Baseball needs to be up front about steroids

Ignorance is bliss. The problem for Major League Baseball, though, is that it doesn’t have ignorance. It has Jose Canseco.

Does it really matter which baseball players have taken steroids? Maybe not. At least that’s what Bud Selig and friends want everyone to believe. Honestly, they might be on to something.

After all, baseball has been on a roll. Attendance records are being shattered with regularity and the last two stirring post-seasons managed to seize everyone’s attention throughout October.

Why should steroids be a problem now anyway? Jose Canseco has been ranting for nearly three years, and the BALCO rumors were already shrouding Bonds, Giambi and Sheffield before the 2004 season began. Now, Canseco’s book is finally out and some BALCO murmurings have been more or less confirmed. But, so what?

People loved baseball in 2003 and 2004, so 2005 shouldn’t be any different. Canseco’s accusations could be potentially damaging to guys like Mark McGwire, Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez, but there’ll probably never be any way to confirm those claims. Just to be safe, these players are just denying everything and taking shots at Canseco’s shaky credibility.

Meanwhile, baseball supposedly has a reliable drug-testing program in place now, meaning the purity of the national pastime should remain untainted from 2005 on. The last 15 years or so were great, but they will always be a mystery.

We’ll never know how many players really took steroids. Was it 80 percent like Jose says? 50 percent like the late Ken Caminiti said? The 5-7 percent (tops) that baseball would have us believe? And, except for the snitches — Canseco and Caminiti — and the BALCO boys, most of the juicers will remain unknown.

Hey, nobody’s proud of all this, but the game is doing well and it’s time to move on, right? I don’t think so. Baseball is headed down this path, and I think it’s a big mistake. The game needs a full investigation so that we will all know who was clean and who wasn’t. Why?

Well, if you don’t like “Field of Dreams,” you might want to skip ahead. Anyway, other than fathers and sons playing catch, the most endearing aspect of baseball is its history. No other sport challenges baseball in this department.

Take a look at the numbers. For decades, baseball has crowned immortality on figures like .406, 755, and 56. Good old 61 still has a nice ring to it even after the former single-season home run record fell six times between 1998 and 2001. People don’t know numbers like these for the NFL and NBA. And, at this point, the NHL would be lucky if people still remember what ice is.

Other sports can’t conjure up legends of the past like baseball. When Peyton Manning broke the NFL’s single-season passing touchdowns record, Dan Marino congratulated him on television. Almost all of the NFL’s record-holders — Jerry Rice and Marino do cover a lot of categories — are still on the field on Sundays, unless they’ve moved into the announcers’ booths. In the NBA, if we want to know if LeBron James will be the best player ever, we compare him to Michael Jordan, a guy who retired two years ago and is liable to attempt a third comeback any day now. The point is that the NFL and NBA rarely force fans to look back to a distant era.

Unlike Marino, George Sisler was somehow not available for comment last fall when Ichiro broke his 84-year-old record for hits in a season. Baseball allows guys like Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner to surface in conversation even though many of our grandfathers never could have seen them play. The same could be said for Babe Ruth, whose home run record of 714 for left-handed sluggers will be surpassed by Barry Bonds sometime this April.

Is that going to be the point when fans start becoming alienated? Maybe fans won’t be able to put up with Barry and his enlarged head zooming past the most mythic figure in American sports and on pace to shatter Hank Aaron’s all-time mark of 755 home runs, possibly baseball’s most sacred record. I don’t know. Regardless, I’ll definitely be watching too.

In the short-term, the damage to baseball might be minimal. But, years from now, won’t the game’s most heralded statistics be forever tainted? Will fans attach any reverence to Bonds’s single-season homer record of 73 decades from now? Maybe McGwire’s mark of 70 will have more legitimacy, but now that Big Mac is under suspicion, maybe Sosa’s 66 is more reliable. But Sosa could have been on the juice too, and his bat might have been corked anyway, so maybe Roger Maris’ 1961 mark will once again be the standard. Sweet. Nice to have that cleared up.

If you can call Giambi’s string of apologies a confession, three MVP seasons — Canseco in 1988, Caminiti in 1996, and Giambi in 2000 — have already been tarnished. (When/if all the Bonds information comes out, the extent of his usage could contaminate at least a few, if not all of his four consecutive MVP seasons). Why should it stop there? If we’re going to catch a few record-holders and MVPs, we should probably get them all, just to be fair.

How can we ever rank the greatest players of all-time again? In which category do Bonds and McGwire belong? Can Pudge ever really be considered the best catcher ever?

I’m not saying we need to start placing asterisks everywhere. Not yet. Baseball did experience a power explosion during the mid-’90s, and nobody has seriously suggested discounting records on the basis of juiced baseballs, smaller ballparks, or diluted pitching. Anyway, if almost all players (pitchers included) were taking steroids, at least the playing field was somewhat level. We just have no idea.

Tony LaRussa was right to question Canseco’s credibility on the grounds that Jose is out for money and jealous of McGwire. But, who else should we really believe? LaRussa himself waited 15 years to tell everyone he knew Canseco was dirty all along. Likewise, Bud Selig tried to ignore this problem for over a decade. Even President Bush could have been in on it. Everyone else Canseco has accused has lied (Giambi) or failed to go before reporters and answer the tough questions.

I don’t really trust Canseco, but right now he’s looking like our best option. And it shouldn’t be that way.

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