It's easy to understand the media's love-fest with Albert Pujols. The St. Louis Cardinals slugger crushes baseballs into the outer realms. And more important in the wake of the BALCO fiasco, he has yet to be tainted by evidence of steroid use.
Pujols has 25 homers in 51 games played, putting him on pace to break Barry Bonds' record of 73 home runs in a single season. Both fans and rival players breathlessly praise Pujols as they once did Bonds. St. Louis' marketing department is constantly churning with new ideas for milking the Albert cash cow. And within baseball's press boxes, writers and reporters check their e-mail, drink free sodas, and question, well, nothing.
Two weeks ago, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Pujols "is being touted as the first P.S. slugger, post-steroids." The paper also categorized speculation that Pujols might be juicing as an "errant rumor." The New York Times followed up with this Pujols quote: "My testing is proving a lot. It's working really good."
Is Pujols abusing steroids or human growth hormones? I don't know. But what's alarming in this era of deceit is that nobody seems interested in finding out. A little more than one year removed from congressional hearings that produced the most humiliating images in the game's history, baseball writers have a duty to second-guess everything. Instead, everyone is taking Pujols' test results at face value. Have we forgotten that Barry Bonds has never failed one of Major League Baseball's drug tests?
In Sports Illustrated's baseball preview issue, Tom Verducci, who has done great work exposing the proliferation of steroids in baseball, credulously praised the likes of Pujols and Twins catcher Joe Mauer. Verducci exclaimed that baseball is now "a young man's game, belonging to new stars who, certified by the sport's tougher drug policy, have replaced their juiced-up, broken-down elders who aged so ungracefully. It's baseball as it ought to be. A fresh start." In other words: Masking agents? What masking agents?
Last year, editors at the Post-Dispatch assembled a task force to investigate whether Mark McGwire had ingested performance-enhancing drugs. After a short stretch of fruitless reporting, the effort died. One would think that Pujols—a 13th-round draft pick who has put on 20 pounds of muscle since his debut in 2001—would at least warrant a gander, or perhaps a flight or two to his native Dominican Republic to check out the friendly neighborhood pharmacies. Yet the paper has lifted nary a finger in examining Pujols' background. "Albert isn't an enhanced thug like some of the other suspects," explains Rick Hummel, the longtime Post-Dispatch baseball writer. "He hasn't grown significantly and he's always had a lot of power. So what's there to look into?"
What's there to look into? How about this: For the past decade, baseball has been routinely pulling the bait-and-switch with its fan base. When McGwire and Sammy Sosa engaged in "The Chase" for the home-run record during 1998, we were told the game was being saved, that two great men with selfless hearts were doing the impossible. Oops, it was all a lie. Three years later, we were asked to suspend belief yet again as the 37-year-old Bonds, with a head the size of Jupiter, effortlessly broke McGwire's standard.
Why are journalists so soft in this area? One reason: fear of being shut out. Over the course of a 162-game season, beat writers and columnists work their tails off to develop relationships with players. You grovel. You whimper. You plead. You tiptoe up to a first baseman, hoping he has five minutes to talk about that swollen toe. You share jokes and—embarrassingly—fist pounds. Wanna kill all that hard work in six seconds? Ask the following question: Are you juiced?
After having been duped by the men they cover, America's sportswriters are playing dumb again. One year after being dismissed as a has-been, steroid-using fibber, Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi is the toast of New York. Recent articles in metropolitan newspapers have praised the steadfastness and resiliency that have led him to hit a team-high 14 home runs. But where, oh where, are the doubters? At the start of spring training in 2005, Giambi looked smaller than in seasons past. Now, he has muscles atop muscles atop muscles. Yet unlike the San Francisco Chronicle, which dedicated itself (journalistically and financially) to learning the truth about Bonds, none of the New York dailies have assigned an investigative team to the case. The closest we've come is Joel Sherman of the New York Post, who recently wrote a piece titled "Clean Machine—Giambi Says Fast Start Is Untainted." The article dies with this whimper of a quote: "The big thing I learned during all my problems was that I can only control what I can control. I can't stand on a soapbox every day. I am working my tail off."
I, for one, don't believe him. During my six years at Sports Illustrated, I fell for the trick and covered Giambi as the hulking, lovable lug who cracked jokes and hit monstrous homers. All the while, he was cheating to gain an edge. So, why—when MLB doesn't administer a test for human growth hormone—should I believe Giambi is clean?