Little doubt Canseco played in juiced era

Originally Published: February 7, 2005
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

Ken Caminiti peeled away the first layer of baseball's pretense, a sad and pathetic and doomed addict speaking out loud about his own use of steroids to Sports Illustrated. The next real bombshell came from Jason Giambi, whose proud fortress of deception -- how many times did he tell us how hard he worked? -- collapsed only when he testified, with extraordinary detail, under the threat of prosecution.

And now Jose Canseco will become the loudest of the steroid confessors in a forthcoming book, and he possesses the least credibility of any player who has talked about the problem. The first instinct will be to ignore him, because:

Jose Canseco
There was no steroid-testing policy in baseball during Canseco's career.

1. He's out to make a lot of money and will do anything to pump up his product. (Does this surprise us, by the way? Isn't that the same combination of desire and remedy that got Canseco and a lot of other players into steroids in the first place?)

2. He's an egomaniac who might need attention more than he needs the money.

3. He's a rat, apparently cashing in on private conversations and supposed friendships.

The book might not hit the stores for a couple of more weeks and already he's under attack. Arn Tellem, Giambi's agent, issued a quick response, saying, "This book, which attacks baseball and many of its players, was written to make a quick buck, by a guy desperate for attention, who has appeared on more police blotters then lineup cards in recent years, has no runs, no hits and is all errors."

Tough talk; sounds good. Just one problem: Generally, a lot of what Canseco is expected to allege in the book will smack of the ugly truth.

Now, only Canseco and Mark McGwire -- and the other All-Stars reportedly implicated -- know for sure whether they shared needles and Juice tutorials. There's going to be a lot of Jose-said, he-said that comes out of this. Within two weeks, you will probably see many denials that look a lot like Tellem's: Canseco is a bad guy, what he's saying is wrong, he's got no credibility (Let's remember that based on what we've seen and heard, there would be no prohibitive favorite in a truth-telling contest between Canseco and Giambi).

But Canseco's broader assertion -- that there were a lot of steroids in baseball, dating far back -- fits perfectly with all the anecdotal evidence and sport-wide assumptions. Commissioner Bud Selig deserves credit for pushing the tougher testing regimen across the finish line, and MLB also gets points for starting the steroid testing in the minors. However, those changes have taken place only in recent years, and the underground discussion of steroids dates back well into the 1980s -- about the time Canseco emerged in the majors for Oakland.

Scouts and executives already were chortling and rolling their eyes back then about hitters who bulked up suddenly and absurdly, and suddenly were beset by muscle strains. If you were around the game and didn't hear any of that, well, you purposefully had planted your head in the sand, whether you were an owner, a player, a union leader, a writer. Everybody knew; everybody blew it, to varying degrees.

When Sammy Sosa's bat split in 2003 and a palm-sized spot of cork was bared for the world to see, the resulting controversy and ethics debate was laughable to many in the game. It was like prosecuting Mrs. O'Leary for breaking a farm zoning law while Chicago burned. There was a lot of hand-wringing over the impact of a little cork in an era when many of the greatest performances came out of a vial.

I believe most of what occurred from 1987 to 2004 was legit, but sadly, all of the players in this era will be stained by the steroids. No black-and-white asterisks will be printed next to the names and numbers, but when baseball fans and historians look back at this period of time, they will forever apply their own statistical translations. Thirty-five home runs in 1998 is roughly equal to -- say, 20 -- in 1968.

Steroids has held the game hostage for almost two decades, and there will be constant reminders of that; inevitably, other steroid users like Jose Canseco will come out and tell us more about what we already thought was happening. At this point, we should not be shocked. We should know that no individual player -- not even Giambi -- should be turning into a pariah for steroid use, because the stuff had become part of the game's competitive fiber and culture.

Baseball can't change its recent past now. Its challenge is to change its future, to clean up and aggressively pursue steroid-users. That way, we can get back to a climate when we might ignore the Jose Cansecos.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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