O's great makes right call on steroids: 'It's cheating'

The Baltimore Sun

Here's Jim Palmer, in Baltimore for an eye exam, then stopping by the radio station before heading back to Florida, where spring training is about to begin. The Orioles' legend turned 63 last fall, and he's a grandfather now. He's still tall, lean, tanned and handsome, keeping himself in good shape long after the end of a Hall of Fame career in which he established himself as one of baseball's greatest pitchers - without the help of anabolic steroids.

"Anti-inflammatories," Mr. Palmer says when, during an hourlong conversation on WYPR, I ask him to list substances that players of the pre-steroidal era used to keep themselves going. Part of the Palmer legend was his obsessive attention to every muscle and tendon, every bone and fingernail, every ache and pain, every pull and strain. He wanted to be in perfect shape for every start, and that drove his manager crazy.

"The Chinese tell time by 'the Year of the Horse' or 'the Year of the Dragon,'" Earl Weaver once said. "I tell time by 'the Year of the Back' and 'the Year of the Elbow.' This year it's 'the Year of the Ulnar Nerve.' Someone once asked me if I had any physical incapacities of my own. 'Sure I do,' I said. 'One big one - Jim Palmer.'"

Mr. Palmer was the winningest pitcher in Orioles history, and he won World Series games in three decades, the only man to do that. Even with various arm, shoulder and back ailments that took him out of rotations, he managed to win at least 20 games in eight seasons. He played for the Orioles from 1965 until 1984. He threw 211 complete games and 53 shutouts in 3,948 innings. Nowhere in his stats will you find an asterisk noting, "Tested positive for steroids."

It's hard to imagine the health-conscious Mr. Palmer putting them into his body, given the long-term problems associated with their use. But there's something else, something bigger than the physical consequences for any one man.

"It's cheating, of course," Mr. Palmer says.

That goes without saying, right? But the more something goes without saying, the more it gets lost; we lose grasp of the importance of the moment or miss the lesson to take into the future.

Why are we making such a fuss about this, after all - former Oriole Miguel Tejada pleading guilty to perjury in connection with the steroid scandal, Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez ridiculed as A-Fraud - especially at a time when the nation has much bigger problems? It's not just because we have an appetite for celebrity scandal. It's because young men have been cheating at baseball, and we just can't have that.

"We're talking about the integrity of the game," Mr. Palmer says.

The list of things we regard as sacred - that is, the American institutions, traditions and heroic figures still shining through cynical clouds - has grown shorter over the last couple of decades. But baseball is on there still. You're not supposed to cheat at baseball.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, of Maryland's 7th District, sent a letter to Mr. Rodriguez asking him to attend the "Powered by ME!" anti-steroid conference here in April. "In light of your recent acknowledgment that you used steroids in the past," Mr. Cummings wrote, "I believe you are in a unique position to send a strong message out to our young people that they should refrain from using performance-enhancing substances."

Mr. Cummings wants to impress kids with the dangers of steroids, and that's good. But they need to hear someone say that juicing is cheating.

A-Rod said he was sorry. He said he was young when he took the drugs, and called himself stupid for doing so. He explained why he juiced - "I wanted to prove to everyone that I was worth being one of the greatest players of all time" - but he never said he had cheated at baseball.

Maybe he will some day. Maybe we'll get past this dreary era in our national pastime with what another All-Star pitcher and one-time Oriole, Curt Schilling, suggested: full disclosure of all those who failed tests before the steroids were banned. That way, everyone comes clean, we put some asterisks next to names, and we move on.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays on this page and Tuesdays in the news pages. He is host of the midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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