Be­lieve it, Bel­tre bound for Hall of Fame, even with PED sus­pi­cions

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - BOB NIGHTENGALE

Base­ball’s steroid era has largely come and gone, but it con­tin­ues to nag at our con­science.

We’re sup­posed to be cel­e­brat­ing Adrian Bel­tre’s 3,000th hit in Texas, but a day later are lis­ten­ing to a na­tional ra­dio host cast­ing doubt on the feat’s au­then­tic­ity.

We’re in Coop­er­stown, N.Y., hon­our­ing the new­est class of the Hall of Fame, but it’s im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore the mostly pri­vate as­ser­tions that Pudge Ro­driguez and Jeff Bag­well cheated their way to the Hall.

We see mon­strous home runs be­ing hit th­ese days, and in­stead of marvel­ling in awe, we’re blam­ing it on the ball.

Did the steroid era ir­repara­bly gash our en­joy­ment of the game?

Can’t we just savour ex­tra­or­di­nary ac­com­plish­ments with­out every­one au­to­mat­i­cally ques­tion­ing their va­lid­ity, as if we’re pro­tect­ing our­selves in case a pos­i­tive drug test lurks around the cor­ner?

Should we re­ally en­ter­tain the reck­less idea that Bel­tre is a steroid user sim­ply be­cause he’s still one of the best third base­man in the game at 38?

“I’m not say­ing Adrian Bel­tre un­equiv­o­cally did it,” Doug Got­tlieb of Fox Sports said on his ra­dio show, “I’m say­ing: ‘Hey, we’ve all been fooled be­fore.’ And we have some mark­ers that could paint the tale of a guy who could pos­si­bly be ahead of the curve and hasn’t tested pos­i­tive for it.”

How dare he ut­ter those words, so we lash back, say­ing it’s cruel and al­most im­moral for any­one to at­tack Bel­tre’s in­tegrity.

Why, un­less some­thing changed in an­other early-morn­ing tweet from the Oval Of­fice, we still live in a coun­try where you are in­no­cent un­til proven guilty.

So, Bel­tre is in­no­cent un­til proven oth­er­wise with a dirty test.

He is the third player to play the ma­jor­ity of his games at third base to reach 3,000 hits. He has passed ev­ery drug test he has taken for the 13 years of his ma­jor-league ca­reer. The skep­tics will re­mind you Barry Bonds and Roger Cle­mens never flunked a drug test ei­ther; same with the 13 play­ers nabbed in the 2013 Bio­gen­e­sis scan­dal.

Skep­tics look at Bel­tre’s 2004 sea­son, when he hit .334 with 48 home runs and 121 RBI in 2004 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yet, he was just 25 years old. It was his walk year be­fore free agency. He did the same thing in 2010 with the Bos­ton Red Sox when he hit .321, with a league-high 49 dou­bles be­fore free agency, and no one ut­tered a word.

They won­der how he’s able to be so pro­duc­tive in his late 30s, hit­ting .300 with 32 homers and 104 RBI last year at the age of 37. But they don’t see the dis­ci­pline in­volved in main­tain­ing that level of play over the past decade.

Come on, he’s got to be clean, right? Well, the un­com­fort­able fact of the mat­ter is we have ab­so­lutely no idea if he — or any ma­jor-lea­guer, from sit­u­a­tional re­liever to fran­chise player — ever used per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs in his ca­reer.

I don’t know. And you don’t know. Bel­tre says no.

But with the ex­cep­tion of Mark McGwire and David Segui, no player in the his­tory of the Hall of Fame bal­lot has ad­mit­ted to steroid use.

So who you go­ing to be­lieve? What are we sup­posed to be­lieve? We re­ally don’t know who is clean to­day, or who was dirty back in the day.

We had our strong sus­pi­cions in the steroid era. You had to be a fool, or ut­terly naive, not to know steroids were out of con­trol in base­ball in the ’90s, when mid­dle in­field­ers be­gan re­sem­bling mid­dle lineback­ers.

It was the drug that pro­duced the in­fa­mous home-run race be­tween McGwire and Sosa, re­gen­er­at­ing in­ter­est in a sport strug­gling for an iden­tity af­ter the 1994 strike that can­celled the World Se­ries.

The nar­ra­tive to­day that jour­nal­ists turned their back to the steroid era is ab­surd. Did we know the cheat­ing was ram­pant? Ab­so­lutely. There were plenty of sto­ries writ­ten about steroid use in the early days, in­clud­ing me, but no one re­ally seemed to care.

Now, did we ever print names of those we strongly sus­pected, names of play­ers be­ing whis­pered in our ears, or even from those who pri­vately ad­mit­ted to steroid use? Ab­so­lutely not. Like to­day, the idea of be­ing sued for li­bel has a funny way of be­ing frowned upon by bosses.

The Base­ball Writ­ers As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica in­stead spoke out in a dif­fer­ent way, ex­press­ing their sus­pi­cions in Hall of Fame bal­lot­ing. It’s why it took Bag­well seven years af­ter his el­i­gi­bil­ity to fi­nally be voted into the Hall. Mike Pi­azza didn’t make it un­til his fourth try. Ro­driguez made it on his first at­tempt, but the great­est all-around catcher of his era squeaked in with 76 per cent of the vote amid con­cerns of his mas­sive weight loss that co­in­cided with drug test­ing.

None of those play­ers failed a drug test. Again, nei­ther did Bonds nor Cle­mens, but that won’t stop sev­eral in­ductees from boy­cotting the Coop­er­stown cer­e­mony when Bonds and Cle­mens en­ter the Hall of Fame.

And Bonds and Cle­mens one day will be in in­ducted into the Hall of Fame. Bank on it.

Con­sid­er­ing we al­ready are per­mit­ting play­ers with sus­pi­cions or links to PEDs into the Hall of Fame now, why in the world should we stop the two great­est play­ers of the steroid era get­ting into the Hall?

Bonds and Cle­mens never failed a drug test or sus­pended. They even went to fed­eral court to prove their in­no­cence, and won.

I vote for them ev­ery year on my Hall of Fame bal­lot, and will con­tinue un­til they’re elected. I’ll vote for Bel­tre, too. You’re talk­ing not only about one of the great­est third base­men ever, but if you ask any­one who ever played with Bel­tre, they’ll tell you he was the great­est team­mate, too. He’s per­haps the most re­spected player in the game to­day.

So, did he ever use per­for­manceen­hanc­ing drugs at any time in his ca­reer? I don’t know. Nei­ther do you. And you know what, that’s OK, too.

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