By Phil Sheridan
Knight Ridder Newspapers
PHILADELPHIA - Believe your eyes or believe their words. It's your choice.
It's roidball season again, and reports are trickling in from spring training camps everywhere. Instead of discussing the sharpest-breaking curveballs and the most promising rookies, everyone is trying to figure out who is on or off the juice.
Barry Bonds reported to camp and said he doesn't use steroids.
Gary Sheffield reported to camp and said he would volunteer to be tested every day.
Jason Giambi reported to camp and said he lost weight, but not too much weight, by cutting down on fast food, not human growth hormone or THG.
It is as weird as baseball has been since the replacement-player spring of 1990. The game is under a cloud, and no one seems to know what to think or how to deal with it.
"It's like McCarthyism or something," Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker said Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. "They're looking to see who looks like a Communist. I'll probably get in trouble for that ... but that's how I equate it. `Oh, he lost weight. He gained weight.' "
Baker, who was Bonds' manager in San Francisco before going to Chicago last year, said he never saw anyone using steroids and that he wouldn't know what they even looked like.
Well, Dusty, the answer is that they look exactly like Bonds. Whether he's used them or not, no one can say for sure. Baseball has tried to ignore this issue for so long, there was no testing and no penalty for using steroids or other performance-enhancing substances up until this year. Now that the sport is finally trying to deal with it, everyone in the game is caught in a web of suspicion.
Bonds, Sheffield and Giambi aren't getting the most attention because of any McCarthy-style witch hunt. They're getting it because they were called to testify before the federal grand jury that has indicted four men - including Bonds' personal trainer - in the so-called BALCO designer steroid case.
And because Bonds changed his entire body type at a suspiciously late point in his career and began hitting record numbers of home runs. And because Giambi looked like the Incredible Hulk last year and showed up at camp this week looking much more credible and much less hulk-like.
Giambi said he weighed just four fewer pounds than he did last year. Photos of him make that number sound absurd.
Believe your eyes or their words.
Last week, a rare episode of basement cleaning turned up an old copy of PhillySport, a magazine that lasted a few years in the early `90s. It contained a Phillies ad that showed Lenny Dykstra standing on base. Dykstra looked like a 12-year-old, at least compared to the pumped-up version that led the Phillies to the World Series just three years later.
Those who witnessed Dykstra's transformation assumed something was up. Dykstra's wink-wink references to "special vitamins" confirmed those assumptions. But whatever he was doing, it was legal then, just as it was legal when Bonds hit 73 home runs and Mark McGwire hit 70 and so on.
As baseball shifts awkwardly into testing-and-punishing mode, then, it will have to go through a nasty period of suspicion and doubt.
Look at last season. There was steroid testing in spring training, albeit with no punishment attached. Those tests showed that 5 to 7 percent of players were positive for steroids, an astounding figure.
But even then, power numbers were down. After an outbreak of 50- and 60- and 70-homer seasons, no one hit more than the 47 cranked by Jim Thome and Alex Rodriguez in 2003.
Was it a case of people getting off the juice? Or was it, as Bonds said Tuesday, merely a case of "soft" baseballs being used last season?
That's what cheating does to a sport, which is why baseball was wrong not to stand up to its players' union earlier and demand testing. There is a corrosive effect, and it will linger throughout this season and likely for years to come.
Take Javy Lopez, who broke the major-league record for catchers by hitting 43 home runs for Atlanta last season. He looked much more bulked up than in previous years, when he never hit more than 34 homers. Now with Baltimore, Lopez may continue to hit a lot of homers. If he doesn't, people will wonder whether his contract-year surge was all natural.
That kind of thing will go on all over baseball, and it's baseball's own fault.
Giambi was all over the back pages of the New York tabloids on Tuesday: "The Thin Man" (Newsday), "Slim Fast" (Daily News), "Here's the Skinny" (Post). Post columnist Joel Sherman polled other Yankees and said the consensus was that Giambi was at least 15 pounds lighter.
Giambi said he lost four pounds to make things easier on his sore knee, but how would losing four pounds do that? He said he simply cut out fast food.
Those were his words. Believe them if you want and if you can ignore your eyes.
© 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.