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Wednesday, May 29, 2002
Now people might pay attention

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

Everybody's still laughing at Jose Canseco, right? Baseball clown, night-clubber of renown, speeder of cars, chaser of skirts, teller of tall tales. If Canseco said Major League Baseball was juiced to the gills, that was just Jose pimping a book that has yet to be written. It was simply understood.

Ken Caminiti
Ken Caminiti's reputation as an old-school gamer gives his statements credibility.
But what Ken Caminiti is saying, if you'll take the time to find his words, is that the Jose Cansecos of the baseball world are far more right than wrong.

And what Caminiti and Canseco are both saying bears note. It is this: Be prepared for ongoing disillusionment.

The numbers are all guesses anymore, of course. Canseco famously put the percentage of big-leaguers using steroids at 85. Caminiti, who confessed to Sports Illustrated that he was heavily juiced while slugging and fielding his way to the 1996 MVP, said, "At least half the guys are using steroids."

And the thing about that is that it could be damn near any number. You are talking about trying to guesstimate the usage of a substance that isn't even banned by MLB, let alone tested for. It's like asking how many guys drink Powerade between innings.

Baseball doesn't have a ban on steroids, and football does? Gosh, tough to figure which league has the stronger players union.

You'd call this the sport's dirty little secret, except we're getting close to a hundred-way tie in that department. When Mark McGwire was going for the Ruth-Maris records a couple of years back, Andro was the story of the day. When balls began flying out of parks at Golden Snitch velocity over the past decade, half the people following the game -- and half the people in the game -- jumped up to proclaim that MLB was ordering its baseballs to be doctored in favor of offense.

The Colorado Rockies have their humidor (not precisely a secret, but still). A few players have their accusations of bat corkage. The commissioner allegedly wants franchises to die. How many dirty little secrets can fit in one game, anyway?

It's interesting, the reaction to Caminiti. Here is a man who admits to being an alcoholic and drug user, who comes clean only after being forced by brittle bones and prolonged injuries into retirement, and he's still considered a pillar of society compared to Canseco. Perhaps it's because Canseco appeared to take such glee in his "revelations," while Caminiti, beloved by ball-writers and fans for being the ultimate gamer, delivered his news somberly and with some evident trace of pain.

But on the subject of remorse, this one's a pure draw. What Caminiti told SI's Tom Verducci, exactly, was this: "I've made a ton of mistakes. I don't think using steroids is one of them. It's no secret what's going on in baseball. At least half the guys are using steroids."

Understand: Caminiti is speaking of a substance, anabolic steroid, that is illegal in the United States unless prescribed by a doctor, a substance that provides short-term increases in muscle mass and recoverability while potentially exacting a hideous long-term toll.

Yet he does not consider taking himself up to Ben Johnson levels to have been one of his "mistakes" as a player or a person. Makes you wonder: What's it take to crack Caminiti's top 10?

There is some good that's going to come out of this. Some good, in fact, already has come: A player of major stature, the former MVP Caminiti, admits to the wholesale usage of a clearly controversial (and, just to repeat, illegal without prescription) substance -- and he does so just barely off the fringe of his own playing days. Caminiti's story carries a gravitas that no 20-year-old scandal ever could. We live day to day in America, and today in baseball, this is the story.

The commissioner, Bud Selig, says he's worried about the issue, and worry is pretty much all Selig can do. There won't be testing for steroids in baseball without agreement from the players' union, which, given its history, no doubt would characterize such agreement as a capitulation and thus refuse it straight down the line.

In the meantime, we are left with the unhappy choices of either denial or the aforementioned disillusionment. We can side with Barry Bonds, who dismisses the steroid accusations with a simple, "It takes more than muscles to hit homers," as though the subjects under question were a couple of guys who fell out of Gold's Gym and into a big-league uniform one day.

It's difficult to be more wrong on the topic than Bonds. Steroid use in baseball isn't about no-talent knuckleheads muscling up in time to get that multimillion-dollar deal. It is about what separates one part of the cream from another. It is the employment of a drug in the search for advantage at the elite level, where the stakes are high and cheating, in its various and usually much less damaging forms, is simply accepted as part of the tradition.

But this, this is different. When Ken Caminiti figures that half the players in the major leagues are juicing up, he calls into question every significant offensive record achieved over the past several years. He calls into question the basic stability of the sport. And so the sport must answer, even if at first it's an answer the public is barely prepared to hear.

At least they hear it from a player, Caminiti, whose career seemed to be the model of old-style ball. Which is to say: When it came from Canseco, too many people were prepared to laugh. No one's laughing now.

Mark Kreidler of the Sacramento Bee is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.