Sunday, February 17, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — There was a written apology, and then there was an 11-minute press conference in which Paul Lo Duca apologized some more.

Apologized for what? Officially, Lo Duca apologized for “mistakes in judgment I made in the past and for the distraction that has resulted.” The Washington Nationals’ new catcher never used the words “steroids” or “HGH” in his first comments since appearing in the Mitchell Report.

It might have lacked specifics, but Lo Duca’s apology did offer a glimpse into the 35-year-old’s head and heart.

“You do something wrong in your life and you get away with it, you still have something inside you that burns,” he said upon reporting to Nationals spring training at Space Coast Stadium. “It’s been a big relief for me to know that I’ve come to grips with it, that I made a mistake.”

By all accounts a gregarious, popular person, Lo Duca remained in public hiding the last two months. Signed by the Nationals to a one-year, $5 million contract on Dec. 11, he learned two days later he had been named in former Sen. George Mitchell’s report on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

Accused of purchasing at least six kits of HGH in 2004 from former New York Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, who produced copies of three signed checks and two handwritten notes, Lo Duca was one of the most-prominent players included in the Mitchell Report.

He did not offer any public response, though, until yesterday.

“Offseason’s my offseason, and when the baseball season started back up I wanted to take care of this issue,” he said. “So I thought today, with my agent, we thought today would be the best day to release it.”

Lo Duca’s written remarks — a 122-word statement in which he apologized to “my family, all of my fans and to the entire baseball community” — were issued early in the day.

Upon arriving here mid-afternoon following a flight from his New York home, he then sat behind a glass desk and in front of a Nationals logo backdrop and answered questions from a group of 10 reporters.

The four-time All-Star didn’t answer every question.

Asked whether the Mitchell Report was accurate with regards to him, he replied: “Um … no further… I’m not going to comment on that.”

Asked what specifically he apologized for, he responded: “Come on, bro. Next question.”

It was reminiscent of Jason Giambi’s nonspecific apology three years ago, when the New York Yankees slugger told reporters and fans he was sorry without admitting to taking steroids.

Giambi was not punished — by the federal government or Major League Baseball — for his actions, a fact Lo Duca and his representatives may have had in mind when they drew up his apology.

Still, commissioner Bud Selig could decide to suspend Lo Duca, citing the special circumstances surrounding his case.

The Mitchell Report details how Lo Duca referred several ex-teammates with the Los Angeles Dodgers, including pitchers Eric Gagne and Kevin Brown, to Radomski. Selig could decide Lo Duca’s actions as a middle man are worthy of punishment, though Nationals officials do not expect a suspension.

Lo Duca already faces a difficult spring as he attempts to recover from arthroscopic surgery last month to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. He is not expected to begin playing in exhibition games until mid-March, though he insisted yesterday he’ll be ready for the start of the season.

“I don’t think there’s going to be an issue,” he said. “I’ll be there for Opening Day.”

The Nationals had minimal contact with Lo Duca over the last two months, with team officials staying out of the steroids controversy and letting the veteran catcher decide his own course of action. They stood behind him yesterday, with manager Manny Acta and general manager Jim Bowden attending the press conference.

“Frankly my dear, I’m ready to talk about something else other than that stuff, because I’m really kind of tired of it,” Acta said. “Paul’s a good person, good teammate, gives everything he’s got on the field. All that other stuff, I didn’t know about it. I’m glad he has apologized and admitted it and he’s not making excuses for him or anybody.”

Lo Duca spoke about the task he now faces: winning back fans and proving his worth on the field.

“It’s something I’m going to have to deal with,” he said. “It’s a mistake I made, and you’re going to have to deal with it for the rest of your life and go on with it.”

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