Hall of Fame Heroes One Day, Gone and Forgotten the Next

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Fame is fleeting, and nowhere more so than in baseball. Just last night, Juan Gonzalez, twice the American League’s Most Valuable Player, a man who once turned down a $160 million contract offer because he didn’t want to play in Detroit’s spacious Comerica Park, was expected to make his debut for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League. Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, who between them have hit 1,157 major league home runs, were jobless, having never even so much as officially retired after last year. Fate is fickle, and jobs in sports go as quickly as they come.

What all these men have in common, aside from their prodigious hitting, is a connection to baseball’s steroid scandal. As much noise and confusion as that scandal has generated, its full effects are only now starting to be felt, and just as the gambling scandals of the Deadball Era resonated through the 1920s,bills on the Steroid Era are going to be coming due for many, many years.

It’s noted here, of course, that of these three only Palmeiro has ever tested positive for any sort of performance-enhancing drug, and that there are solid baseball reasons why he, Sosa, and Gonzalez have all been unable to find even bench jobs in the majors this season.

Palmeiro is 41, unable to field, and only slightly better than average as a hitter. In the best circumstances he’d get a job more out of deference to his name than anything else, and between his infamous denials of drug use, reputation as a self-absorbed jerk, and the way he seemingly tried to shift the blame for his positive test onto respected teammate Miguel Tejada, these are far from the best circumstances.

Sosa is 37, coming off a season in which he hit .221 without power, and like Palmeiro doesn’t have the sort of personal reputation that would help him keep a job as a 25th man. He turned down a non-guaranteed contract with the Washington Nationals this spring, and as that seems to be the only sort of offer he’d get at this point in his career – even from a miserable team like the Royals that could afford to gamble that he could help them on the field and at the gate – it’s near certain that his career is over.

Gonzalez, 36, went the Royals route last year and injured himself in his first and only at-bat. The Boston Red Sox invited him to spring training, but he never showed up. Unlike the other two former Rangers here, he’s at least still in baseball, and for all anyone knows he’ll undergo a Julio Franco-like resurrection and play another decade. The odds would seem to be against it.

As the Nats and Sox offers show that these men – aside perhaps from Palmeiro, who clearly has almost nothing to offer on the field anymore – haven’t been blackballed from the game in any sense. Yet it feels as if they have, and the curious indifference to the abrupt disappearance of three of the most prominent hitters in the game, players who ranked among the best and most popular stars of their time, is an ill omen going forward.

The reason is that, whether one likes it or not, these quiet withdrawals from the majors have taken place amid general suspicion. No one but a radical skeptic would deny that for various obvious reasons there’s reason to suspect that Sosa’s and Gonzalez’s achievements were fueled by drugs of one sort or another, and the plain truth is that the way they’ve evaporated from the game, leaving barely any memory or legacy at all, has been taken as a sort of confirmation that the rumors and suspicions are well-founded.

Such is also the case with Mark McGwire, another player of the same generation who, after last year’s embarrassing testimony before Congress, found himself suddenly erased from the recent history of the game. He was about the only living Cardinal not invited to the opening of the new Busch Stadium this year, and the only thing you ever hear about him is that he probably won’t be elected to the Hall of Fame next year. That’s at least more than you hear about Palmeiro, Sosa, and Gonzalez, all of whom were at one time or another considered locks for Cooperstown.

All of which brings us around to Albert Pujols, McGwire’s remarkably accomplished heir. Up until last week’s injury, which is expected to keep Pujols out up to six weeks, the main storyline of this season was his quest for the single-season home run and RBI record, and the subtext of that story was that should Pujols grab the records, it would inaugurate a new, post-steroids era, in which players’ achievements could stand without question.

This is absurd, of course – the same line of reasoning that allows one to infer that Sosa may have used some sort of drugs (massive weight gain, nearly unprecedented achievement, etc.) should logically lead one to infer much the same about Pujols. Who’s ever heard of an obscure 10th-round draft pick packing on a bunch of muscle and popping up in the majors as the reincarnation of Joe DiMaggio after a single year in the low minors? It simply doesn’t happen.

This may not be fair to Pujols, but it’s no more or less unfair than the speculation Sosa and Gonzalez are subjected to. Yes, Pujols has passed drug tests, but as the Olympics show, passing a drug test doesn’t mean anything more you’ve passed a drug test.

The point here, though, is that the drug-tainted baseball of the last 20 years has unmoored fame from achievement. Three players of historic stature can disappear and no one cares, basically because their achievements are assumed to have been artificial and therefore meaningless. No matter the hosannas that greet Pujols every time he cracks another home run, his accomplishments are likely, in the end, to be treated equally cynically, as equally disposable. Should he become another Don Mattingly, robbed of his power in his prime by injury, will anyone much care? If he’s semi-retired and playing for the Long Island Ducks in three years, will anyone notice?


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