The 2005 baseball season opens this week under a steroid cloud that darkens every ballpark from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine. The allegations, the rumors, the scutiny, the Canseco book, the congressional testimony, the new regulations drawn up for the major leagues . . . all of these dance in our heads as we try and soak up the green and welcome back the sound of bat striking ball. Theres an appropriate symmetry to the games greatest player (and among the most scrutinized in this steroid storm), Barry Bonds, sitting out the first Opening Day in his 20-year career. With baseballs image so torn to shreds, and Bonds so adversarial throughout his career -- even before his ties to BALCO and steroids -- fans might do themselves right by imagining Bonds rehabbing his surgically repaired knee while wearing a dunce cap in the corner.
Alas, the reality of the national pastimes current suffering and any hopes it may have for rehabbing itself as an institution are heavier matters than a cartoonists pen might capture. You see, the damage goes so far beyond record books, statistics on bubble-gum cards, or Hall of Fame credibility. When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa appeared before a congressional hearing on St. Patricks Day, the two men most credited with saving the game in 1998 -- remember when labor relations was the sports biggest problem? -- became the faces (above suit and tie, no less) of misdirected love. Every bedroom of every child that once held a Big Mac or Slammin Sammy poster above the bookshelf may as well have received its own scarlet letter (S for steroid) to be mounted on the door.
My firstborn daughter was not quite a year old -- it was April 8, 2000 -- when her mother and I took her to her first St. Louis Cardinals game at Busch Stadium. St. Louis beat Milwaukee that day, and I can very much conjure the goose bumps (the gasp!) when McGwire launched his first home run of the season over the centerfield wall. My sweet Sofia had no idea what all the excitement was about, all the people, all the red! But she knew there was excitement, and it found a crest with Big Macs moon shot. I left the stadium that Saturday afternoon convinced Id be telling Sofia about the day she saw a McGwire home run well into my golden years. Now? Ill remind her of the date, but Ill likely focus more on the fact she was lucky enough to be in the stadium for the late Darryl Kiles first home win as a Cardinal.
That damaged memory, that lost story, that silenced gasp is what makes baseballs steroid mess worse, perhaps, than the Black Sox throwing the 1919 World Series, certainly worse than any boardroom conflict between players and owners that cost us a few big-league games one year or another. Gambling is -- once discovered -- an overt crime, and the penalties in place are of the sort that repeat offense is well nigh impossible. Just ask Pete Rose. And the labor disputes? As long as there is money to be made, teams to support, the sides will come to grips with their differences.
Which brings us back to the cancer of steroids. The game of baseball is nothing without the relationship between team and fan -- dissected further, the relationship between player and fan. Once in uniform, a ballplayer represents a childs dream fulfilled. When he strikes out, a fan feels his emptiness. And when he connects for a four-bagger to win a game in October, the chills spread like static electricity. But take a slice at the metaphorical tie that binds in this relationship -- and like any other relationship, the player-fan one begins with trust -- and its emptiness that lingers, strikeout or home run, win or lose.
To this point, there are exactly two (former) players who have been outspoken about using steroids to boost their playing career, and one has since died. Jose Canseco and the late Ken Caminiti are pariahs now, but may paradoxically turn into pioneers if their whistle-blowing can somehow rid baseball of this deadly, cheating chemical. It will likely be years (not weeks or a few months as Barry Bonds is hoping) before a big-leaguer hits a home run without the question, Is he or isnt he?, following him around the bases. This is new territory for the baseball purists among us. Just how long will it take before we can love again?