A record that better not be broken

Sports views

Posted: Thursday, March 03, 2005

There's one baseball record that better not be broken this season. That's the number of major leaguers who tested positive for steroids last season:


It's a qualified zero, to be sure, since under the 2004 drug policy, a first positive test was kept confidential and resulted only in treatment; a ballplayer had to get caught twice to draw even a brief suspension. No one was suspended for steroids, and word never leaked out of any referrals for treatment, so we'll have to take Major League Baseball — always a dicey proposition — at its word.

During a dress rehearsal two years ago, under another, even more lax set of rules, between 5 and 7 percent of the anonymous tests came back positive. That meant as few as three dozen ballplayers, or as many as 100 were either stubborn, stupid or lazy enough to stay on the juice, despite knowing six months in advance that testing was on the way.

But even those guys will look like geniuses compared to anybody who gets caught when the men in lab coats start collecting samples at spring training sites Thursday. Some people like to say the new credo in sports is, ''if you aren't cheating, you aren't trying.'' But get caught cheating now and you definitely weren't trying.

The tests are tougher, the penalties stiffer and if that's not incentive enough, imagine being stalked by the TV crews shadowing Barry Bonds' every step — then triple that number. Little wonder the boys of summer and their water carriers don't expect any positives, and certainly not enough to impugn the integrity of the games going forward.

''I'll be very surprised if this new policy doesn't resolve the issue,'' players union boss and noted cynic Don Fehr said during a recent training camp tour. ''It's something that, hopefully, is going to put us in a place that we can get back to the more traditional things.''

Sorry, Don, but that won't happen until people quit talking, and the chances of that happening are zero, too. What a coincidence.

The BALCO investigation is quiet for the moment, but the last few weeks have brought Jose Canseco's tell-all, Jason Giambi's semi-confession, Bonds' Sturm und Drang, and most recently, Kevin Towers' mea culpa.

Earlier this week, the San Diego Padres general manager became the first credible baseball insider to acknowledge he looked the other way when clear evidence of steroid use by one of his players was right before his eyes. Ken Caminiti, who later became the first player to admit juicing, died last October of a drug overdose at age 41. In an interview with ESPN The Magazine, Towers discussed his guilt over doing nothing to stop the abuse that he believed contributed to Caminiti's death.

The GM hedged on how much he really knew and threw in plenty of qualifiers — ''had reason to think ... was probably using,'' phrases like that. But it's impossible to read Towers' words and not see how the steroid problem could get out of hand very easily.

''We went through a real difficult time in 1994, with the strike,'' Towers said. ''Then some amazing things happened. Home runs were up. Fans were flocking to ballparks, lining up to watch batting practice. But we all realized that there were things going on within the game that were affecting the integrity of the game. I think we all knew it, but we didn't say anything about it.''

At another point, Towers said, ''I hate to be the one voice for the other 29 GMs, but I'd have to imagine that all of them, at one point or other, had reason to think that a player on their ballclub was probably using, based on body changes and things that happened over the winter.''

Predictably, soon after publication, commissioner Bud Selig called Towers for a clarification and got one. Towers ''assured us that he didn't know,'' an MLB spokesman said. ''He said he suspected.''

And for the moment, Towers is the only one to say so on the record.

Boston Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, who held the same job in San Diego during Caminiti's time there, told his hometown newspaper, ''We didn't see anything to cause great warnings.''

And Caminiti's manager, Bruce Bochy, told his, ''the antennae for steroids was not up there like it is now.''

No matter. Everyone is paying attention now. And a frank discussion about who knew what and when about Caminiti, and perhaps a host of other guys, is already penciled in on the schedule.

On April 21, which would have been Caminiti's 42nd birthday, the Padres will stage a ceremony honoring their only MVP, and the leader of only the second San Diego team to reach the World Series, an accomplishment in 1998 that moved the good people of the city to vote one month later to help build a pricey new stadium for the ballclub.

It will be difficult to come up with a fitting tribute, one that acknowledges Caminiti's dual roles as contributor and counterfeiter. And either way, it should provide a preview of how baseball and its fans plan to treat the supersized achievements of the last 15 years or so. That will come in handy when Bonds is about to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list this summer and somebody in the Giants organization calls Selig's office to find out how many seats to hold.

It would be nice, as Bonds reminded us over and over last week, to simply ''move on.'' And really, who among us wouldn't benefit from a fresh start? The difference is that baseball and its players actually may get theirs.

Lord help them if they blow this one.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

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