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December 18, 2014

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Let the fans put their own asterisk on the Steroids Era*

One of the most unusual weeks of my career came in May 2006, during the lead up to a series between the A’s and Giants in Oakland.

Barry Bonds was on the verge of history, and it was a source of great media curiosity how I would approach calling home run number 714, if it came during the series.

I am not here to defend Bonds or anyone else implicated in the steroid era, but I also thought it would have been hypocritical to editorialize if and when the ball was leaving the park.

I felt that history would be a better judge of the significance of the event than I could or should be at the time. How many home runs had I previously called that had been hit by a player accused of using performance enhancing drugs?

Now, I was supposed to change all that and say, “There’s a fly ball to deep right field and Barry Bonds hits a tainted home run that ties the Babe.” I had never editorialized on a home run and I wasn’t going to do it then.

No, that would have been wrong and it points out how complicated and messy this whole thing is.

Take the case of A Rod and those naïve enough to believe that he would somehow legitimize the career record if he passed Bonds’ 762.

I know several Hall of Fame voters who categorically refuse to consider anyone implicated in the steroid scandal. They would have certainly voted for A Rod -- if the Sports Illustrated article hadn’t appeared, or if the players association had destroyed the evidence after the supposed confidential 2003 tests. Alex Rodriguez would have taken his little secret right to Cooperstown.

It doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t mean I’m condoning anything, but I think Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, A Rod and the rest should be allowed into the Hall. History will define this period as the Steroid Era, and the court of public opinion will provide the necessary asterisk.

Life doesn’t always line up exactly the way we want it to. The logic may be somewhat perverse, but how can you dismiss the guilty if you don’t really know who was clean? That’s not fair to the innocent and I feel for those clean players who are now guilty by association.

And, it is not only the current players who feel they were playing on an uneven field. I’ve had several conversations with my partner on the A’s broadcasts, Ray Fosse, about how careers have been prolonged that would have been over during his day.

My first year with the A’s was 1996, and I’m going to sound a little like A Rod here because I might have been an idiot or naïve, but I had no idea this stuff was happening around baseball.

When I started broadcasting in the minor leagues in 1981, the prevailing attitude regarding weight training was old school. The traditional approach was that you’d get muscle bound and that using weights might be good for other sports but not for the National Pastime.

This attitude evolved quickly of course, and by the time I joined the A’s, working with weights was a big part of the training regimen. The A’s, like most teams, had a strength and conditioning coach and players like Mark McGwire and Jason Giambi worked ardently in the gym, before and after the games.

And, here is where A Rod, in his veiled and vague mea culpa with Peter Gammons, actually made some sense. I always thought the line was blurred between what was legal or illegal, a legitimate nutritional supplement or a performance enhancing substance. Where A Rod’s story loses traction is that you don’t get Primobolan at GNC.

Were those of us in the game complicit back then? Everyone in the game should share responsibility, including the enablers in the players association. Athletes have always been held to a different standard.

If you can win 20 games or run or 1,000 yards or nail the 3-pointer, it’s never really mattered what you do out of the competitive arena. How many average citizens would have kept their jobs faced with the legal troubles that professional athletics shrug off?

Ballplayers, I think, have been insulated from the real world and inoculated against the real world realities that most of us face. I think some ballplayers felt they would always be protected in the sanctuary of the clubhouse and by the omnipotent union.

I think the vast majority of current players are clean and A Rod's embarrassment and the public "outing" of so many others will serve as a deterrent, although there will always be some doubt and those who will try and beat the system. It doesn't wipe away the stain that has been left on the game, but if you watched Miguel Tejada’s press conference after his guilty admission last Wednesday, you saw a sincere, emotional apology from someone, who, like Jason Giambi, has always been among the most cooperative and unaffected stars in the game. To me, these are good people who made bad decisions.

Speaking of Gammons, the best signal that the game was evolving was his quote from Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein, who according to Gammons told his scouts in May of 2005, “The game is going to change and we’d better be prepared for it.“ As Gammons noted, the Red Sox drafted Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie that year, and the game has been moving back toward speed and defense ever since.

My car will be packed for Spring Training next week and the tranquility of Arizona, and I’m looking forward to the sweet sound of a ball hitting a bat.

By the way, Bonds hit number 714 against the A’s, off Brad Halsey. I gave it a decent call. I don’t think I went overboard, but, it was a no-doubt-about-it shot, easily into the right center seats, and the crowd went wild. When he touched home plate, A’s and Giants fans rose as one for a standing ovation.

For that one moment it all seemed so innocent and pure. What a shame that it wasn’t.

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