- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 17, 2007

The most curious thing about the flap surrounding Angels outfielder Gary Matthews Jr., and his name coming up in an investigation of steroids and human growth hormones surrounding a mail order pharmacy in Alabama was not his refusal to comment on it for nearly three weeks.

It was the way baseball flexed its muscles over Matthews’ refusal to address the reports.

Angels owner Arte Moreno let everyone know he was playing hardball, and there were reports that the team was looking to suspend Matthews and looking for ways to get out of the $50 million deal Moreno gave Matthews this winter, if the outfielder did not address reports of his name surfacing in the probe.

It was pretty tough talk, since the standard operating procedure in cases like this is for sports owners to circle the wagons and protect their own (see Peter Angelos and Rafael Palmeiro). It was as tough a position as management has taken to date on steroids in dealing with a specific player.

What was particularly telling was when baseball commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig also spoke out boldly, for him, about his support for Moreno and his position on Matthews’ silence.

“This is a social institution,” Selig told Yahoo! Sports. “We have enormous social responsibilities. That means every single one of us. That means starting with the commissioner and everybody in this sport. And therefore when something happens in instances like this, I think we all have that responsibility. I know this from an institutional standpoint, when we have something like this that comes up, I can’t hide it, nor should I, nor should anybody else. … I have to say there isn’t a scintilla of difference between Arte Moreno’s position and mine. I don’t know how much blunter I can be than that.”

Matthews finally made a statement this week on the reports, “I have never taken HGH — during the 2004 season or any other time,” he said in a statement. “Nobody has accused me of doing so, and no law enforcement authority has said I am a target of any investigation for doing so.”

Denials sound so much more sincere when they come at least within the same week of the accusation, and not when your agent and lawyer have surveyed the land and determined that denial was the proper strategy. But Matthews is a flea, a mediocre offensive player who suddenly had a good year in 2006 with a career-high 19 home runs, 79 RBI and a .313 average.

The big dog is Barry Bonds, of course, and I don’t think it is a stretch to take Selig’s unusually forceful words as an indicator of how he will deal with Bonds and the steroid issue when the George Mitchell report is done. I still believe the Mitchell report will be used by Selig for a range of responses to Bonds’ distasteful assault on Hank Aaron’s 755 career home run record, from ignoring it to calling for an asterisk to suspending Bonds. Every word Selig says on steroids is careful and calculated, so when he was talking about Gary Matthews, you can be sure he was thinking Bonds.

It’s puzzling how little attention the Mitchell report is receiving, because it will have a huge impact. There is a climate of fear running through baseball, both within the union and in management, that it will spur another round of hearings in Congress, particularly with feelings running hot about Bonds. You can be sure if Bonds does get close to Aaron’s record this summer if an injury, suspension or indictment doesn’t get in the way, there will be more than one resolution introduced in Congress condemning Bonds. Frivolous, yes, but attention-grabbing and popular.

Everyone, especially players, fear suffering the same fate as Mark McGwire after his appearance before Congress two years ago, when he opted to refuse to answer questions about steroid use. He did so for fear of criminal prosecution, and that is the bind for players who could be brought before a Congressional committee: Either they refuse to testify for fear of their own criminal culpability, or else agree to immunity and then turn on their union brothers and name names.

Here’s a name for you in the news this week: Albert Belle’s hip problems have become so bad that he is having a specialized hip resurfacing operation, which reportedly is a harder operation than hip replacement. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the system for Belle’s operation only a year ago, according to the Associated Press. Instead of cutting away and replacing the damaged bone, a surgeon covers the worn ball and socket with smooth metal.

Anyone have a theory why Belle’s body has broken down so severely he has to have such drastic surgery?

It is going to be a long, hot summer.

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