Baseball under siege

Posted: Mar 10, 2005 12:00 AM

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The world champion Boston Red Sox dress in their spring training clubhouse surrounded by signs announcing, "No egos allowed," and, "Together Everyone Achieves More." Closer Keith Foulke is one of many to emphasize not resting on laurels: "The day you get content, you take a step backward." New pitcher Matt Clement says he is learning that pitching is "not just mechanics. It's getting your thinking right."

 But the Red Sox still seem true to the nickname they achieved last year -- "the idiots." Centerfielder Johnny Damon's hair is so long that when running he looks like a horse, his mane stretching out behind. Top hitter Manny Ramirez kids with everyone and has such a sweet swing in the batting cage that Jim Rice, a great hitter from the 1970s and 1980s brought in as a spring training instructor, just watches in admiration.

 That's what spring training should be like.

 At the other Fort Myers spring training site, Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire plays with a reporter who asked whether "baseball was eroding." The puckish pilot says, "Let's use that word in a sentence, like 'the hanging slider eroded the game.'" He then comments about the young players that his low-income franchise employs: "No erosion here, lots of entertainment. I enjoy seeing young players come in for opportunities. That's the fun part of the game. ... This organization gives people chances. "

 The Twins out of necessity spotlight players at the dawn of their careers, rather than at the sunset (as teams like the Baltimore Orioles and the San Francisco Giants do), and some are beloved. Bat salesman Paul Johnson named his 14-month-old twin boys Torii and Hunter, after superb centerfielder Torii Hunter, one of his two favorite Twins: "I also liked (Doug) Mientkiewicz, but I decided not to name them that."

 That's also what spring training should be like.

 Two weeks ago, on the opening day of Baltimore Orioles spring training across the state in Fort Lauderdale, veterans like Rafael Palmeiro arrived for the first full-team workout and quickly were under siege. "We grew up playing ball together in the Miami area," he said of retired slugger Jose Canseco, who has accused him of using steroids. "I was shocked to hear that I was in his book. ... I don't know why he did it ... but it's tough to defend yourself against something like that."

 Two Palmeiro sons, who look just like smaller versions of their dad, but without his mustache, sat on a bench nearby. The older one, asked how tall he is, didn't give feet and inches, but said, "I'm almost as tall as my dad." Papa Palmeiro said his children don't ask much about the accusations: "We don't focus on me. We focus on them. We talk about making sure their grades are good."

 But the reporters who surrounded Palmeiro that day would not change the subject. He wanted spring training to be about the spring. He spoke about his enjoyment, at age 40, in being back for another season: "Just to come out and smell the grass, with my sons here, and be out with all the guys ... it's a tremendous feeling." But then more questions about steroid use came, and the smile became forced: "I can't worry about those things. You just go on."

 Joining Palmeiro in the Orioles lineup this year is another slugger/suspect, Sammy Sosa: This will be the first time in Major League history that two players who have hit 500 homeruns -- a milestone for Hall of Fame entry -- are on the same team. Sosa, traded over the winter after gaining fame in Chicago, said in response to his round of steroid questions only: "I'm very happy here. I'm looking forward to the season." Ask anything else and, unsurprisingly, his eyes narrow.

 Some players have brought this questioning upon themselves, but many others are affected by it. Baseball needs to put the steroids era behind it by having and enforcing tough rules against all kinds of artificial advantages, so that spring can return.