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Drug scandal uncovers ugliness as well as reality


In sports, as in politics and business and just about any other endeavor, there is the world the public sees, and then there is another world that exists behind closed doors -- a world of commerce, yearning, process, decision-making and private motivations.

The real world.

The sports public seldom gets to take a good, hard look at it, but occasionally, and for better or worse, the doors crack open.

That is certainly what is happening now in baseball, as the scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs continues to mushroom. We're getting a better and better view of a part of that sport's real world that is hardly attractive -- steroids, amphetamines, human growth hormones, vitamin B-12 injections, vials, needles, whew, what else? And more revelations are coming, for sure.

To say it is evolving into a crisis of credibility would be an understatement. The popularity of any sport is based on it being legitimate and trustworthy, full of performances -- good and bad -- that, at the very least, fans can believe in when they see them. But the presence of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball is increasingly raising doubts about a sizable percentage of what goes on.

Remember when the 3,000th hit of Rafael Palmeiro's career was celebrated as a major historical milestone last July in Seattle? Within weeks, the moment was unmasked as a complete sham.

Similarly, Jason Grimsley's surprisingly early return from ligament-replacement elbow surgery last year was hailed at the time as a minor medical miracle ("I don't know what they transplanted into him; maybe it was something else," former Orioles co-GM Jim Beattie said), but David Segui told ESPN last week that Grimsley came to him last offseason and asked whether hGH could help him overcome the injury. Who knows what role hGH played in the "miracle"?

Unless Grimsley is the only major league player thinking along those lines -- and surely no one believes that -- his question to Segui offered a glimpse of a mind-set that apparently prevails behind baseball's closed doors. It seems performance-enhancing drugs are seen by some players (or is it many?) as just a fact of life. When players are wondering if they can help with injuries, it's a good bet the drugs are a routine talking point in clubhouses, more ingrained in the sport's culture than any fan wants to believe.

Not a good development for the public's trust.

How will fans respond as the door to this unseemly real world opens wider and wider with each revelation? That, in the end, is the central question, but it's hard to know the answer now.

Track and field basically ceased to exist as a sport when its real world was revealed to be so infested with performance-enhancing drugs that fans knew they couldn't trust what they saw. Other than during the Olympics, track now barely registers a blip on the sports radar.

But conversely, the revealing of college basketball's tawdry real world -- rife with shadowy characters and recruiting and academic malfeasance -- hasn't undermined that sport's popularity in the least. The nation contracts an extreme case of March Madness every spring. It seems many fans just don't want to know how certain players got to certain colleges, or whether they really belong on campus, or how they stay eligible.

Baseball's scandal is more like track's in that it challenges the notion that what you're seeing is on the level. (There might be rampant cheating in college basketball, but at least the games are honest, occasional point-shaving scandal notwithstanding.) The fact that some fans are increasingly dubious could be seen in the muted response to Barry Bonds' feat of passing Babe Ruth on the home run list. Other factors played a role, but rumors of Bonds' steroid use had a major impact.

Yet, before you start believing that a sport can only foist so much fraud before the public starts to feel betrayed, please be advised that baseball's attendance has never been better. The Orioles might be struggling at the gate, but nearly 75 million fans bought tickets to major league games in 2005; the average crowd of 30,970 was a record. There will be a new record set this season if the current pace holds. Those hGH headlines aren't scaring away the customers.

It could be that baseball's fans are more like college basketball's, seemingly willing to overlook certain ingrained misbehavior, possibly because they love the game so much. But let's see where and how far the drug scandal expands before we make that judgment.

Meanwhile, as the door to an increasingly grim real world creaks ever more open, all we can do is stand back and wonder which performances can be trusted.

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