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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Kapler prefers not to give issue juice

He's in California now, driving the kids to school and making plans to play the 2005 baseball season with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan. He's been fitted for a World Series ring and he'd like to return to the Fenway Park outfield someday.

Gabe Kapler made a lot of friends in his 1 1/2 seasons in Boston. He was a role player and clubhouse favorite with the 2004 world champion Red Sox and citizens of the Nation will speak fondly of him when the roster is recited in years to come. Jason Varitek said Kapler was one of the greatest teammates he'd ever known.

Kapler's been a professional athlete for 10 years and has a body that's more sculpted than those of Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, or the late Ken Caminiti. Gabe looks as if he swallowed barbells. In some photos, Kapler's forearm looks bigger than his head.

So what about it, Gabe? Ever use steroids?

"No," he said in a phone conversation Wednesday. "Of course, the suspicion is something that I've had to battle my whole career. There's been accusations and finger-pointing and whispering along the way.

"I've never been offended by the questions. But I'm offended when I'll say, `No,' and then someone will say, `C'mon, you don't have to lie to me,' or `Yeah, right.' That's when I get bothered."

He's not talking about reporters' questions. He's talking about conversations with teammates. Those of us who cover baseball have had our heads buried in the ground for years on this issue. Most of the steroid conversations have taken place between ballplayers, when the reporters are not around. Kapler knows.

"You'll hear from a player who heard from another player that you are a steroid user," he said. "That's what bothers me. I'm most concerned with my peers and their point of view.

"Because I've been accused so much, I never point a finger at somebody unless I know for sure. And the only way I know for sure is when someone tells me they're using steroids. Over the years, I'd say there's been a few guys who admitted it. There was a guy I played with in the minors. He told me that in college his best shots would never quite make it out of the park. Then he turned to the steroids and he said that within a month and a half, he was hitting balls 20-30 feet over the fence. When your strength is that far superior to other guys, you have a greater margin of error if you don't hit the sweet spot.

"There was another player who told me he was using and I asked him what it felt like and he said, `It makes you feel 10 feet tall and bulletproof.' That tells me a lot. This is a game of confidence and if you go up there feeling 10 feet tall and bulletproof, you are going to be a better hitter. I heard a lot of stories about guys who stopped taking steroids, started to stumble, then went back and before the steroids took effect, started doing well again. That's the confidence factor.

"I think every player in the league has been offered, or been told about a place where they can get steroids . . . I understand the human body pretty well. I know the human body doesn't do things that some of the human bodies we've seen are doing. Your bones don't grow. Muscles can grow, but when you see somebody whose facial features have grown, it opens some eyes."

How do the non-cheaters feel about the cheaters?

"There might be players who would be better players if the playing field were more level. Say you are a 25-home run hitter, but everybody else is hitting 40. You would be a better player if everybody else came back to 25."

He will not name names and he will not speculate about players who appear to be obvious users.

"Because I've been accused so much, I never point a finger at somebody else unless they've told me. You see player X on TV and say, `My God, look how many home runs he hit' or `Just look at him, it's obvious.' I never say that because I think people look at me and say the same things."

He knows the accusations will dog him and he knows his cooperation with this story could hurt him in the eyes of some fans. "Years from now, some people are only going to remember that I talked about steroids and they'll link me to the subject," Kapler said. "That's why I'm reluctant to do this."

Kapler is 6 feet 2 inches and weighs 205 pounds. He is better sculpted than a young Jack LaLanne. He has appeared on the cover of several bodybuilding magazines. He could be governor of California.

So where did the Charles Atlas physique come from?

He says his dad and grandfather were smaller, but had very well-defined physiques. Gabe weighed about 175 pounds when he graduated from Taft High School in Woodland Hills, Calif. It was at Moorpark Community College that he made a commitment to getting bigger, stronger, and faster. He went to the weight room every day -- squats, dead lifts, bench presses.

"I spent a ridiculous amount of time on my diet and lifting weights," he said. "I ate only chicken breasts, rice, and beans. I'd set the alarm clock to wake up and eat. I was fanatical. I figured it was the only way to get bigger and stronger than the other guys. When I got to the minors, we'd get off a 14-hour bus ride in North Carolina and I'd walk to a gym. That was fanatical."

He was in the majors for six full seasons, saw the home run explosion, and the tapering off of homers with the advent of limited drug testing. He will say only this about Major League Baseball's drug-testing policy: "It could be better."

And what would he tell all those young people who will be tempted to cheat as they move through the amateur ranks of baseball?

"I don't condemn or judge other players for making the decisions they make," he said. "They've got to get up and look in the mirror, just like I do. If I'd done that, I could not look in the mirror and feel good about it, especially not 25 years from now. When your career is over, you're just a man and when you're a man, it's harder to deal with things than it is when you are a professional athlete. It's over before you know it, then you're just a man and you have to deal with decisions you've made. I couldn't do it. I have battled too hard and come too far."

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com. 

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