It’s pretty much understood that mainstream baseball writers botched the early coverage of players’ steroid use. Some of my columns for The (Baltimore) Sun in the late 1990s were downright embarrassing — not willfully ignorant, but sadly naïve.
I’m not about to make excuses; we all should have done better. But looking back, if I had gone to one of my editors and said, "I want to write extensively about steroids in baseball," I'm fairly certain the response would have been, "Great. Which players are you talking about?"
I could not name players who might be using performance-enhancing drugs; I had no proof. Players could speculate. General managers could speculate. We all could speculate. But to actually write in a newspaper that a player might be using, well, that would be risking libel.
It was a journalistic line that one simply did not cross.
And now, only a decade or so later, that line gets crossed over and over again.
It is not right. It needs to stop. Commentary about a player using PEDs — without any actual evidence of that use — is simply unfair.
I fully recognize that I'm shouting into the wind, that standards today are more relaxed, and there's no turning back.
The Blue Jays' Jose Bautista, the major league leader in home runs, should not face repeated questions — in print, from established news outlets — about whether his mid-career surge is legitimate or fueled by PEDs.
If Bautista tests positive, it's a story. If Bautista is linked to PEDs through a government investigation, it's a story. But if Bautista keeps hitting home runs without a hint of wrongdoing, it's a baseball story, nothing more.
People are going to be cynical — cynicism, unfortunately, is a byproduct of the Steroid Era. I’m not saying that all players are clean. I'm not saying that baseball’s drug-testing policy, purported to be the toughest in professional sports, is perfect. But the proper standard in our country — journalistically and ethically — is innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.
As Craig Calcaterra of NBCSports.com rightly points out, baseball writers used to say in the early 2000s that unless there is steroid testing, all players will be under suspicion — yet now, even after the implementation of testing, all players remain under suspicion anyway.
How is that fair?
Let me go back to June 2009, when I appeared on ESPN’s "Outside the Lines" to discuss an article written by a blogger named Jerod Morris on the Midwest Sports Fans site. I reacted angrily on the program to Morris' suggestion in his article that Raul Ibanez's fast start at age 37 generates "suspicion that the numbers are not natural."
I was not happy walking out of the studio that day; I thought I sounded too cranky, as if was a father lecturing his son. My anger was not directed at bloggers, though that was how many interpreted it. My anger stemmed from the diminished standards — something for which the blogosphere is partly, but not entirely, to blame.
Last season, when Bautista was on his way to a major league-high 54 homers, Damien Cox of the Toronto Star, wrote, "You've got to at least ask the question when it comes to Jose Bautista." And just last week, John Harper of the New York Daily News wrote of Bautista, "Let's just hope he’s legit."
Well, yeah, of course. But at this moment, there is no reason to believe that Bautista isn't legit, other than the fact that he's putting up big numbers. And sorry, that's hardly reason enough to cast doubt upon a man's integrity.
Believe me, I’m not a Pollyanna on this subject — quite the contrary. If you’ve read me before, you know that when it comes to steroids, I'm more of a hawk than a dove.
I was disgusted by the union's failure to act sooner on PEDs, disgusted by how the drugs warped competition and put non-users at a disadvantage. Like most fans, I've been disappointed by players who said they were one thing and turned out to be another.
Doesn't mean you hold a grudge.
Doesn't mean you assume the worst in everyone.
Doesn't mean the standards of decency and fairness no longer apply.