JUPITER, Fla. -- Bud Selig says he never knew anything about performance-enhancing drugs until Mark McGwire had to defend himself on the andro issue, i.e. for using something that wasn't banned within the sport or by the FDA. "I went right down to the drug store the next day," said Selig, "and soon I had it banned."
There is no evidence that Selig is fibbing. But to anyone who had been around the sport in the '90s, the suspicions and rumors were always there. Hey, they were there in the 1980s, right about the time Brian Downing -- who we must presume innocent -- looked like a nose guard. Sports Illustrated tried to work on an investigative piece, but no one could get near the heart of the matter.
Caminiti warned of steroid use after his career, yet little was done.
Now we have Kevin Towers, beating himself up over the death of Ken Caminiti, admitting he seriously suspected that the 1996 MVP was doing steroids and that he turned the other way because they were winning the division and trying to build a ballpark. But what could Towers have done? The union wouldn't allow him to test. Caminiti, who had a plethora of abuse issues, wouldn't have admitted it.
The fact is that this was baseball's dirty secret. One mid-'90s Oakland A's farmhand said privately they called their minor league culture "the laboratory." One Red Sox player in the mid-'90s used to regale friends with stories of three of his roommates one year in the Carolina League who were all doing big-time steroids and how they broke down -- two of them did, however, make it to The Show. One former NL assistant GM this spring recounted how when his team was making a trade, the other GM warned them that the player was a 'roidhead. Another former GM told the story of how another GM told him a player he was acquiring was on steroids, but gave them up after the deal and the player stopped hitting for power. Another former GM says that when he was in the minors in the 1980s, he saw a trainer injecting a teammate.
All off the record. Use names and you take the lawsuit.
So Selig didn't know. Then he should be very angry with some of the people who worked for him, because the commissioner -- and Selig was effectively in that position after Labor Day, 1992 -- should have someone whispering the dirty little secrets in his ear that led to an industry-wide investigation and crackdown. When Selig implemented the testing policy in the minors it worked. In 2001, the first year, 9 percent of the more than 4,300 players tested positive. It went to 4.2 percent the next year when they figured out the commissioner's office was serious. It was less than 1 percent in 2004. That has clearly impacted the young players who have come up in the 21st century.
What Towers admitted was a purging of a very good man's soul, and ...
When players (or anyone) rail on Jose Canseco for trying to make a buck off the steroids issue, they should be dismissed because what in the world were the guys who used steroids trying to do? Make money. Not to pick on Jason Giambi, but since he has admitted to steroid use, that $128 million kind of tells us that it worked for him, eh?
Players right now believe the percentage of pitchers who juiced -- as opposed to the pitchers, especially Hall of Famers, who cheated -- is higher in the last five years than position players. They began testing last year, and the home-run rate went up.
There will still be a huge cloud of suspicion because they are not testing for human growth hormone, and the little secrets that come out of the NFL about masking agents always being two steps ahead of the testing.
When it comes to the debates about eras, yes, this one will be called "The Steroids Era," but it is an era when kids began lifting at 12 and home runs and power pitching became in vogue. All of the top 22 strikeouts-per-nine-inning seasons have occurred in the last 20 years. Asterisk? There has to be one next to Cy Young's 511 because it was the dead ball era. And one next to Jimmie Foxx because he played in the lively ball era. And, OK, one next to Babe Ruth because he played in the segregated era.
We don't know where all of this will lead to in terms of crime and punishment, because steroids were not illegal in the workplace. We don't know where all this will place Barry Bonds, McGwire, Sammy Sosa and the 500-700 home run hitters of this era, but because history is so important, we someday will have perspective. We don't know where the BALCO trial will go, only that we suspect that it could lead to heat that is far stronger than the media and public vitriol Bonds has and will continue to face -- vitriol that will only drive him harder toward a great season and will only isolate him into a "I'm Barry Bonds and you ain't" foxhole.
Bonds will be bitter when he passes Ruth and instead of national celebration, there will be as much critique and questioning as there is admiration and respect. There will still never be recognition that his father Bobby, one of the great hitting minds ever in the game, and he are the greatest father-and-son combination in the history of the sport.
The one conclusion we can draw now is that this era has reminded us just how great Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson really were. All three had to fight through segregation, hatred and double standards to get to the major leagues. They played in an era when pitching so dominated the sport that they lowered the mound by five inches, not to mention the fact that so many of the National League stadiums were cookie cutters that were not home-run friendly, like so many of the post-Camden Yard ballparks.
So while history and guilt is debated, determined and judged, all of us who had the good fortune to watch Hank, Willie and Frank play now appreciate just how great they really were. They have their places among the 10 best who ever played, and, like Junior Griffey, no one will ever doubt them.