Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The next time Henry Waxman and his Congressional Steroidbusters convene, they might want to swear in Jorge Posada. It would be good for the lawmakers — and the country as a whole — to see some of the collateral damage caused by the performance-enhancing drugs scandal, to hear from a player who has been forced to pay for the crimes of others.

Last year, at 36, Posada had the best season of his career — one of the best seasons a catcher has ever had at such an advanced age. Yet the longtime Yankees star hasn’t been able to fully enjoy it because of the cloud that hangs over baseball … and the almost automatic suspicion that an older player who experiences any kind of renaissance Must Be Taking Something.

“Now when you’re 36 and have a good year,” he told Jack Curry of the New York Times, “it’s guilt by association. … It’s too bad that we have to deal with this, but this is the way it’s going to be for 20 years. It might be this way for longer than that.”

Posada’s 2007 numbers were pretty extraordinary: a .338 average, 20 homers and 90 RBI. After all, he had never batted higher than .287 before, even in the minors, and here he was hitting 51 points better at an age when most catchers, ravaged by the wear and tear, have begun to transition to other positions (e.g. first base, DH).

But here’s the shame of it: There’s no mention of Posada in the Mitchell Report and nothing in his outward appearance to suggest he’s doing anything shady. Indeed, he weighs just 10 pounds more than he did in 1997, his first full season with the Yankees. How many ballplayers — in this era or any other — haven’t put on 10 pounds over the course of their careers?

Besides, Posada’s batting average was the only one of his statistics that deviated much from past performance. His home run and RBI totals were actually down from the previous year (from 23 and 93). Which raises the obvious question: If he were partaking of performance enhancers, wouldn’t it be reflected in his power stats?

Posada does admit to using creatine, but there’s no comparing that legal substance to steroids or human growth hormone. These are the times we live in, though. Fans are skeptical, uncertain of what’s real and what isn’t. And when a good-but-not-great player like Posada has, late in his career, a season that evokes comparisons to Gabby Hartnett, well …

Of course, you could play that same game with Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. Last season at 33, Lowell batted 31 points higher (.324) and drove in 15 more runs (120) than he ever had before. In addition, he was in the final year of his contract, which gave him extra motivation to perform well — and perhaps even to invest in a few hypodermic needles.

Yup, you could definitely make that argument. Orrrrr … you could take a deep breath, brew yourself some herbal tea (or other relaxant) and acknowledge that every now and then the planets align perfectly for a player and he has an insanely good season. What’s more, this could happen at almost any stage of his career.

Fortunately for Steve Stone, he won 25 games for the Orioles in 1980, before major league baseball turned into the Salem witch trials. Otherwise, private investigators would have been shadowing him every time he went to CVS. Stone was a 33-year-old journeyman who had a 78-79 record before that year — and a 4-7 record afterward. What business did he have winning the Cy Young Award?

Statistics can be helpful in ferreting out drug cheats, but there are limits to them. They’re better, in fact, at establishing the appearance of impropriety than actual impropriety — as Posada can tell you.

Barry Bonds’ numbers, for instance: pretty damning, no matter how you parse them.

Roger Clemens’ numbers: less damning because, unlike Barry, he did little as an oldster that he hadn’t done as a youngster.

Baseball history is full of guys whose careers seemed to be waning — and then suddenly they summoned a second act … or enjoyed the loveliest of Indian summers (Paul Molitor, anyone?). Let’s hope these feel-good stories, the Posada stories, don’t get swallowed up in the prevailing skepticism. The last thing we need is Teddy Roosevelt finally winning the Presidents Race at a Nationals game — and being asked to submit a urine sample.

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