During last year’s baseball season, I had a long talk with a Major League scout for a piece I was working on. We chatted about this and that, that and this. Toward the end he said, “You’re gonna see a lot of changes in 2013.”
I asked what he meant by that. The Astros switching leagues? The Mets losing even more games? The Angels relocating the press box into a bathroom?
He told me that, in his opinion, as many ballplayers were using forms of PED now as they had been in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “However,” he said, “everyone knows there’s probably going to be improved testing next year. So a lot of guys are going for that last big contract. Then, once they sign … they’ll change.”
A couple of hours ago, while watching the MLB Network, I learned that Josh Hamilton, the Angels’ new slugger, reported to camp weighing 20-to-30 pounds less than normal. Let me repeat that: Twenty to thirty pounds. Upon using the ol’ Google, I found this piece from Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register. It talks about Hamilton giving up bread, discovering juice and fruits and vegetables. “I figure I can come in at a weight I feel good at maintain that all year,” Hamilton said. “Last year and the years before you lose so much weight and you get tired. You battle it all year. Hopefully now I don’t have to battle it. I want to get my weight settled and stay there.”
First, to be clear: I don’t know if Josh Hamilton used PEDs. I’d long assumed he hadn’t, because the idea of an ex-drug addict taking, well, drugs didn’t make much sense to me. The fight to remain clean is a brutal one, and I know Hamilton confronts it with great seriousness. He is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever dealt with. I’ve never doubted his sincerity or his decency.
And yet … in the modern era of baseball, with all we know and all we’ve seen and all the recent news concerning Alex Rodriguez and Gio Gonzalez and Ryan Braun and numerous others, well … I’m just not so sure we can continue to take reports like this at face value. I remember, back in the day, covering spring training and watching with silent confusion as Seattle second baseman Bret Boone arrived at camp packing 30 pounds of extra muscle; as Detroit catcher Pudge Rodriguez arrived minus 20. They always gave these “interesting” explanations—I spent so much time in the weight room; a needed more flexibility. One of my great regrets is never openly questioning it; never saying, “Wait a second. You were tiny, now you have no neck. That doesn’t seem possible, sir.”
Again, I don’t know if Hamilton’s using. I really don’t. But one must be skeptical.
Here’s what I do know: Asking the hard questions can be difficult and awkward and cumbersome. The men and women assigned to cover the Angels have 162-plus games to spend with Hamilton and Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson and the rest of the gang. You need stars to talk to you; need access; need help. Beginning a relationship with, “Thirty pounds … really?” isn’t a winner.
But it is fair.