- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A little over a year ago, in spite of all the bad feelings about records in the wake of the Mitchell Report, there seemed to be some upcoming milestones in baseball worth celebrating.

Two players, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, were approaching their 500th home runs and would reach the milestone in 2008. These were two players on whom no aspersions would be cast about steroid use; they had tallied their numbers the old-fashioned way and would continue to do so.


Time and a pair of startling revelations - Rodriguez’s February admission that he used steroids with the Texas Rangers, followed by Ramirez’s positive test for a banned substance last week - have added both players to a long list of would-be Hall of Famers whose statistical mountains are no longer viewed with awestruck admiration but scoured with a fine-tooth comb.

To be fair, there is no hard evidence Ramirez took steroids - just the female fertility drug found last week that drug cheats have been known to use to restore testosterone levels after steroid cycles. And there’s no proof Rodriguez took anything other than during his three years with the Rangers.

But we’ve been down this road before, too many times. One revelation is stacked on another, and pretty soon we’re questioning the veracity of another slugger’s numbers.

That’s perhaps the most damaging side effect of the Ramirez news: A guy long celebrated as an idiot savant, a jester in cleats who moonlighted as the most sublime right-handed hitter of his generation, now will have his legacy subjected to the same questions that dog Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, remember, was being held up just a year ago as the antidote to Bonds, the clean slugger who could wipe Bonds’ home run record off the books without any suspicion of foul play. Now the question fans - and eventually the writers who elect players to the Hall of Fame - are left with is this: Are there any sluggers from this era they can trust?

Albert Pujols? He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in March, accompanied by the headline “Don’t be afraid to believe in me,” and was the subject of a story about how he might be, at last, the trustworthy superstar who compiled his numbers in the Steroid Era. But he has dealt with occasional questions about steroids. And although he has never been the subject of heated speculation, neither was Ramirez. There’s nothing to accuse him of, but we’ve been fooled before.

Ryan Howard? The Phillies slugger is young enough to have done most of his work after baseball introduced drug testing in 2003 and toughened its suspensions in 2006. So is Adam Dunn, the Nationals slugger who has jacked at least 40 homers every year since 2004 and is on pace to hit nearly 60 this year.

But neither player has the longevity for their numbers to hold much historical heft yet.

There are only three sluggers in the top 25 of the career home run list who have played in the past 20 years without much suspicion: Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas and Jim Thome. All three players, in a sense, escape scrutiny because they’ve more or less looked the same throughout their careers: Griffey the lanky gazelle with the sweet uppercut, Thomas the former football player and Thome every bit the cleanup hitter from a weekend softball league.

Thomas and Thome (and to some extent, Griffey) also have never had the kind of suspicious year-to-year spikes in their homer totals that invite second-guessers. That’s all we really have to go on, though - circumstantial evidence, positive or negative, in an era when precious little direct talk has come out on steroids. Like Ramirez proved last week, most of the time we’re left guessing and whispering - or picking a new fair-play poster boy and hoping.

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