Our ballpark illusions sustain another blow

August 02, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

RAFAEL PALMEIRO, on the road to baseball's Hall of Fame, instead arrives at the junction of ignorance and ignominy. He may have lied to the U.S. Congress, or he may simply be lying to himself. Whom the gods would make immortal, they sometimes give feet of clay. And bodies artificially enhanced.

At Oriole Park yesterday, they put on a game of baseball that seemed a kind of glum afterthought to drug allegations. While the Orioles played the White Sox, Palmeiro played defendant. While his huge congratulatory banner continued to hang from the Oriole Park warehouse, Palmeiro took reporters' questions and tried not to hang himself.

Five months after testifying before the U.S. Congress ("I have never used steroids. Period. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that.") Palmeiro parsed his language carefully in a telephone conference-call hookup yesterday, or hid behind legalisms. This time, he said he had never "knowingly" or "intentionally" taken steroids.

What kind of steroid are we talking about? Palmeiro wouldn't say. When might he have taken them? Palmeiro wouldn't say. How might they have "unknowingly" entered his body? Palmeiro said he didn't know. Five months ago, full of public denials, had he lied to the U.S. Congress? Yesterday, Palmeiro insisted he had not. But the word "knowingly" was notably employed.

Washington hasn't seen this kind of equivocating since George W. Bush changed his tune on Karl Rove and CIA leaks.

Back in March, Palmeiro looked like the standup guy in the one-time Murderer's Row of sluggers that faced the Congressional Committee on Government Reform investigating allegations of steroid use in baseball. He wasn't Mark McGwire, refusing to give a straight answer as he quivered behind a thin veil of tears. And he wasn't Sammy Sosa, suddenly discovering his English skills were so insufficient he needed a legal mouthpiece to do his talking.

That day on Capitol Hill, Palmeiro was an innocent declaring the well-known clown Jose Canseco a liar for saying he'd personally injected Palmeiro with steroids when they were teammates in Texas. He was a wrongfully accused man presenting himself as a standup guy offering no moral compromise. He was the one man who didn't make baseball fans cringe as they watched the televised proceedings. Maybe you believed him and maybe you didn't - but at least he presented himself as a man of integrity.

Yesterday, as baseball handed him a 10-day suspension for use of a banned substance, Raffy was a man ducking behind legalisms more instinctively than he ever ducked a blowback fastball. Asked specifically about the type of substance, and the timing, and the sheer improbability of "unknowingly" taking a banned substance, he cited confidentiality agreements between baseball and the players union, or sheer ignorance.

So much for standup guys.

This time, he just seemed pitiful. And, in the process, cast a shadow over a season, and an entire sport.

Forty-four years ago, when Roger Maris passed the ghost of Babe Ruth, baseball declared Maris' 61 home runs would be accompanied by an asterisk since the season had recently expanded from 154 games to 162. Big deal. If Maris' record deserved an asterisk, what do you do now? Throw out all records since the dawning of the age of chemicals? It's not just Palmeiro, but an entire generation of artificially enhanced sluggers who rewrote almost every major home run record in existence.

So we come once again to that moment when sports fans must confront their illusions. We enter the ballparks with the innocence of children, believing the athletes approach the game the way we all did as Little Leaguers: They do it for the love of it. They play fair. The playing field is level. When reality tells us otherwise, we make compromises with ourselves: Yes, there's cheating, but not by our guys. Somebody else's guys, but not ours. How else do we go on rooting?

In a prepared statement yesterday, Palmeiro apologized "to my teammates and fans." But, if he didn't "knowingly" or "intentionally' do anything wrong, why apologize? For stupidity? Or simply as the first gesture in a public relations offensive to restore his good name? And as a gesture to keep the doors open to the Hall of Fame? And as a prayer that fans won't boo him off the field when he returns in 10 days?

The question is: Can Palmeiro forgive himself? The rest of his life, the steroid business will trail him like a shadow. His ball club's in free fall, but at least Raffy's been shaking hands with the gods of the game. That banner out in right field says so. It congratulates him for 3,000 hits and 500 homers, the twin peaks reached only by the rarest of the game's immortals. It hangs there like a curtain.

Now the curtain hangs in tatters.

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