Raphael Palmeiro
August 1, 2005

Today it was announced that MLB's new testing policy netted it's first big fish: Raphael Palmeiro.  That's not to say that he tested positive today; in fact, he tested positive some time ago but was allowed to appeal the results of the test in secret.  What was revealed today was that an arbitrator had heard his appeal, ruled against him and that he would begin serving his suspension.  I was lucky/unlucky enough (depending on how you look at it) to be working the game in Baltimore today, so I got a bit of a first hand look-see at the post-game press conference, the mood in the Orioles' front office and some of the conversations that were going on as writers and press reps compared their notes. 

There are two important ramifications to today's news.  The first is that if it wasn't obvious before, it was made plain today that the game's star players are and probably will continue to be given preferential treatment and that every conceivable option will be afforded them in an effort to keep any positive tests they may yield quiet.  Alex Sanchez, Jorge Piedra and the other four players who have tested positive this year were immediately suspended, publicly called out and their appeals were heard during their suspensions.  And that is exactly how MLBs new policy on steroids and performance enhancing drugs reads... except, it seems, when it comes to stars like Palmeiro, who can appeal their test results in secret and wait weeks, perhaps even months before their suspensions are initiated assuming any wrongdoing can not be otherwise circumvented.  So if a star tests positive for anything that can be found in an OTC medicine or a readily available supplement, don't expect to hear about it... ever... unless someone else writes another tell-all book. 

Speaking of which, isn't it ironic that the accusations in Jose Canseco's book are gaining credibility?  Once derided as wild, libelous and wholly inaccurate, the names that he dropped are suddenly looking more and more suspicious.  That's not to say that we should take everything (or even anything) he said in his book as fact.  After all, he is Jose Canseco: a notable show-off still hungry for the spotlight and known as much for his well-documented outlandish claims and behavior as the home runs he hit.  But the more facts that come to light, the more his accusations don't seem so insane.

Although it hasn't been revealed officially, the speculation is that Palmeiro tested positive for Winstrol, which is a brand of stanozolol, the same steroid Ben Johnson was found guilty of using in the Olympics.  It's not an ingredient one finds in antihistamines or nasal sprays, thus possibly resulting in an inadvertent positive test.  It is one of the most commonly stacked steroids, meaning it is used concert with other supplements.  It can be taken orally in a pill or with injections.  As one professional body-builder once put it, "Winny (Winstrol) is like black shoes... it goes with everything."   Regardless, it's not generally a steroid that is taken accidentally or without one's knowledge.  I'm not entirely convinced that Winstrol is indeed what he was found to have taken because one of the several side effects of using it is frequent and/or persistent erections.  That would seem to be an odd choice for the national spokesman for Viagra.  So it's still unclear exactly what he tested positive for and the whole truth might never be publicly known.

The second ramification is that there is now a legitimate shadow of doubt surrounding the accomplishments of the sluggers of the last decade.  Second only to Frank Thomas, there probably hasn't been any slugger more outspoken for the need for testing than Palmeiro.  His denials at the Congressional Hearings in March were possibly the most notable sound bites in the posture-fest.  There had been whispers of suspicion concerning his surge in production in the early 90s but because he had been so outspoken on the subject, little thought was ever given to them.  The fact that he had been one of the NCAAs best sluggers before entering the professional ranks also seemed to support the idea that his improved performance was due to the maturation process of natural ability.  The keen eye.  The sweet swing.  It was his talent finally realizing it's potential.  He was supposed to be one of the legit sluggers.

But now we must at least consider the possibility that Palmeiro's career was in some (possibly large) part chemically-infused.  As Tim Kirkjian pointed out on ESPN, no 500-home run hitter ever led the league in singles or hit fewer than 10 home runs in any season in which they got at least 500 at bats.  Palmeiro has done both, having twice totaled 8 home runs over a full season (1988, 1989) and the following season (1990) led the league in singles.  Sammy Sosa (8 in 262 ABs in 1992), Harmon Killibrew (5 in 248 ABs in 1973), Jimmie Foxx (8 in 305 ABs in 1942 and 7 in 224 ABs in 1945) and Willie McCovey (7 in 226 ABs in 1976) were the only 500-home run sluggers to hit fewer than 10 in a season in which they had as few as 200 ABs.  Killibrew, Foxx and McCovey might be excused because they were each in the last few years of their careers.  Sosa was injured in his down year.  Palmeiro was young, fully healthy, playing regularly and not hitting home runs in his. 

It is interesting to note that Jose Canseco got traded to the Rangers in the middle of 1992.  The following year, Palmeiro's home run total jumped from 22 to 37 and he continued to pound at least 37 homers a season in nine of the next 10 years.  That's not to say that his production couldn't be legit because he was 28 in 1993 and just beginning his peak power years.  So it could be just a coincidence... or not.  What if he's been using steroids for most of his career?  Is he still a Hall of Famer?  Or was he simply a juiced-up Mark Grace?  After today's revelation, we can only speculate.  But don't Andre Dawson, Dick Allen and Jim Rice suddenly look like better candidates for the Hall of Fame now?

One final note: I find it particularly galling that a number of sportswriters are claiming their hands were and are tied when it comes to the steroid question.  After all, it was the players who did the drugs and it's MLB's responsibility to police itself.  That's akin to expecting Nixon to turn himself in for the Watergate break-ins.  What they are conveniently forgetting is that a sportswriter's primary job is to report the sports news.  That is why they are called reporters.  So if there is some change that allows a player to hit the ball 10% farther or throw the ball 10% faster, it's their job to find out about it.  They don't seem to have any problem reporting that a player has changed his mechanics or switched to a different kind of bat.  Why then should they have any trouble reporting that the same player added 20 pounds of lean muscle mass in the span of three months?  If a bat change qualifies as news, why doesn't steroid use?  Is it because steroids have been banned in most other sports because they unfairly tilt the competitve field and they could possibly be doing the same thing in baseball?  Even if steroids are found to have no effect on baseball performance, isn't it reporter's job to at least investigate that possibility?   The fact of the matter is that the sports media totally and utterly failed in it's primary responsibility to report the changes going on in baseball over the last decade and it's not because they didn't think it was a big deal or because they didn't notice or because they didn't think steroids were having any effect.  It's because they lacked the courage to do their job when it suddenly got a little tougher.  And because they didn't do their job then, they now have an even tougher job of evaluating players for the Hall of Fame who have been the beneficiaries of their blind eye.  Given their track record, is it any surprise that they are again copping out?  Sportswriters don't need to look any farther than a mirror to find out why the cloud of doubt regarding steroids surrounds baseball.