Posted on Sat, Jun. 10, 2006

Time to believe Sweeney in steroids issue

Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - This performance-enhancing drug thing in baseball is making us all crazy. Last week, in the wake of the Jason Grimsley raid, Royals captain Mike Sweeney was questioned again about steroids. He again denied using them. He went quite a bit further this time.

"I'll put my hand on the Bible or my children's (heads)," he said. "I know I've never taken any steroids, any performance-enhancing drugs or any growth hormones."

That seems like a powerful denial to me. A good man - a man we all know publicly places family and religion above everything else - swears on everything that matters to him that he never used the stuff. How could we not believe him? But here is where we are with this drug thing: I know people who do not believe him. I know lots of people who do not believe him. I have friends who do not believe him.

"I guess that makes me a bad person," one of those friends said.

Well, not a bad person, exactly. But I've been thinking a lot about this. And it seems to me this performance-enhancing-drug mania is bringing out the worst in us as fans. It makes us sneer. It drains our joy. It makes the sports pages less fun to read. It degrades hallowed records. It casts doubt on all those things we used to love about baseball.

Love the home run? Well, it's gone now.

Enjoy a 96-mph fastball? Strange, he used to throw 93.

Read a touching story about a player coming back from injury? Well, ask yourself this: How exactly did he add that 15 pounds of muscle?

A million people have talked and written about the effects of performance-enhancing drugs on the game of baseball; I have nothing new to add. Lines are already drawn. People boo Barry Bonds or cheer, tear apart Mark McGwire's legacy or defend it, talk about how steroids have ruined baseball or complain that the whole thing is overblown.

But here, I'm not talking the morality of the Cream and the Clear. No, I'm just talking about what all the revelations and allegations have done to us. Because no matter where you stand, these drugs_with their baffling names and undefined powers_have changed the way we watch baseball. Nobody quite believes anymore.

Albert Pujols hits 25 homers before the end of May. What do you think?

Jim Thome crushes home runs again. What does it mean?

Barry Bonds closes in on Hank Aaron's home-run record? What does that say to you?

Mark McGwire will be up for the Hall of Fame this year. How would you vote?

There's nothing fun about these questions. They have muddled baseball, a sport that, even with the infield-fly rule, should be pretty simple. "See the ball, hit the ball," Big Red Machine first baseman Tony Perez used to say. I've always thought that cliche is the core of the game.

Where is the core now? Some have suggested HGH helps eyesight_helps you see the ball. Some have suggested steroids can help quicken reflexes and speed of thought_helps you hit the ball. Nothing is simple.

Look, we can't go back_and I don't think any of us would want to go back_to the head-in-the-sand 1998 days when America blindly cheered the home-run barrage and most of us did not want to know about andro or creatine or the needles behind closed doors. Players have used steroids, and fans have a right to know and a right to feel however they want to feel about it.

Still, the longer this performance-enhancing-drug hunt goes on - the more names that come out (and more names will come out as more Jason Grimsleys talk) - the more cynical we all become. We have no choice. If you can't quite believe what you see, you can't love baseball the same way.

So I want to say this: I believe Mike Sweeney. I believe him because to me, there are only two options: 1. Mike Sweeney did bulk up and he has had many nagging injuries (supposedly nagging injuries can be a side effect of steroid use), but he did not use steroids.

2. Mike Sweeney did use steroids, which means last week he lied even though he offered to swear on the Bible and the heads of his children.

I believe Option 1. I'm not naive about performance-enhancing drugs; it's impossible to be naive now. I believe that Barry Bonds used. I believe Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa used. I believe that there are many players_many who have denied it, many others you would never suspect_who have used drugs we still have not discovered. I think they used because they thought it would make them better players. It would earn them more money. It would get them to the big leagues. It would help them become stars. I think players used because they believed nobody would catch them.

Great athletes have a great hunger; the very hunger that we sportswriters love to celebrate. The hunger goes deeper than most of us can imagine. They need to win.

But I believe Mike Sweeney, too. I remember in a clubhouse, just after the first batch of BALCO names made the papers, former Royals pitcher Kevin Appier walked up to Sweeney and said, "Hey Mike, I'm surprised your name wasn't up there."

It was clubhouse banter, the kind Mike Sweeney usually loves. But he stopped cold.

He looked at Appier and said, "I thought it would be you, Ape."

"Yeah," Appier said as he patted his belly, "I'm just the type."

"I'm not the type either," Sweeney said plainly.

I believe Sweeney. I believe him because I don't want to be the kind of baseball fan who can't believe in anything.