For anyone who's paying attention, baseball is becoming more and more difficult to watch, to follow, to trust. But, despite a constant flow of vivid indications that the great game remains thoroughly corrupted by steroid abuse, almost no one who makes a living from professional baseball is paying attention. Coaches, managers, broadcasters and journalists have conspired, perhaps unconsciously, to believe that the old pastime has moved beyond its "steroid era." If they faced the reality that it obviously has not, they would, if they were entirely honest, consider walking away from a sport that has lost its integrity.
Consider this, from the website of The Baltimore Sun:
"There are a number of statistical undertones as Chris Davis continues one of the greatest offensive seasons in Orioles history. Davis has a strong chance of overtaking Brady Anderson's single-season franchise home run record (50 in 1996) . . . . Davis can also play a role in preventing Detroit Tigers star Miguel Cabrera from becoming the first player in baseball history to win Triple Crowns in two straight seasons."
I have no doubt that even this cheerer in the pressbox (whose name, by the way, is Selig) is aware that Brady Anderson's 50-home-run season is one of the most commonly offered examples of a statistical anomaly resulting from steroids. Yet there is no whisper of suspicion that Chris Davis's power production this season, which has sprouted astonishingly atop a previously mediocre career, might just possibly be influenced from the same fertilizing source. Then Selig mentions Miguel Cabrera, whom all the nation proclaims to be the best hitter in baseball -- just as it did Albert Pujols a few years ago, and obvious performance-enhancers Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Barry Bonds before that. Cabrera's 2012 triple crown was the first in either league in 45 years, and his numbers this season are even higher. But in newspapers, on sports-talk radio and on game broadcasts, in a year when a dozen major-league players have been suspended for doing business with a Florida juicing lab, writers and commentators constantly bow to his greatness without ever pronouncing the word "but." As in, "but nearly every player who has produced surprising and/or extraordinary, even historic numbers in the last 20 years has either admitted, or been detected, or been credibly accused of using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs)."
Jose Canseco? Guilty. Roger Clemens? Of course. Bonds, Mark Maguire, Sammy Sosa? Please. Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi, David Ortiz, Ramirez, Rodriguez, Juan and Luis Gonzalez, Ryan Braun.
Does no one in the baseball fraternity believe that Mike Piazza, the 66th-round draft-pick who became, for a while, the best-hitting catcher in history, was not a user? Or his predecessor on the team I follow, the Mets -- Todd Hundley, a relatively weak hitter who broke the great Roy Campanella's home-run record for catchers before he suddenly disappeared, as steroid-takers are inclined to do? (Like another Met, Carlos Delgado, whose career ended less than a year after he'd hit 38 homers.) And does anyone suspect that steroids were a factor, even in this "post-steroid" era, when Jose Bautista, at age 29, cracked 54 home runs in 2010, after never having hit more than 16? Commentators and play-by-play men have a convenient excuse for not raising questions about such conspicuous anomalies -- that it's wrong to make accusations without evidence. Alright, but do they raise the general issue that great achievements anywhere in the game can not be credited because steroids are still widely in use? Not that I can hear. They all keep silent and continue to draw their salaries from a dirty, illegitimate sport.
Baseball management has sincerely tried to root out PEDs through a testing program, but it has largely failed, because testing is a travesty. Here is a quote, printed on an ABC News website, from Charles Yesalis, a professor of health policy administration at Penn State: "Drug testing is still impotent, has been impotent since it started. Frankly, many of these drugs work way too well and there's way too much money involved to ever see a light at the end of the tunnel." He went on to say that "the only way" to combat steroid abuse would be "to do almost police sting operations."
Meanwhile, chunky Miguel Cabrera and his ferocious Tigers arrive in New York to face the long-floundering Mets, who have just been sideswiped by a severe injury to their star young pitcher Matt Harvey - more in a minute - and been forced to deploy the enervated Daisuke Matsuzaka as an emergency starter. I am enjoying a beverage in a local tavern, and avert my eyes from a TV screen as Cabrera steps to the plate in inning one. I pour some beer, down a slug, and turn back to the screen. Cabrera is leisurely crossing the plate.
"If that guy is not juiced," I remark to no one in particular, "I'll eat this glass." Of course I have no proof, and I've exaggerated a bit, but my point was and is that it has become impossible to trust what you see (or avoid looking at) in any major-league baseball-game.
Six days later Cabrera was injured and out of the Tiger lineup. More accurately, he was re-injured, because he'd been playing hurt for weeks. His manager, Jim Leyland, commented that, although he'd been "crippled up," he had "hit as good or better than he did when he was totally healthy. That's why it is totally amazing. It's mind-boggling, really." Really. So many mind-boggling things have happened in baseball over recent decades.
And what is Miguel's impairment? "Abdominal discomfort." It's amazing, to use another of Leyland's words, how certain injuries, such as those to the abdomen or oblique muscles, which extend across the rib-cage and parts of the abdomen, have become pandemic. Steroids, you see, give and take away. They build strength and help athletes overcome injuries. But they also cause injuries that can't be played through.
I have written here before that anomalies in a player's performance are a clear sign of steroid usage. These can be not only sudden brilliant seasons following previous undistinguished ones, but also radically uneven results during long stretches of a given season. Since I root for the Mets, the example that immediately comes to mind is first-baseman Ike Davis. Two years ago he was a budding, powerful star. But in the opening months of 2012 he became powerless and damn near hitless at the plate. The explanation offered was a bout of valley fever that had struck him earlier in the year. Then in June his play began to improve -- then dramatically improved -- and he finished the season with 32 home runs and his glittering promise restored. But in the first half of this year he was even more helpless than the year before, so mind-bogglingly incompetent that the team demoted him and his .160s batting-average to the minor leagues. A few weeks later he returned to the parent club and hit somewhat better. Until last Friday, when he swung at a pitch in Philadelphia and nearly collapsed with pain. He is out for the rest of the season with strained oblique. Amazing.
Hips are another deeply suspect area. Rodriguez, of course. And it was hip trouble that finished off Carlos Delgado after that raft of home runs in 2008. Chase Utley and his declining career come to mind. And remember Bo Jackson? He was surely mind-boggling for a while, then suddenly gone.
And yes, elbow ligaments. Oh, my poor Mets! Their astonishing young pitcher Matt Harvey recently tore his, just as the astonishing young Stephen Strasburg of Washington did two years ago. Remarkable, isn't it, how many kids these days come up throwing nearly a hundred mikes per hour -- and how many soon find themselves on Dr. James Andrews' operating-table.
And the lovely old game becomes harder and harder to watch. Haven't you noticed?