Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Thunder in a Bottle
I am not a serious baseball fan anymore. I attend maybe two games a year, and I haven't watched a whole game on TV since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing the single-season home run record in 1998. But I'd have to be blind and deaf to miss the big baseball story of this week--the 10-game suspension of Baltimore Oriole Rafael Palmeiro for failing a steroid test.

Last March, Palmeiro joined other baseball stars in testifying before Congress about steroids, and he was emphatic in denying he'd ever used steroids. The appearance came just after his former teammate, Jose Canseco, claimed in a book that he'd injected Palmeiro with steroids when they both played for the Texas Rangers. Last spring, people took Palmeiro's denial at face value, particularly because Canseco didn't seem all that credible. Almost five months later, the suspension doesn't prove Canseco's claim, but you wouldn't be human if you didn't wonder whether he was telling some version of the truth after all. And you can also look at the numbers: Palmeiro was a singles hitter during his early career. After arriving in Texas in 1989, he was still a singles hitter--but about the time Canseco hit town in the early 90s, Palmeiro began hitting home runs. He's amassed a career total of 569, and only six players in history have hit more.

The Palmeiro suspension has made people say openly what nobody was willing to admit when the steroid controversy first blew up last year: As time goes on and the history of the game is written, the last 15 to 20 years are probably going to be recognized as the steroid era, much as the pre-1920 period is known as the "dead-ball era." You probably can't blame steroids entirely for the thunderous home-run performances we've seen since the late 80s, but only because expansion has diluted pitching talent to a ridiculous extent. It seems likely that when people look back with an eagle-eye view, they're going to see Barry Bonds' mark of 73 in a season, McGwire's 70 that broke Roger Maris' legendary record, and perhaps Rafael Palmeiro's lifetime home-run total, and wonder how much of each one came out of a bottle.

Whiner: When the Chicago Cubs traded Palmeiro in December 1988, after he'd named his dog Wrigley and his son after teammate Ryne Sandberg, he whined about it to the media. And then there was his self-dramatizing performance before Congress last spring--and his insistence this week that if he took steroids, it was by accident. No professional athlete is so cavalier about his body that he'd use any sort of pill or cream without knowing exactly what it is. Today's revelation that the steroid he took is insider stuff and not something a person can get accidentally renders his earlier claims even more ridiculous. When Palmeiro reached the 3,000-hit milestone earlier this month, people talked about his eventual election to the Hall of Fame as if it were a done deal--but I don't think so. His major achievement has been putting up gaudy statistics for perennial also-rans--and now the validity of the statistics are in doubt.

So, given Palmeiro's history of self-aggrandizement, and all of the assumptions about his greatness that are now in question, I have to confess to taking a small bit of pleasure in his predicament. You must not fool with karma.

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