MLB

It's time for steroid-era reconciliation

Ken Rosenthal discusses Barry Bonds wanting to return to baseball with the Giants.
Ken Rosenthal discusses Barry Bonds wanting to return to baseball with the Giants.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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After years of beyond-belief denials and “it happened in the past” non-answers, this week appears to mark the unofficial beginning to the final installment of Major League Baseball’s truth and reconciliation commission for the steroid era.

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Arguably the best pitcher of modern times, Roger Clemens, is in the seventh week of a federal trial in which he is accused of perjuring himself before Congress by denying steroid use.

Manny Ramirez is trying to clean up his shattered reputation as he nears a return to the big leagues after his second suspension over performance-enhancing drugs.

And now comes Barry Bonds — the most prolific home-run hitter ever, and the man who became baseball’s biggest villain in one of its darkest hours — saying he wants to rejoin the San Francisco Giants in some capacity after his steroid-related legal problems are behind him.

All of this in the shadow of what could later this year be the most controversial Hall of Fame vote in history. That’s when Bonds and Clemens join Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro — two other players implicated during the steroid era — on the ballot.

Now, baseball finally is being forced to come to terms with an era we all hope is over. It comes 27 years after Jose Canseco broke into the big leagues, 14 years after McGwire and Sammy Sosa made a mockery of Roger Maris’ single-season home-run record, five years after Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s sacred career home-run record and the Mitchell Report named Clemens as baseball’s most prominent alleged steroid user, and three months after the reigning National League MVP, Ryan Braun, had his positive PED test overturned.

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The news that Bonds is hoping to get back into the game that made him rich, made him famous and then made him a villain is — like all these recent stories about players seeking redemption — a test of our capacity for forgiveness.

Do we believe Manny deserves a third chance after twice violating baseball’s drug policy? Do we believe McGwire should be warmly accepted as the St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach after admitting his greatest achievements were based on cheating? Do we believe that Bonds and Clemens, whose statistics make them deserving of unanimous votes on their first Hall of Fame ballots, deserve a place inside the hallowed halls of Cooperstown?

There are all sorts of rationalizations for why players who excelled during the steroid era and whose careers are enveloped in steroid accusations still belong in the Hall of Fame. Ty Cobb was a virulent racist and all-around awful guy, but he’s in Cooperstown. Players who played before 1947 never played against non-white opponents, but they’re in the Hall. Amphetamines have been popular and for the most part overlooked in baseball for decades, yet there’s no shortage of amphetamine users in the Hall of Fame.

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Here’s one part of the problem with steroids: The thing that made those performance-enhancing drugs worse than other ballplayers’ sins was that steroids turned big-league ballplayers into Hulk-ish versions of themselves. Juiced ballplayers don’t look like us. And one of the great things about baseball is that Babe Ruth looked like your local bartender, Hank Aaron like your next-door neighbor, Greg Maddux like your math teacher. Then they stepped to the plate or onto the mound and became superhuman.

Here’s another part of the problem: When baseball’s performance-enhancing drug problem was at its worst, it was cloaked in a veil of secrecy. Players’ chests and biceps blew up to cartoonish proportions in the 1990s and early 2000s, and it wasn’t just because they ate their Wheaties. We can point to a too-big ballplayer and say, “He juiced. Just look at him.” But we don’t know who truly did what. Some who we suspect are guilty might be innocent, and surely some we suspect are innocent were juicing away.

We can speculate, but in most cases we don’t have foolproof evidence. And that’s a damn shame.

Coming to terms with the steroid era will need more than Barry Bonds wanting to return to baseball with this simple, noncommittal statement to reporters: “What happened, happened. … It is what it is.”

Baseball needs a spokesman for the truth. Baseball needs a prominent player from that era to take responsibility, admit wrongdoing, get us to finally move on from this dark era.

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When Pete Rose finally admitted to gambling on baseball, it was nearly 15 years after he was suspended from the game. We doubted his motivations: The admission of guilt came too late, and it came in the context of trying to sell his book.

It may already be too late for a spokesman of truth to come out of the steroid era. Wounds fester and grow in the face of so many years of denials and lies. Amazingly, the ballplayer from that era who has shown more honesty than any other is the circus act that is Jose Canseco. Say what you will about “The Chemist” — that he, too, was trying to sell a book, that he broke baseball’s clubhouse code of silence, that the man who was godfather of steroids in baseball can’t also be baseball’s absolution. Those are all true.

But so is this: His tell-all book did more to destroy baseball’s hidden-to-all-but-the-naked-eye drug culture than anything else.

So over the next several months, the era that fans thought was over will keep getting thrown back in our faces, in the form of the Clemens trial, Bonds’ desire to return to his team and the imminent Hall of Fame vote, in which baseball writers can make a strong statement against the steroid era or turn into apologists for that ugly time.

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It’s reasonable to believe that the only way these offenders will gain entry to the Hall of Fame is by admitting guilt. If a Roger Clemens or a Barry Bonds admits to falling into the drug culture that used to dominate baseball and then commits to cleaning up the future of the game, that single courageous act — more than home-run totals or a Cy Young trophy case — ought to secure him a place in Cooperstown.

Fans are always ready to forgive. But first they need to hear somebody admit he has sinned. Without truth, there can be no reconciliation.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook, or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.

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