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Living in the unknown



Special to ESPN.com

May 8

We know so little. Oh, we've ridden shotgun down the avalanche unearthed by Jose Canseco's book, heard the screaming of talk-radio media demagogues, listened to the proclamations of politicians and seen players pasted into headlines for positive tests.

Yet we still know so little about what was and what is, how much, how prevalent or what Alex Sanchez, Juan Rincon and the minor-leaguers tested for.

Our education has begun. "The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems" by Will Carroll has been released and explains much of the science of what so few of us really understand. Carroll, whose "Under the Knife" column on Baseball Prospectus is an industry standard, sifts through facts and myths and helps understand the layers of performance enhancements.

Nomar Garciaparra
Speculation over steroid use continues to surround Nomar Garciaparra.

In the next two months, Boston Herald columnist Howard Bryant's "Juicing The Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" will be released, and it is a Halberstamesque history and perspective on what will forever be known as The Steroid Era. Put it this way -- there are a lot of people who do not want this book to be released.

We do know that through May 7, home runs were down from 1.123 a game last season to .967 this season and runs from 4.8 to 4.5, but we also know this is a small sample that does not necessarily weigh the mostly unusual cold weather thus far on the East Coast.

We do know that some pitchers' velocities are down, and privately there has been a lot of speculation about who is off the juice -- that can be deceiving as well. For instance, in his first few starts, as happened last April, Mike Mussina's velocity was 86-88 mph, and now that it's May, in his two starts he is back to 90-92 mph and his brilliant self.

We do know that some players are smaller, and there have been conclusions drawn. But in Boston, one sportswriter went on television and used Jeff Bagwell as an example of someone whose size has decreased after drug testing. Of course, the person didn't know that Bagwell hasn't been able to lift a weight for nearly four years because of chronic arthritis in his shoulder, but there were a couple of viewers who accepted it as fact rather than unaccountable non-fiction.

The problem is that in this blurred era, accountability does not always accompany sensationalism. Rincon is a good example. After the Twins' premier setup man was suspended last week, many of us pointed out that his strikeouts/9 IP rose from 6.6 to 11.6 in one year, which is factual. But while his velocity was down slightly, three different scouts insisted that it was not down dramatically from 2004 to 2005, and coincidentally Derrick Turnbow -- the first player to be suspended for a positive test in January 2004, while a pitcher in the Angels' minor-league system -- was throwing 98 mph for the Brewers.

One of Rincon's close player friends insists that the Twins pitcher "is not a juicer. I know. He is a good person from a very good family. But to do his job requires bouncing back, day after day, getting up, sitting down, getting up, and the recovery requires some supplement. He didn't know that it was illegal. You saw him on television. He was embarrassed, crushed."

Sanchez claimed that he didn't read the label and know that the supplement he was taking included one of the 45 substances that became illegal in January. The same thing was claimed by a Cleveland minor leaguer, who claimed he was told that the supplement given him by a trainer in his native country was legal and harmless.

All those claims may well be valid. If so, those players have two groups to blame -- their agents and the union. When the chemical rules changed, every player should have been counseled by his agent and the union. Instead of both the agents and the players' association spending so much time worrying about how the owners spend their money, they should have been servicing their clients and constituents.

If a player is thrown into the public stocks by hypothetical or deductive guesswork, he is damaged, with little recourse. There is no better example than Nomar Garciaparra. His famous Sports Illustrated cover was quickly thrown up as 'roid proof when he got hurt in spring training 2001. Now, any Gold's Gym bodybuilder and trainer will take that picture and point to the fact that he's developed in but two places and actually has love handles, a surefire sign that he is not a juicer. "That," says Mark Verstegen of Athletes Performance Institute and Garciaparra's trainer going back to Georgia Tech, "was the worst shape he was ever in."

Verstegen bristles at the Garciaparra question because he knows Nomar better than anyone. For a decade, Nomar has been going to API in Bradenton, Fla.; Tempe, Ariz.; and, at the Home Depot Center this winter, in Carson, Calif. And, like anyone and everyone who trains at API, he has to sign an ethics statement and adhere to Verstegen's program to provide an ethical alternative to cheating, a program that has been adopted by the National Football League.

More than a month into the season, Adrian Beltre's OPS sat at a miniscule .554, nearly half of the 1.017 he posted with the Dodgers in earning a huge free-agent contract this past offseason.

Adrian Beltre
Beltre

"I think there's something to the change in leagues," says Mariners hitting coach Don Baylor. "Adrian has put a lot of pressure on himself because of the contract. It's as if he has to live up to expectations."

J.D. Drew was down 122 points of OPS from 2004, Edgar Renteria 76, Steve Finley 170, Carlos Lee 220, Jason Kendall 196.

"Renteria may be the best example, because he's a great player," says Baylor. "There may not be a better clutch player around."

"Nomar had physical issues dating back to high school," says Verstegen. "He nearly had surgery for hamstring problems in the minor leagues. Then in the last week of the 1999 season, he got hit by a pitch in Baltimore and essentially ruined his wrist there; he should have had surgery that winter, but he tried to play through it, made it through the 2000 season until it finally gave out. The Achilles and groin injuries are freaks, and not related."

Verstegen -- who says a person can gain 1½ to 2 pounds of muscle mass a week in his program of core strength exercise, weights and strict nutrition (Nomar is a vanilla shake guy) -- insists "that Nomar never had any dramatic weight gains in an offseason. He went from 163 to 167 to 174 to 182 to 195 (pounds), and is now back at 185. But he has to deal with idle speculation? It is completely unfair and irresponsible." Sitting there, hurt, Garciaparra has no way to answer.

Players have to deal with all this, because of what we all know now -- and you'll know better if you read Bryant's brilliant book -- of neglect by the union and the Commissioner's Office.

And now that politicians and the media are fighting for the pulpit, every "enhancement" will be under fire, "even," says one player, "Mountain Dew." Commissioner Bud Selig has thrown the amphetamines issue out there. Are they as prevalent now as in the 1960s and '70s? No. Back then there was this liquid red juice in lockers that cost some players their eyesight and kidneys.

"If they ban greenies," says one superstar player, "there'll be a lot of boring 2-1, 3-2 games from about Memorial Day on through the end of the season."

"The owners," says another player, "had better be careful what they ask for."

Energy and focus stimulants are far more sophisticated than in years past, and all the drinks -- Red Bull, Full Throttle, Ripped Fuel, etc. -- can be bought at the ESPN cafeteria and/or gyms.

"With all the travel and the day games after night games, it can be tough to focus on a guy throwing 95," says a player. "Very tough. If they can greenies and the like, you'll be seeing players all over baseball trying to find doctors who will diagnose them (with having) ADD or narcolepsy. Heck, the players with ADD will have a big advantage because they can get Ritalin to focus."

Indeed, in "The Juice" Carroll writes about the use of drugs normally associated with both ADD and narcolepsy.

We don't know where this will lead, whether chemists will always be ahead of the testers, what next will be found to replace what has been used. We get a lot of hyperbole; sometimes, in the cases of Curt Schilling and Canseco in front of Congress, they reversed their previous positions.

But while players ponder the question of whether it's worse for an athlete to "cheat" or a media member to speculate without accountability, we're all riding shotgun down the avalanche not knowing where we'll come to a stop.

Failing to deliver in the clutch
This is a rant about selfishness and a lack of concentration and a preference for arbitration over winning. It's about not scoring runners from third base with less than two outs.

"You've got agents whispering in players' ears about numbers," says Rangers manager Buck Showalter. "If a player comes up with a runner on third and one out and the infield's back, if he gives himself up and rolls a ground ball to second base, that's a negative at the arbitration table."

"Strikeouts have come to be the norm, an accepted norm," says Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "Guys too often want to hit the home run and forget that that run can win a game."

"I wish every player would study tapes of David Eckstein in that situation," says A's GM Billy Beane. "He will foul off a dozen pitches until he finally gets something he can get to the outfield to get the run home. It drives me crazy. Our players have heard me on this subject."

Why? Because when the A's left for their six-game swing through New York and Boston, they had come up with 42 runners on third base with fewer than two outs ... and 12 had scored. Pathetic. Eight teams had scored less than half of runners in that position.

"Too many hitters have no idea about a two-strike approach," says Showalter. "But we don't emphasize enough that every run is important. If you do, when you get to those September and October games, you don't squander opportunities in close, well-pitched games."

Red Sox officials still remember Mike Mussina coming into Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS and getting out of a none-out jam with runners on first and third in the fourth inning, turning the game (which the Red Sox led 4-0 at the time) and the playoffs around. "That was a pivotal moment," says Boston assistant GM Josh Byrnes. "Stopping a club in a situation like that can have the effect of a goal line stand."

Through May 4, these were the team percentages of driving in a runner from third base with less than two out:

Team Percentage Team Percentage
N.Y. (AL) .686 Minn. .561
S.F. .661 Ari. .560
Chi. (AL) .640 Phi. .553
Fla. .638 S.D. .553
Det. .603 L.A. (NL) .529
L.A. (AL) .600 Pitt. .513
Wash. .600 Hou. .489
Sea. .591 Chi. (NL) .473
Tor. .588 Cle. .457
Bal. .582 Cin. .448
T.B. .580 St.L. .432
N.Y. (NL) .577 Mil. .418
Tex. .571 Atl. .386
K.C. .567 Oak. .286

Turnbow emerges for Brewers
Brandon Lyon has taken over the role as the Diamondbacks' closer. Now, in Milwaukee, Derrick Turnbow has taken Danny Kolb's old spot at the end of the game, at one point going nine appearances without allowing even a hit. When Kolb was traded to the Braves for Jose Capellan, Mike Adams was given the closer's job. But he struggled and Turnbow emerged.

"When we left spring training," says Brewers GM Doug Melvin, "we thought our bullpen was going to be a problem. Instead, it's been a strength."

Derrick Turnbow
Turnbow

Turnbow throws in the high 90s and with the help of pitching coach Mike Maddux has kept himself under control and, at times, has taken some velocity off, throwing 94-95 and clipped the corners. "If you're a contending team, it's difficult to experiment," says Melvin. "But if you're building, you can sometimes find a closer from your own organization."

In Turnbow's case, he was let go by the Angels at the end of last season and signed by the Brewers as a minor-league free agent.

The Brewers face an interesting situation when Prince Fielder is ready to come up, perhaps this September. Lyle Overbay is established as a premium first baseman (a 1.139 OPS a month into this season) who will likely be available in what would have to be a major trade, since Overbay won't be arbitration-eligible until after next season.

Arroyo gettin' it done for Red Sox
There has been speculation that when the Red Sox get David Wells and Curt Schilling back off the disabled list that Bronson Arroyo would be put in the bullpen, because his arm is so resilient. "I'll do whatever they want," says Arroyo.

"That's a tough call because he's been one of the best starters in the league since midway through last season," Francona says. In fact, as of May 7, Arroyo was 11-2 with a 3.72 ERA, fourth in the AL in victories behind Johan Santana (18), Bartolo Colon (16) and Ryan Drese (13) and seventh in ERA. And Boston's "big three" of Arroyo, Tim Wakefield and Matt Clement started the year 11-1.

"The more Bronson pitches, the more he will command his fastball, and the more he commands his fastball the closer he will get to being a big winner," says Jason Varitek.

(Incidentally, the leading winners in the NL since last year's All-Star break are Roy Oswalt with 16 and Mike Hampton and Jake Peavy with 12.)

Because of a rash of upcoming games, the Red Sox on Sunday called up sidearming right-hander Cla Meredith, who at this time last year was pitching for Virginia Commonwealth. Between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket, Meredith had pitched 16 innings without allowing a run, and of the 59 batters he's faced, only four hit the ball in the air. In 29 appearances after signing last summer, Meredith had a 1.14 ERA. Some scouts wonder if he'll ever be a closer. "He's 86 to 89," says one scout. "He's very tough on righties, but will be interesting to see how he does against lefties when the novelty wears off and he gets more exposure."

This and that
• The Twins have already brought up 23-year-old right-hander Scott Baker, who GM Terry Ryan says can start or relieve. Before the season is over, don't be surprised if they have another young pitcher in their bullpen -- left-hander Francisco Liriano.

"He gets it up there at 97, and the way he slings it makes him really tough on lefties," says one scout. "He and Santana are going to be something for years in their rotation, but he could be devastating this fall out of the pen."

Liriano came over from San Francisco last offseason with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser in the A.J. Pierzynski trade.

Mark Buehrle
Buehrle

• "When are people going to realize that Mark Buehrle is one of the best pitchers in baseball?" asks David Wells. "He is my pick to win the Cy Young with 22 or 23 wins."

• Several scouting directors believe that either Stephen Drew or Jered Weaver will have a predraft deal cut with the Yankees, who have the 17th pick in the first round.

• The Dodgers are clearly going to miss Jose Valentin, but GM Paul DePodesta thinks between Mike Edwards, Antonio Perez and Willy Aybar they can get by. And with Jayson Werth due back off the DL in the next seven to 10 days, they could be in even better shape.

• In the complicated deal that brought Kris Benson to the Mets, the Royals acquired catcher Justin Huber, who looks like he could become another Mike Sweeney as he has a 1.095 OPS at Double-A Wichita, and the Mets got second baseman Jeff Keppinger. If Kaz Matsui notices, the 23-year-old Keppinger has 11 extra-base hits, 10 walks and seven strikeouts at Triple-A Norfolk.






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