Baseball and Steroids: When Can We Believe in Greatness Again?

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July 21, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels designated hitter Albert Pujols (5) watches game action during the ninth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
July 21, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels designated hitter Albert Pujols (5) watches game action during the ninth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

When reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera rapped a double off the center field wall at Cleveland’s Progressive Field on Tuesday, he drove in what would prove to be the winning run in a 5-1 victory for his Detroit Tigers. That run also happened to be the 100th driven in by Cabrera this year, marking the 10th consecutive season that he’s reached at least 100 RBI while also swatting at least 25 home runs. Cabrera became only the fifth player in baseball history with a run of success that long, joining Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig, along with Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols.

Foxx and Gehrig are two of the perhaps top five first basemen in baseball history and while their careers were played entirely within the era of baseball segregation, there are few who doubt the authenticity of their greatness. As recently as 2008, plenty of knowledgeable baseball people would have said the same thing about Rodriguez, who now faces down a looming 211-games suspension for serial use of performance-enhancing drugs.

There was a time, from the late 1990s through about 2005, that Rodriguez was considered the best player in all of baseball and if it was close at any point, it was only because the other man on this list, Pujols, had begun to dominate the National League – something that happened as soon as he reached the major leagues.

Pujols’ numbers are staggering, just as those of Rodriguez are. Until A-Rod’s admission to using PEDs while playing for Texas from 2001-2003, there was hope amongst baseball people that he would eventually surpass the all-time home run record of the notorious Barry Bonds and become the “clean” home run king. Obviously, we can all get a good chuckle out of that notion now.

But what of Pujols? He was clearly next in line and despite a poor 2013 season, his numbers stand well within shouting distance of the all-time greats of the game’s history. It’s reasonable to think (at least the Angels hope so given what they’ve agreed to pay him), that Pujols can come back healthy next season and resume domination of the sport.

Then comes word out of St. Louis this morning, where former Major League player and coach Jack Clark now hosts a radio show. According to Clark, as quoted by the Post-Dispatch, Pujols has never been clean, and he “knows it for a fact.”

Pujols’ claims stem from conversations he had with Chris Mihlfeld while both were working for the Dodgers. Mihlfeld, who was working with Pujols, told Clark he had “shot him (Pujols) up,” at least according to Clark.

This isn’t the first time that Pujols’ relationship with Mihlfeld has put the slugger in the spotlight of the steroid scandal. Mihlfeld was also associated with admitted PED user Jason Grimsley and between that and the very nature of Pujols’ meteoric rise from 13th round draft pick to big league dominance in roughly 18 months, there have been murmurs in the past.

Is it fair to presume these hitters guilty? Probably not. Is it okay, because he played in the same era with guys like Jose Canseco and shared a locker room with Ken Caminiti, that Jeff Bagwell is kept out of the Hall of Fame without anything but personal suspicion tying him to PEDs? Not to me, it isn’t.

But while Clark’s statements on the air aren’t exactly a smoking gun, they certainly are enough to raise many a red flag among a baseball public that assumes guilt whenever steroids are the discussion. As the Biogenesis scandal shows, it’s no longer good enough to say that a given player “never failed a test.”

There was a time when Alex Rodriguez was putting up numbers no one had been alive long enough to have seen before. Those numbers are now far beyond tainted and Rodriguez is held only in contempt by baseball fans everywhere. Shortly thereafter, Pujols began putting up numbers rivaled only by those that A-Rod was producing and now, once again, the conversation around Pujols has turned against him.

As a baseball fan, I can only hope against hope that the days where we can watch a great player, or even a good player, and not have to wonder about the validity of their performance are coming again. Though it isn’t the thought that comes into my head while watching the greats of today’s game, I hold no ill will toward those that have those thoughts. A generation of unclean play has marred the memories of many a great player and scarred many a fan.

The list of players that Cabrera joined with his milestone RBI the other day, it’s not a comfortable place to be for a slugger in today’s era of doubt. With A-Rod all but convicted and Pujols evermore in suspicion, two guys who had been widely considered the best right handed hitters of their generation have been marred. One can only hope that the current best right handed hitter in the game, Cabrera, can keep his numbers and his career above the assumed-guilty line.

Maybe, just maybe, Cabrera can be the next “clean” all-time great in the game.