Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Feel Duped

I feel duped. I feel like a fool. A naive fool. And I am upset.

Today, via a link from Metsblog, I learned that Jeff Pearlman has a book coming out about Roger Clemens, and in the book Pearlman cites "several sources" as saying that Mike Piazza used steroids and even admitted as much to writers he trusted.

As the hundreds of major league ballplayers who turned to performance-enhancing drugs throughout the 1990s did their absolute best to keep the media at arm's length, Piazza took the opposite approach. According to several sources, when the subject of performance enhancing was broached with reporters he especially trusted, Piazza fessed up. "Sure, I use," he told one. "But in limited doses, and not all that often." (Piazza has denied using performance-enhancing drugs, but there has always been speculation.)

There has always been speculation? By whom? Why had I never heard such speculation? Actually I had heard the opposite, that Piazza's name had never been linked with steroids! When the Mitchell Report came out, some Mets fans crowed that the Yankees should give back the 2000 World Series title to the Mets because of all the juiced up Yankees named in the report vs. the number of Mets from the 2000 squad. I never once heard a whisper about Piazza. As recently as a few weeks ago, Craig Carton on WFAN said that he loves to needle Mike Piazza, and tell him he should have been on the juice so that his fly ball off Mariano Rivera would have gone over the centerfield wall at Shea. Call me a fool, but I had really bought into the amazing story of a 62nd round draft choice who had become the greatest hitting catcher in major league history sheerly by hard work (and family connections).

This is the third time in less than a month I've read about Piazza's rumored steroid use. On February 26th, Joel Sherman wrote in the New York Post:

He navigated from ultra-non-prospect to 427 career homers. I can pretend that while he was doing this people were not talking about certain physical quirks that raised suspicion, notably a back full of acne. But that would be dishonest.


For the record, Piazza says he was a clean player. "Absolutely" is the word he used. He claims he is not on the now infamous list of 104 failed steroid tests from the survey phase in 2003. "No, not that I know," he said.

To me, that last line is actually the most damning. Why would he qualify his "no" with a "not that I know"? Wouldn't he know? Hasn't it been documented that players on the list were informed? Isn't that the same flimsy reasoning that A-Rod tried to use as an alibi for his own lies?

On March 4th, former NY Times columnist Murray Chass wrote a much more direct allegation:

Circumstantial evidence against Piazza is almost as strong as it is against Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.


Now as naïve as I might have been about steroids, the one thing I knew was that use of steroids supposedly causes the user to have acne on his back. As I said, Piazza had plenty of acne on his back.

When steroids became a daily subject in newspaper articles I wanted to write about Piazza’s acne-covered back. I was prepared to describe it in disgusting living color. But two or three times my editors at The New York Times would not allow it. Piazza, they said, had never been accused of using steroids so I couldn’t write about it.


Whatever the reason, I never got Piazza’s suspicious acne into the paper. Then all of a sudden the acne was gone. Piazza’s back was clear and clean. There was not a speck of acne on it. His back looked as smooth as a baby’s bottom.

What a remarkable development. It was a medical miracle. If teenagers could get hold of whatever Piazza used to clear up his back, they would be rid of the acne problem forever.


But the method Piazza used became apparent to me. It wasn’t medicine or any substance; it was abstinence. This was during the 2004 season, the first season baseball was testing for performance-enhancing substances with identification and penalties attached. If Piazza had been using steroids and didn’t want to get caught, he had to stop using. If he stopped using, his back would clear up.

His back cleared up. Completely.

Now, severe backne certainly isn't enough to accuse anyone of anything, not even when it suddenly disappears. But the fact is that three separate journalists are raising this issue while also alluding to a whisper campaign. This really ticked me off at the time I read the first two articles. Why now, guys? What has changed in 2009 that causes you to put the whispers into black and white since the first part of the decade, besides the Alex Rodriguez scandal? Without new evidence, if it wasn't appropriate in 2001 or 2004 to write about Mike Piazza and steroids, it's not now. These writers were part of the PR machine that fueled New York's Mike Piazza As Hero storyline, and now all of a sudden the sure-thing-first-ballot-hall-of-famer notion isn't such a sure thing. These writers decided for themselves that this was the time they would write the angle, even though they'd been sitting on the story for years. The only thing that's changed is the way Alex Rodriguez has been selling newspapers at a time when newspapers are going out of business.

But while we can cry all we want about due process, the evidence is now out there for public debate. And there won't be a court trial for Piazza like there will likely be for Bonds and Clemens, so we won't get a jury or judge to give us a "beyond a reasonable doubt" conclusion. It's up to us. And as gullible as I may have been during Mike Piazza's Mets career, I do now feel inclined to believe Peralman and Chass and Sherman today, as wrong as I think it is for them to print the allegations.

And I am hurt.

I am embarrassed to have been so naive, and I'm bummed that there is one less "good guy" in the world of sports for us to root for. Yes, it underscores the reality that athletes make lousy role models, and that's actually a good thing to be reminded of, but it sure was fun rooting for Mike Piazza, and those memories are now inarguably tainted. Also inarguable is that if Mike Piazza used steroids, it makes him less "great." Even if 50% of the players between 1996 and 2003 used PEDs, even if it was 99% of baseball players, even if you think greenies and spitballs and stealing signs are worse than steroids, the reality is that these rumors, if true, taint the Mike Piazza Era. If you didn't think he did steroids, and evaluated his career, that evaluation must change to some degree with the knowledge that he used illegal performance enhancers that were not available to Carlton Fisk.

What a shame.

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