HOWARD INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY

In the wake of the Major League Baseball strike of 1994, interest in the game was waning. Baseball stumbled through the mid-90’s looking for a hero, a spark of some kind that would revive sagging attendance and interest.

Superman came to the rescue in 1998. Baseball’s superhero had red hair instead of a red cape, the big “S” across his chest was replaced by the classic logo of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Mark McGwire looked like a superhero too. Standing 6-5, he was 250 pounds of bulging muscle, shoulders broad enough to carry an entire league on his back. With a quiet, confident presence, the Cardinals first baseman mesmerized fans with his historic chase of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.

By summer, McGwire was joined by his Latin superhero friend Sammy Sosa, and the dynamic duo put on a home run display of historic proportions.

The “home run” had captured fans. McGwire and Sosa jacked one after another, city after city, driving fans to Busch Stadium, Wrigley Field and every visiting ballpark in between. Everyone wanted a piece of the action. Everyone wanted to witness history in the making.

Meanwhile, baseball officials watched revenues and attendance soar as the summer heat gave way to the cool, crisp fall air. Baseball was back in business thanks to the home run.

Baseball ignores red flag

The momentum baseball was generating from the home run hit a speed bump in the August, when Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein revealed McGwire had a bottle of androstenedione (or “Andro”) in his locker. At the time, Andro was an over-the-counter supplement not on MLB’s skinny list of banned susbtances.

Wilstein asked McGwire about the substance, and without hesitation McGwire not only admitted to taking it, he suggested, “Everybody I know in the game of baseball uses the same stuff I use.”

That simple admission set the wheels of suspicion surrounding performance-enhancing steroid use in motion. The media jumped on the story. McGwire told the New York Times during a 1998 interview. “Everything I’ve done is natural,” he said. “If somebody tells me that it’s illegal and I shouldn’t be taking it, I will stop.”

MLB officials squashed the media’s suspicion. One day after the McGwire story broke, commissioner Bud Selig was asked about Andro and substances of the like. He told the media, “I have no knowledge of it … The Cardinals are a disciplined organization, and I don’t think anything goes on there that shouldn’t.”

History now shows, it was the first public opportunity Major League Baseball officials had to address performance-enhancing drugs but instead, turned a blind eye.

Howard suffers baseball’s poor judgment

Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard is on a home run tear. The 23-year old phenom has seven home runs in his last six games, including #55 and #56 Friday night in Florida. But, sadly, the buzz surrounding Howard is not entirely about his lethal swing, it’s whether or not his power is natural or a by-product of “juicing.”

So let the finger-pointing begin, albeit unnecessary. No one is to blame. The circumstances are the residual of a systemic error by all parties involved – players, management and league officials.

Players used poor judgment when they decided cheating was the right choice and began injecting, swallowing and rubbing on performance-enhancing substances. League officials ignored the red flags. Management followed suit, ignoring the signs of substance abuse by players.

In this weekend’s New York Daily News poll, surveying 10 former major league players from the 1950’s through the 1990’s, one anonymous player, summed it up with the comment, “There’s a saying in baseball: ‘If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.’” To players, using performance-enhancing drugs is a necessary evil to compete. Maybe true, but wrong.

Others surveyed blame baseball officials for not acting sooner, saying, “ … baseball from the commissioner down to owners have been aware of the drug use and have dragged their feet.”

“I do not have trust in the Commissioner’s Office or the (union),” said former Cardinal pitcher Ernie Broglio, “I believe (Donald) Fehr let all the drug problems run too long without stepping in.”

Howard, through his 2006 success, is now ushered into steroid suspicion. Is he “juicing?” If, in fact, he does hit 62 or more home runs, is he the first “clean” hitter to break Roger Maris’ single-season home run record? Or, is he a candidate to join McGwire, Sosa and Bonds, all alleged “users” who have usurped Maris’ 61?

Howard miffed as problem drags on

The questions, allegations and suspicions bother Howard – and rightfully so.

“People are entitled to their opinions,” Howard told the Philadelphia Daily News last week. “But it does bother me. It casts a shadow on the game.

“I know I’m not using steroids. This barrel right here [pointing to his stomach] is proof enough. People are going to say what they want to say. I thought about it once and then it was like, ‘Well, whatever.’ I’m not doing it. If they want to test me, they can test me … I just think it sucks. The thing about it is, if you’re going to make those kinds of comments, have proof. Otherwise, you can ruin people’s reputations.”

Howard is unjustly being tried for the actions of others. In the court of public opinion, the allegations alone are unfair to Howard. Instead of the presumed innocent before guilty, cynicism has flip-flopped justice when it comes to steroids. There is an auto-switch set to guilty for those players who have allegedly cheated, whether or not there is any factual basis for the suspicion.

The fact that fans and the media would even suggest Howard is aided by performance-enhancing drugs is a sign that baseball has a long way to go in overcoming the problem. It’s a clear indication that baseball watchers – whether it’s fans, media, management, players or league officials – are cynical about success, thanks to the poor choices made by players, owners and league officials before them.

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