- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Albert Pujols, the Lou Gehrig of our times, picked up his first Most Valuable Player Award the other day. But if baseball had begun testing for drugs when other sports did, it might well have been Pujols’ third MVP — in just five major league seasons. And then we’d be saying, rightly, “This guy might be the best player to come along in 50 years.”

Pujols had the misfortune of breaking in around the time Barry Bonds developed a taste for “flaxseed oil.” Thus, he finished second to Bonds in the ‘02 and ‘03 National League voting instead of, perhaps, first. The same fate befell Mike Piazza, who was runner-up to admitted steroid user Ken Caminiti in the ‘96 NL balloting. But for Piazza, the ramifications were worse: He’s never won an MVP — and likely never will.

And how about poor Moises Alou? We all know the suspicions that have swirled around Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire since the (in)famous Home Run Summer of ‘98. Well, Alou placed third in the NL MVP race that year behind Sammy and Big Mac. Not that anyone will remember.

We can only guess how much steroids altered not just suit sizes but also baseball history. I mean, think about it: The Tigers might have lost 119 games two seasons ago not because they were crummier than other teams but because they were cleaner, drug-wise. If more of their players had juiced, they might only have lost, oh, 118 games.

It’s hard not to ponder such things now that baseball has, at long last, put some fangs in its drug policy. This is, after all, the heart of the Hardware Season, and for the first time in years there are no clouds of doubt hovering over the recipients. They’ve all been tested for performance enhancers, and they’ll continue to be tested — unlike the winners of the recent past. (It takes some of the fun out of it when you’re always wondering if this Most Valuable Player or that Cy Young selection is truly deserving … and not some loathsome lab rat.)

To say the Hypodermic Era is over in baseball is probably premature. The game is always going to have a few bad eggs. But now, if they get caught, they’ll risk serious scrambling — a suspension of 50 games for the first offense, 100 for the second and lifetime expulsion for the third. That’s more punitive than the NFL’s policy and should be enough to give any player pause.

Of course, Congress had to hold a metal bat to MLB’s head to get it to do the right thing. Union chief Donald Fehr and his minions thought it was big of them to agree to testing at all and would have been perfectly content with the original Get Out of Jail (Almost) Free-type penalties. What did Rafael Palmeiro get when he was finally unmasked — 10 days? That’s not a deterrent, it’s a parking ticket.

The new strictures even address amphetamines — or greenies, as they’re called. Players aren’t allowed to pop those anymore, either. But it doesn’t figure to impact the game as much as the steroids prohibition. We’ll probably see more TV shots of guys dozing on the bench, but that’s about it. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they brought back the bullpen cart, just to give relievers more time to rouse themselves.)

As the past season showed, baseball has nothing to fear from drug testing. The number of home runs declined, but it’s not as if half the sluggers suddenly had warning-track power. There was still plenty of horsehide hammering. Andruw Jones became the first player since 2002 to hit 50 homers, and Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz nearly matched him.

What basically happened was that baseball continued its deflation to its pre-steroids state, to that quieter time when hitting 50 dingers was still stop-the-presses stuff — and it was possible for a pitcher, suitably inspired, to post an ERA of 1.87 (as Roger Clemens did this year). The division races this year were terrific, the playoffs no less satisfying and, for the second season in a row, the team that won the World Series won it for the first time since the spitter was legal.

Some would take that as an omen, a sign that, with the institution of drug testing, the game has regained its equilibrium. And maybe it has — for that and other reasons. Why, in one of the postseason games, I could have sworn I saw the White Sox pull off a suicide squeeze. Then again, I might just have been watching “Field of Dreams,” half-asleep.

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