FORT MYERS, Fla. -- One of baseball's most successful seasons is in the past tense with its record attendance and soaring television ratings, despite the fact that no one hit as many homers as Mark McGwire did his rookie season 18 years ago. The present tense is pitchers and catchers report, all in the dense fog of what is fact and what is fiction, who did what and when, who knew what and when, and what does it all mean in the sport in which historical perspective has a unique significance.
Who injected whom and when? We may never know for sure.
As we try to untangle several players' historical and Hall of Fame places in the devalued, steroid* era and sift through Jose Canseco's tales, we do know this: if Canseco and Ken Caminiti had not made the steroids issue public and the San Francisco Chronicle had not uncovered the BALCO cesspool, players would be reporting to spring training under a far greater scrutiny because there would be no meaningful drug-testing policy.
Privately, I have heard young players from the college to minor league to major league levels proclaim their relief that there is testing because they do not have to even consider cheating to compete with their peers. The next 50 home run hitter -- whether it's Adam Dunn or Miguel Cabrera, Dallas McPherson or Mark Teixeira -- can stand in the spotlight and know that he, like Junior Griffey, will never have to live with the suspicions, allegations and denials of this era when corroborated and judged against the landscape that no one was doing anything to prevent players from doing -- as they say in politics -- whatever it takes.
This column is about 2005, but there are three issues to be addressed before asking whether Dunn will hit 50:
We understand there is something to be said for the post-strike 1995-2002 era -- in which 17 of the 35 seasons of 50 or more homers were achieved, including the six in which Roger Maris was surpassed -- being the power era, period. The top 22 single-season, strikeouts-per-nine inning performances have come in the last 21 seasons, beginning with Doc Gooden in 1985, and one league had the DH. While it is true that five of the 500 home run hitters (Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, McGwire and Griffey) came up in the late '80s and were in this era -- and Jim Thome, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield are also virtual locks for 500 -- seven of the members of the 500 Club came up in the '50s.
What Canseco has to say must be evaluated, but the careful manner in which he sets up allegations to where only he was present with McGwire, Jason Giambi, Pudge Rodriguez, et al, likely frees him from legal action. But as Canseco backtracked and contradicted himself on pay-TV Sunday night, it was made clear that he set out to get McGwire. Jose clearly cannot get over the fact that McGwire got what he did not. Whatever the truth about steroids, Canseco's career ended because he worked as hard at his baseball skills as a manhole cover. The only thing Canseco respects is his reflection in the mirror, but he has yet to be proven a liar. Is he Heidi Fleiss? Absolutely, but his moral bankruptcy doesn't eradicate the message.
Canseco's allegations that George W. Bush and Bud Selig were part of a vast conspiracy to juice the game are obviously vast, broad oversimplifications of complexities. The steroid questions did simmer underneath without proof, but one wonders whether, had Bart Giamatti lived or Fay Vincent been allowed to carry on his term, one of them would have raised red flags and addressed the questions. Selig has always been one for consensus and making people feel good about themselves, or him, and dealt with all questions with benign neglect.
Which begs the question of how Giamatti or Vincent would have handled this. There is a very good chance that somewhere between 1995 and the middle of the 1998 season either of them would have run a dragnet through the major and minor league medical and baseball operations to get to the bottom of whispers and attempt to prevent the kind of embarrassment that now comes down on the heads of Selig and Donald Fehr.
Selig now must ensure that all future drug testing is strident, and Fehr and Gene Orza have to be careful how they use the grievance system because it might take a long time for many fans to regain their trust in the game.
The reporting of pitchers and catchers is the start of the post-Canseco era, which we thought began when he batted .172 in the International League in 2002.
EIGHT TEAMS THAT ARE GOOD SPRING TRAINING WATCHES:
3. Lohse. His stuff belies his ERA going from 4.31 to 4.61 to 5.34 the last three years. The Twins need him in behind Johan Santana and Brad Radke.
4. Jose Contreras. Ken Williams says that 5.50 ERA will be a thing of the past with a new start and the help of Orlando Hernandez. Williams says that Contreras will win and win big. He and El Duque are significant parts of a staff Williams believes is going to be very good.
5. Rich Harden. Barry Zito will have a better year, but Harden has to be a successor to Hudson and Mulder, which, when he has arguably the best stuff of any right-handed starter in the AL, is possible.
6. Brett Myers. When they pursued Coco Crisp from the Indians, the Phillies would have traded Vicente Padilla, but not Myers when the Indians asked for him. With 75 starts and a 4.84 ERA, it's time.
7. Nick Johnson. He turns 27 this season and has played more than 97 games once. We all know he can hit, but how much, and how often?
8. Kaz Matsui, Mets. Can he read groundballs on grass, turn double plays and cut down his strikeouts? Probably, but now he must.
9. Milton Bradley. Talent is never an issue. And he has never crossed the line. And his heart's always in the right place. But ...
10. Austin Kearns. The Reds need him to be healthy and get his right-handed bat in there with Griffey, Dunn and Sean Casey. This guy can be a monster.
TEN COMEBACKS TO WATCH:
1. Griffey. With 501 homers for his career and two years of over 50 HRs with no cloud over his head, he needs to be a hero again -- for the game's sake. He hasn't been healthy since 2000, but he hasn't given up on 755 himself. As Junior says, "At least I've left it on the field. My injuries have been in full view of the fans."
2. Mauer. The knee problems that limited him to catching 32 games will be a question right into the season. But, as he turns 22 in April, he is a huge factor in the American League as arguably its best young player, and person.
3. Nomar Garciaparra. His friends say that the bitterness and confusion that dogged his last two years in Boston have disappeared, perhaps coincidental with the retirement of his great wife. The Achilles and wrist feel good, and health will ensure a major comeback. He was so confident of a comeback that he turned down two three-year offers to play for Dusty Baker and re-enter the elite zone with a .330/30/120 season.
4. Roy Halladay. All the pitches he threw in 505 innings in 2002-2003 caught up, but the Jays think he'll be back. If so, they will be back above .500.
5. Andy Pettitte. All indications are good, which mitigates some of the Astros' losses.
6. Magglio Ordonez. The winter's biggest gamble. If he is able to hit, he can wear out the Comerica alleys and protect Pudge.
7. Brad Penny. The bizarre arm injury that limited him to three starts for the Dodgers cost them any chance to advance in the playoffs. He just started to come on during the 2003 postseason and enters his free agent year with high expectations.
8. Kevin Millwood. It has been a strange 1½ years. But better conditions and a return to his old mechanics could see a big return. Millwood is at the crossroad.
9. Wade Miller. If he can pitch from June on, it'll be the best deal Theo Epstein could have made. Some feel that is a big if, but no one questions his soul.
10. Chris Carpenter and Matt Morris. Carpenter experienced an injury similar to Penny's, and says he will be fine. Morris might not be ready to open the season, but if the Cardinals have Carpenter, Morris and Mulder in gear in the second half, they will make another run.
Honorable mention: Rick Ankiel, Joe Mays, Jesse Foppert, Carlos Guillen, Kip Wells (should be better than his 47-50 record), Juan Gonzalez, Preston Wilson, Frank Thomas.
EIGHT PLAYERS WHO COULD HAVE BREAKOUT SEASONS:
1. Jeremy Bonderman. Ignore the won-loss, the raw numbers are very good and the stuff is better. Remember, he should be a college junior.
2. Kearns. The rookie .907 OPS and return to health is a starting point.
3. Chase Utley. Just leave him alone and let him hit 25 homers.
4. Reyes. This may be a stretch, but his raw skills are so good.
5. Adam LaRoche. As he learns to loft balls, the .932 second-half OPS is an indication of things to come. Gold Gloves to follow.
6. Jeremy Affeldt. His strikeout and hits per nine innings are dominant as a reliever.
7. Bronson Arroyo. In the second half, when he was in the rotation for good, he was 7-2, 3.87 and the opponents' on-base percentage was .297. Varitek has pointed out that when Arroyo first came up, he commanded one out of every five fastballs. That got to two out of five by the end of last season, and if and when it gets to three out of five, he'll win 16-18 games.
8. Carlos Pena. Started to put it together in the second half, with 16 homers and an .875 OPS.
IN OCTOBER, WHO WILL BE CONSIDERED THE MOST SIGNIFICANT WINTER ACQUISITION?
I put that question to a number of general managers, executives, managers and coaches and received 66 responses:
1. Randy Johnson, Yankees, 18 votes.
2. Tim Hudson, Braves, 8.
3. Carlos Beltran, Mets, 6.
4. (tie) Pedro Martinez, Mets, and Edgar Renteria, Boston, 5.
6. Adrian Beltre, Mariners, 4.
Remaining: Matt Clement 3, Mark Mulder 3, Carlos Delgado 3, Moises Alou 2, Jon Lieber 2, Wade Miller 2, Jaret Wright 2, Al Leiter 1, Carlos Lee 1, Armando Benitez 1.
(Tomorrow: Rookies and new faces we eagerly anticipate)