There were the years of suspicion at the buff bodies and broken-bat home runs. There was the explosive admission of steroid abuse by retired slugger Ken Caminiti in Sports Illustrated. There was the 2004 revelation that more than five percent of big leaguers tested positive for steroids. There was BALCO and Barry Bonds, the grand jury and Jason Giambi.
Year after year, event after event, baseball's officials and players feinted and dodged, equivocating away the sport's steroid problem and dismissing accusations of widespread steroid use as somewhere between nonsense and hyperbole. Those of us who love the game kept wondering when the lying would stop. When would another truth-teller emerge, on Caminiti's heels, to help save the game?
Jose Canseco -- unsavory, gun-toting, self-promoting Jose Canseco -- is that truth-teller. Fast and extraordinarily powerful as a young major leaguer, he drew notice not just for his MVP-quality play, but also for biceps the size of bowling balls and a ballooning body that seemed to pop with every swing-and-a-miss. In the 1988 playoffs he flexed for the Fenway crowd as it assailed him with cries of "Steroids, steroids."
Canseco was the progenitor and poster boy of a generation of chemically enhanced muscle builders. And in the spring of 2005 he came out with Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball got Big, the book we all were waiting for. It became a national bestseller. And it's the reason why Canseco is my choice for Sportsman of the Year.
Canseco wrote of steroids being on nearly every big leaguer's lips and inside many of their bloodstreams. He named names, and big ones, too: Mark McGwire, Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro. While many players attacked Canseco for his motives -- a complete irrelevancy -- few denied his charges. One who adamantly did, Palmeiro, went on to test positive for steroids.
It matters little that Canseco betrayed the trust of his peers. (Whistle blowers in politics and big business are, after all, revered.) Perhaps he was only after money and another turn in the spotlight. Maybe he did contradict himself on a few particulars in the interviews he did after the book came out. Who cares? None of it changes how valuable Juiced was and is.
Canseco ratcheted up the steroid discussion to new heights. He and his book became crucial players in a House committee hearing on steroids in baseball. There we witnessed the humbling of some of baseball's beefiest heroes. McGwire refused to "talk about the past," Sammy Sosa mumbled incoherently. Palmeiro made his bed. The hearings reminded people, and most importantly young people, that steroids are a very, very bad thing. The events of this year, at the center of which was Canseco's book, were the most valuable weapons in the battle against steroids since Lyle Alzado in his bandanna.
Think of all the teenagers who have been hearing about the side effects of steroid use since Canseco's book came out (heart disease, liver cancer, shrunken testicles). Think of the prevalence of steroids in high school.
Consider a young ballplayer such as Texas high school pitcher Taylor Hooton, whose suicide his parents blame on depression caused by steroid use.
Remember that no one sets the standard of acceptability for performance-enhancing drugs more definitively than the performers themselves.
Then realize this: Canseco's book did more than just intensify the drive to wring steroids out of the major leagues and help restore integrity to baseball's record books. Canseco's book saved lives. There is something very Sportsmanlike about that.