Sunday, February 29, 2004

'Special' baseball records clouded by suspicion

Florida Today

It is a trick these baseball players are foisting on us. Now you see us, now you see a lot less of us.

And like little wide-eyed children who see a trick, we're no different. We want to know how they did that.

How, for instance, did Jason Giambi, the slugging New York Yankees first baseman, report to camp looking like he'd gone from Bluto to bulimic in several short months?

"I just stopped eating fast food, basically," Giambi said.

Then he bristled when it was suggested he looked thin, skinny even. "I only lost four pounds," Giambi protested.

Four pounds?

If so, Giambi should write a book and title it How to Lose Only Four Pounds But Look Like You've Lost 20. A spot atop the best-seller list awaits him.

Pardon us for being cynical, but what do these guys take us for?

Does Giambi really believe that he can be called before a grand jury to testify about BALCO, the northern California company the feds have now charged with distributing illegal steroids, primarily to world-class athletes, and then not be looked at askance when it appears the air has been let out of his inflated body?

One columnist polled Yankees players, who said it looked as if Giambi had lost at least 15 pounds.

Now you see us, now you see a lot less of us.

Is it a coincidence that after more than a decade of a literal arms race - seen the biceps on some of these guys? - that player after player is showing up this year looking leaner? This is, after all, the first year that there is drug testing with exposure and punishment attached to it.

Ironically - then again, maybe not - on the same day Giambi testified about BALCO, back on Dec. 11, so did his new teammate, Gary Sheffield. He, too, is looking leaner.

Like Giambi, Sheffield was questioned about steroid use on his first day at camp. He responded by boldly challenging reporters, saying he would offer his urine or his blood to be tested anytime, anywhere. But when a columnist took him up on his offer the next day, Sheffield was offended. Then he hid behind the mother's skirt that is the players union, saying the union won't allow him to submit to voluntary testing.

And so it goes.

Why does all of this matter?

•  Because last year, upwards of 50 or more players tested positive for steroids even when they knew they were going to be tested.

•  Because last year's testing didn't include detection of the designer steroid THG, which BALCO is charged with having created and distributed to athletes.

•  Because during the first season of testing, after years of 50, 60, 70 and more home runs, nobody - not even one player - so much as hit more than 47.

•  Because after turning his body over to BALCO, Barry Bonds went from never hitting more than 49 home runs in a single season to hitting a record-shattering 73.

•  Because if you're going to ban Pete Rose for life for compromising the integrity of the game by gambling on it, shouldn't you consider the same action if an all-time record was broken by a player with a body altered and enhanced by illegal drugs?

It's a shame, really, that what once seemed so special now seems so suspicious.

Have you seen Sammy Sosa lately? He, too, must've gone on the same no fast food diet that Giambi is on. When Sosa was questioned about steroid use, he cleverly shifted the focus to a player he referred to as Mr. Barry Bonds. But Sosa isn't as clever as the before-and-after pictures that published of him and a number of other ballplayers, showing them early in their careers, looking normal, and then in the last few years, looking like budding Arnold Schwarzeneggers (who, by the way, admitted to using steroids during his bodybuilding heyday.)

Rather than being clever, Colorado Rockies reliever Turk Wendell chose bluntness when he told reporters this about Bonds, whose personal trainer was one of the guys the feds charged for distributing illegal steroids:

"If my personal trainer, me, Turk Wendell, got indicted for that, there's no one in the world who wouldn't think that I wasn't on steroids. I mean, what, because he's Barry Bonds, no one's going to say that? Obviously he did it. (His trainer) admitted to giving steroids to baseball players. He just doesn't want to say his name. It's clear just seeing his body."

Bonds reacted by calling Wendell names mixed in with a few expletives.

Instead of all of these accusations and insinuations and denials, what these players ought to be doing is pushing for tougher testing and harsher penalties. It is their union. They call the shots.

On one hand, they don't want anyone speculating as to why, suddenly, they are getting smaller and hitting fewer home runs. But on the other hand, they're not pushing for tougher drug-testing standards, even though nothing less than that is going to quiet the speculation.

It's like insisting on hiding behind a mask and then getting upset when people speculate as to what you look like. Take the mask off. End the speculation.

Don't you just know that, 10 or so years from now, some former superstar is going to come down with a brain tumor or something and then admit to steroid use. Already, we have two former players - Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco - saying they used steroids during their careers and that, lo and behold, they weren't the only ones. Caminiti claimed that 50 percent of players used steroids, while Canseco put the figure at 85 percent. Under pressure, they both backed down from those figures. But it makes you wonder, doesn't it?

It makes you wonder the same way that seeing players shrink when testing and penalties are forthcoming makes you wonder.

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