Baseball begins anew this week as it always does, a morning game, pure as can be. Dew sparkles upon carpets of fragrant grass as the late winter sun, yet to work up its anger, rises gently over Florida and Arizona. Mocha base paths are Zen gardens of smoothly combed perfection. The dawn of a spring training day could stir the soul of a Franciscan monk. Or even, given the lack of standings this time of year, that of a Milwaukee Brewers fan.
The dawn of this season, however, may be the beginning of a whole new era. After all, the Boston Red Sox are defending world champions. (How long has it been since that could be said? The last such season, 1919, ended with baseball's original sin: the Black Sox throwing the World Series.)
Major league baseball will be played in our nation's capital for the first time since 1971, the National League will play its games entirely on grass fields for the first time since 1965, and the 714 home runs of Babe Ruth will be surpassed for only the second time since he smote his last in 1935.
But none of that, noteworthy as it all may be, is why a new day may be upon us. After 15 or more years of ballplayers' enjoying unfettered use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, baseball has instituted real measures to try to stop it: the possibility of multiple random tests (even in the off-season) and 10-day suspensions upon first offenses--which is, to judge by the harsh public treatment of New York Yankees designated hitter Jason Giambi, the modern equivalent of doing time in the stocks on the town square, getting mocked and blasted with rotten tomatoes.
"The knowledge of it being public will be a huge deterrent for a player," commissioner Bud Selig said last week.
The policy does have its significant loopholes. Players can still use human growth hormone. (Though it is listed as a banned substance, baseball does not screen for it because only a blood test can detect its usage.) The rampant use of amphetamines and other such stimulants is tacitly approved by their omission from the banned list. Designer steroids manufactured to be undetectable in tests--the successors to THG, the steroid at the center of the BALCO scandal--will continue to be invented. Players can also use lower doses of steroids to avoid detection.
Baseball's Maginot Line will be breached. But the Steroid Era as we knew it--the days when anyone could juice up with impunity, which meant everyone was under suspicion--appears to be over. Maybe now we will allow ourselves to believe that what we see is genuine. Time and an effective testing program will tell.
Turn-of-this-century baseball will likely be remembered for steroids, just as the early 1900s were for the dead ball, the '30s for a lively one, the postwar years for integration, the '60s for expansion, the '70s for free agency and the '80s for cocaine.
The history has only begun to be written, including the just-released gossipy tome by former MVP Jose Canseco, the very embodiment of the Steroid Era, as Tony Manero was for the Disco Era, only all too real. If in just one year (2003) about 70 major leaguers flunked anonymous tests for steroids when they knew the tests were coming, how many players used steroids over the previous decade and a half when no tests or repercussions were in place? Hundreds?
Counting Canseco, we know of 11 players--through admissions to SI ( Ken Caminiti, Gary Sheffield), grand jury testimony as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle ( Barry Bonds, Jason and Jeremy Giambi, Benito Santiago, Bobby Estelella and Armando Rios) and Olympic-sanctioned testing ( Derrick Turnbow, Terrmel Sledge)--who used steroids or performance-enhancing drugs or failed a test for them while on major league rosters. Eleven. That's it. (If you give credence to Canseco's accusations, you can add six others.)