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Say It Is So

Baseball is an easy game: All you need is an open field, a bat, a ball, a couple of gloves, a syringe, some Deca Durabolin, some Winstrol, some human growth hormone, some testosterone decanoate, some norbolethone, some trenbolone and some of the fertility drug Clomid.

Play ball!

Also, fellas, you might want some acne medication for the zits busting out all over your back, and a "protective cup" to ward off injuries to your (sorry to be blunt) steroid-shrunken testicles. Yes, if you use too many 'roids your protective cup could eventually be just a thimble.

Baseball, like America itself, has always had blemishes. Ty Cobb was a cad, Babe Ruth a night-crawling lush and Ted Williams a nasty man we pray will never be thawed. The most famous phrase in baseball comes from the 1919 Black Sox betting scandal: "Say it ain't so, Joe." Gaylord Perry cheated with spitballs.

The most iconic home run in the history of the game, Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World," came only after his New York Giants set up an elaborate system, using a guy with a telescope out in the center field clubhouse and a buzzer in the home dugout, to steal pitch signs from the opposing catcher.

But all this stuff happened out of sight. The noble nature of the sport required that players be discreet about their cheating.

Times have changed. In the past decade and a half, baseball underwent a spasm of cheating in broad daylight, with one player after another becoming preposterously chiseled, cut, ripped -- nay, shredded -- with jawlines ever more granitic. Anemic singles-hitters, formerly as elegant as ballet dancers, turned overnight into hulking sluggers with knuckles dragging on the ground.

And what was our collective reaction? Pretense. Sure, we suspected steroids, but we pretended we didn't really know absolutely for certain. The players were innocent until proven guilty. When convenient, we turn into a nation of defense lawyers. We say it ain't so even when we know better.

Plus, we craved homers. Baseball appeals to people with refined tastes, which is to say it's a little boring. Roughly 15 percent of any baseball game is devoted to spitting, and another 22 percent is spent tapping the bat against the cleats to remove caked soil. The action can get so glacial that the game threatens to turn into golf. Meanwhile, entertainment in America requires ever more stimulation. We have to crank up the volume. On a scale of 1 to 10, we've got our culture set on 11.

Baseball, losing its audience in the 1990s, succumbed to temptation. Pills, creams and mysterious supplements suddenly pulled the outfield fences toward home plate. By 1998, Mark McGwire, always a big man, had become Bunyanesque, and he began hitting baseballs all the way to Mars. That year he hit 70, and Sammy Sosa hit 66 -- totally ridiculous numbers, though surpassed, just three years later, by the ludicrous 73 of Barry Bonds. And we clapped.

It couldn't have been more obvious that players were juicing. Consider this passage from the book Game of Shadows, by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, about the physical transformation of Bonds after he began taking steroids:

"His hair fell out, and he began shaving his head. Perhaps it was [his mistress's] imagination, but the head itself seemed to be getting larger, and the plates of his skull bones stood out in bold relief."

A larger head! That should be a story, when someone's head changes size during the offseason. Also if someone shows up with more than just the one head. That's right there in the rule book: One head per player.

The problem is, "objective" journalism prevents most reporters from printing their suspicions. Checking the clips, we note that a San Francisco Chronicle reporter in early 1999 reported that Bonds showed up for spring training "looking like he hit the weight room extra hard this winter. His arms and chest look bigger." It's just a shame that journalists can't write things like, "Barry Bonds, his head suddenly the size of a basketball and his body a pharmaceutical grotesquerie, batted 3 for 4 yesterday with two homers, a double and a ball that simply turned into subatomic particles on contact."

Take it beyond sports. Imagine if we could write political stories that said, "The senator, a cretinous windbag whose seven-term tenure has been an uninterrupted fandango of political whoring, could not be reached for comment."

The truth will set you free. And it's as all-American as baseball.

[This is my column in the Sunday magazine.]

By Joel Achenbach  |  April 2, 2006; 10:26 AM ET
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