears. On Saturday, when ESPN Classic showed Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series (the Bloody Sock game), I watched it a little differently. Yes, it made me happy and brought back some fond memories. But I couldn't help seeing Ortiz and Manny and thinking, "Do they look bigger then? Were they using? Did they inject each other with the needles? Was it a big needle orgy before every game? Am I overthinking this?"
Again, just a shadow. But I could see it. Will it fade away over time? Will it get bigger? That's the part I cannot figure out.
What bothered baseball fans this decade wasn't the cheating as much as the lack of accountability. Some players lied to our faces. Some twisted the truth. Some hid in shame. Some said nothing but probably wake up every morning thinking, "I wonder if today will be the day I get caught." I can't think of one player who admitted wrongdoing and just came clean. You know, something like, "I did it because everyone else was doing it. I did it because there were no rules in place that I couldn't do it. I did it because I'm a competitive guy, because my professional and financial success, as depressing as this sounds, was at stake to some degree. If you were me, what would you have done?"
I wish David Ortiz had said this. When news broke that Papi had landed on the Dreaded 104, he promised to respond as soon as he gathered enough information. (Um, how 'bout this response: "This can't be true! I have never taken a steroid in my life! I am suing everybody!") Nine days passed. He fell into a massive slump and looked more rattled than Melissa Rivers during the Joan Rivers Roast. His teammates tightened around him, blowing two crucial games in Tampa, then another biggie in New York on Thursday night. They squandered a 15-inning game on Friday that was probably the make-or-break game of the season, the one that -- barring a semimiraculous turn -- we will point back to this winter and say, "That's the game when I knew we didn't have it this year." Then and only then did David Ortiz speak.
When your favorite athletes find themselves in these situations, you want them to react like Dr. Richard Kimble. You want them to profess their innocence loudly and passionately. You want them screaming about the truth and claiming they have been framed.
"I AM INNOCENT! I AM INNOCENT! I AM BEING SET UP! I DID NOT KILL MY WIFE!!!"
Ortiz did none of these things. He admitted to being careless with vitamins and supplements. He made the "never buy steroids or use steroids" comment. He didn't say much else. A slick players' association lawyer named Michael Weiner sat beside him and questioned the veracity of the list itself -- not just the number of names but the number of false positives. We'll never know the truth because this list isn't supposed to exist. It's like arguing about the Bermuda Triangle.
Well, how are Red Sox fans supposed to feel? If Ortiz wasn't lying, then why would an innocent supplement or vitamin cause a positive PED test? Did he abuse steroids or not?
The answer seems to be "yes and no." In Monday's New York Times, reporter Michael Schmidt (the Woodward/Bernstein of the 104 List) wrote the following: "[Both Ortiz and Weiner] implied that Ortiz might have been using a legal, over-the-counter supplement that happened to include a substance that would produce a positive test. What they did not mention was that, if this was indeed the case, Ortiz was probably using the supplement 19-norandrostenedione, which converts to the powerful steroid nandrolone in the liver but was not banned by baseball at the time."
Hmmmmmmm. Let's say this was true. It certainly explains Big Papi's unwillingness to profess his total innocence, as well as his slightly confusing remarks at the news conference. It also explains why the MLB Players Association and commissioner's office -- normally invisible when baseball stars get nailed by PED allegations -- made a public display of support this particular time (as opposed to nearly any other time). It makes me feel a little better. Just a little. In 2003, David Ortiz unwittingly used a soon-to-be-banned supplement while wittingly being careless about everything he was putting into his body. I think that makes sense. Sure it does.
Do I believe him? I don't know.
Am I tired of wondering if I should believe my favorite athletes? Yes. It's getting old.
If the lack of fallout from Manny's suspension and Big Papi's recent saga taught us anything, it's this: Baseball fans have lost the capacity to be outraged. You'd need to do something really crazy to shock us at this point. Fix a game. Swing a bat at someone's head during a bench-clearing brawl. Charge into the stands to punch out a fan. Take a dump on home plate to protest a call.
For anything else? Whatever. We expect the worst. We are prepared to be disappointed by any baseball player. It's a sad place to be.
The question remains: Should it matter that any baseball star bent rules that weren't in place or being enforced? How was it different from scuffing baseballs, corking a bat, stealing signs, stalling between pitches or anything else?
The easy answer is that it shouldn't matter. So many players were using "illegal" enhancers, and so many others were looking the other way ... I mean, can you even call it cheating? It's like blaming your dog for swiping the last two pork chops off the kitchen counter because you were dumb enough to leave them there in the first place. Too much money and glory were at stake to expect competitive athletes to say, "I can't bend the rules, I don't feel right about it" when again, EVERYONE was looking the other way. Hell, baseball even encouraged it. What about the home run frenzy from 1997 to 2003? What about "Mike McGwire and Sammy Sooser"? Why didn't the union agree on testing sooner? Why wait so long to do something?
From a historical standpoint, this era shouldn't be judged differently from any other goofy era. Stuff happens. It's baseball. Babe Ruth's numbers happened in an all-white league. Ted Williams flukishly missed five full years because of two different wars. Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax would have excelled for twice as long with today's surgeons. Now we're splitting hairs with eras? Come on. In 2006, I wrote that Barry Bonds' records should stay. In 2007, I wrote that Mark McGwire should be allowed in the Hall of Fame. Five months ago, I wrote that I'd remember watching the best guys of the steroids era whether they cheated or not. I meant this as a compliment. I am also a realist. If your favorite player broke a record or achieved something memorable from 1993 to 2008, there's a very good chance he had help. If your favorite team won a title or came close, there's a very good chance it wasn't the Good Ship Lollipop. No one team or player stumbled across an edge that everyone else didn't already know about. You don't have to like it -- in fact, I hope you don't -- but that's how it played out. And it's done. So why bother kvetching about it?
Again, that's the easy answer. And if everything were that easy, we wouldn't care. The more complicated answer -- the one that involves real emotion instead of an icy dissection of previous events -- hinges on the eerie parallels between sports and real life. It's about having a treasured memory ruined, tainted or slightly altered through no fault of your own. (Note: I tackled this subject in 2008 and last May.) It's about standing by your team through thick and thin, even when it's making you feel more embattled and foolish than Rod Blagojevich's wife. It's about your willingness to forgive and forget. It's about putting yourself in the position of others and asking the simple question, "What would I have done?" It's about remaining loyal to people who brought you joy once upon a time. It's about looking back and answering the simple question, "Was it worth it?"
Everyone handles these variables differently. I remember the day after the Boone Home Run in 2003, when I left work early because I couldn't function. I remember wondering if I was going to live an entire life, followed by death, without ever seeing the Sox win the World Series. At that specific point in my life, in a sport where so many were already (and obviously) cheating, I would have taken a title any way I could have gotten it. That's how I felt, and that's how it played out. Did we have some "help"? Yeah, probably. The 2003 Red Sox shattered franchise records for slugging, OPS and home runs. The 2004 team came damned close to toppling those same records. Any Boston fan who claims not to have had at least one "Which guys on our team do you think are juicing?" conversation during that stretch is lying.
But here's what I find fascinating ...
Any Cubs fan will tell you they are still recovering from the Bartman Game. Any Giants fan will tell you they are still recovering from their team's unraveling in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series. The 2003 Cubs were led by Sammy Sosa. The 2002 Giants were led by Barry Bonds. Now, you'd think both fan bases would say, "Looking back now, it doesn't hurt as nearly much as it should given what happened with Sosa/Bonds after the fact. In a weird way, we are off the hook! We were saved from an asterisk title!"
Nope. They remain devastated. So crushing losses can't be de-tainted, but tremendous victories can still be tainted. Confusing, right? That's why I don't believe in asterisks. The Cubs and Giants fans would have switched places with the '04 or '07 Red Sox in a heartbeat. That isn't to completely forgive what happened. I will never watch a Manny/Papi highlight from 2004 or 2007 again without 0.0001 percent of my brain thinking ... you know. (The shadow again.) Would I do it all over again? Of course. Anything for a title. That makes me no better than anyone who cheated. And that's one of two things that frightens me.
The other: When Jonathan from Memphis e-mailed after the Papi revelations just to ask me, "Are you dreading the day, some 15 or so years in the future, when you and your son have a disagreement and he says 'I could never respect a man whose heroes were cheaters (paraphrasing Ray Kinsella)? Or will you shield him from 'Field of Dreams' just to avoid this potential gut punch?" Yikes. Even one of my favorite sports movies has a shadow now. I will never be able to watch that scene without thinking of that e-mail. Great.
On the bright side, Boston fans have plenty of company. Name a contender from the past two decades and that team's fans are staring at that same tiny shadow; either they can already see it, or they worry it's coming. My guard was up well before the Ortiz/Manny stuff broke ... although I have to admit, I was a little amazed that someone as dense as Manny could successfully pull off one steroid cycle. When I learned about Ortiz, it happened right after my flight to Cleveland landed two weeks ago. My BlackBerry caught a signal and e-mails started popping up from the previous four hours.
HA HA, I TOLD YOU!
I knew right away. Didn't have to read any of them. Just knew. Crushing ... but not really. I mourned for about 10 minutes, made one phone call and one tweet, then voyaged over to the National Collectors Convention and didn't think about Ortiz again that day. That's life as a baseball fan in 2009. Be prepared for anything; don't be surprised by anything.
And you wonder why Cardinals fans are cringing. Barring injury, Albert Pujols has a chance to become the greatest hitter of all time. He has never suffered an off year. He has never enjoyed a season you would describe as anything less than "really, really, REALLY good." I happened to be on the phone last week when he came up with the bases loaded against the Mets. I was walking my dog; my buddy Gus was providing play-by-play. We were joking about the inevitability of the ensuing grand slam that hadn't happened yet, which would have been Pujols' fifth of the year, by the way. When I heard Gus yelp, "There it goes!!!" I wasn't remotely fazed. Pujols has reached that vaunted Tiger/Federer level. At least during the regular season.
Of course -- and I am not the first person to make this point -- Pujols is doing "this" during the worst possible era to do "this." He remains a suspect without ever doing anything wrong. He passed all kinds of tests over the years. He carried himself with dignity even as fans whispered about him and reporters peppered him with PED questions (most recently, during All-Star Week in St. Louis). His swing and his batting eye have remained infallible. But his performance has been a little TOO good ... and during this crummy era, that fact alone shines a giant spotlight on Albert Pujols. No modern athlete has dealt with more scrutiny without doing anything that warranted scrutiny. All he has ever done is thrive at a historically good rate.
That mere fact shouldn't make him clean or dirty -- in fact, I would bet "clean" for him -- but baseball has changed for the worse these past 15 years. Thanks to years and years of recklessness and incompetent leadership, transcendent stars like Pujols will never be totally trusted -- not by you, not by me, not by anyone. They will always be presumed guilty until proved innocent. It's like we flipped the Constitution upside down. America's pastime has become decidedly un-American.
If I were Pujols, I would hold a news conference every night, pee into a cup in front of reporters, then hand the sample to a drug-testing lab technician with a big smile on my face. I am clean. Stop doubting me. Seriously. You can trust me. He would never do this for the same reason nobody else would do it: It's an absolutely ridiculous idea. Poor Pujols will forever have to settle for hitting the crap out of the ball as everyone wonders about him. There is no other way.
Meanwhile, his loyal fans have to be prepared for the worst possible news at all times. They remain on guard 24 hours a day, every day ... and yes, I know the feeling. It's a shame. It's baseball in the 21st century. Present tense.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.