Wednesday June 17th, 2009

NEW YORK -- On Tuesday evening, Washington Nationals bench coach Jim Riggleman was preparing for batting practice at Yankee Stadium when he was asked for his reaction to the news that Sammy Sosa had tested positive for steroids.

Riggleman had been Sosa's manager with the Chicago Cubs from 1995-99, most famously in that once-magical summer of 1998, when Sosa and Mark McGwire were using their impressive musculature to jack home runs at previously unthinkable rates and pull the game back from the cesspool of populist anger and indifference that had nearly drowned it after the players strike of 1994. Was Riggleman, who called himself "naïve" and denied knowing anything about Sosa using steroids while the two were in Chicago, surprised that Sosa's name had come out?

"I knew somewhere along the line that there were key players on that list," he said in a casual tone of voice. "It's just disappointing that a lot of people's accomplishments will be perceived as being tainted."

Riggleman, who said he didn't think Sosa's accomplishments were tainted, was the picture of calm. There were no raised eyebrows, no slack jaw, no change in expression. It was pointed out to him that he didn't seem at all surprised. "At this point, I'm not surprised with any of the names," he said. "If he did it, he's no more guilty than anyone else who did it, and no more innocent that anyone else who did it."

At first glance, Riggleman's reaction may seem strange, even out of place, in the face of news that a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer had been linked so directly to performance-enhancing drugs. But in truth, it was almost perfectly in line with the reactions of many around the game. The twin body blows of the Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez scandals in recent months had brought the sport -- already reeling from allegations about Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens in recent years -- to its knees, but if there was a knockout punch to come, this is surely not it.

In fact, the only thing surprising about the Sosa news was that it wasn't surprising at all. Unlike some who have been ensnared in this controversy, there had not been a presumption of innocence about Sosa, at least not since his disastrous performance in front of Congress in March 2005, when he denied ever taking performance-enhancing drugs, and probably not since he was caught using a corked bat in 2003. There was the cartoonish way in which he bulked up, the dramatic spike in his performance that coincided with the lawless mid-90s heyday of the Steroids Era, and the fact that the men who helped him take down the game's cherished home run records were already a part of the rogues gallery. All conspired to leave Sosa in the unenviable position of a presumed cheater for whom getting caught only served to confirm what everyone widely expected.

What's more, the news about Sosa hardly matters. While the Rodriguez and Ramirez storylines have overshadowed the rest of the season all year long, this news will have a relatively minor impact. Since Sosa is retired, there will be no suspension to affect a pennant race and no teammates who will have to endure a swirl of controversy every day. No owners who will have to wonder about voiding his contract and no fans booing in stadiums across the country. No breathless media debates about the state of baseball.

There will also be no further debate about Sosa's place in the Hall of Fame. His only ticket to Cooperstown came courtesy of his eye-popping power statstics -- he finished with 609 home runs and once averaged more than 60 homers a season from 1998-2001 -- and now that those have officially been exposed as an illusion, it is as if he is Cinderella when the clock struck midnight. There is no longer any reason to view Sosa as royalty. He should be looked upon instead as an impostor, and seen as the mostly average player that in truth, he always was anyway.

Nor is this the last time a player will be similarly unmasked. Of the 104 names on the list of players who tested positive during MLB's survey testing in 2003, only two -- Rodriguez and Sosa -- have yet come out. That means there are still more than 100 names on it, and even though legally none of them should ever see the light of day, it is a certainty that there are more to follow, and those are likely to be active players with the capacity to harm the game's present and future, while Sosa can only mar the past.

It is his past that is tarnished now. Whether he was sprinting to his position in front of Wrigley Field's famed Bleacher Bums who chanted his name and held him in a place somewhere north of worship, or expressing his love for the game that had helped bring him out of poverty in the Dominican Republic in a heavily accented English that only endeared him further to a growing legion of admirers, Sosa was equal parts slugger and showman. His signature moment was the home run, and Slammin' Sammy could turn it into a spectacle that demanded that it -- and he -- would be noticed. His homers were bookended by dual acts of attention-grabbing, from the patented hop out of the batter's box -- as if Sosa couldn't wait to be the first one to jump for joy as another of his towering homers soared over Wrigley's ivy-covered walls -- to the moment he finished accepting cheers from the crowd and congratulations from his teammates and found -- rather, waited for -- the dugout camera so he could douse himself with water, kiss his lips and flash his celebratory gesture.

Those home runs made Sosa's fame explode like few others ever had in the game. While Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, the fellow sluggers with whom he assaulted the game's hallowed home run marks could be surly and distant, Sosa was approachable, and seemed to radiate pure joy. He managed to combine power with personality that made for immense popularity.

That popularity is gone now, once and for all, and so too is the hope that at the game's most desperate moment in decades, it was being rescued by honorable men.

"It's disappointing that this whole era is going to go down as the Steroids Era," said Riggleman. "You're going to have to put an asterisk by all of it."

Sosa and his too-good-to-be-true numbers are now just the latest wreckage from the tidal wave of bad news that is the still-widening Steroids Era. This is the tsunami without end. Every time it appears the game is starting to dry off from the latest revelation, another wave comes crashing onshore to drown the game anew. Baseball and its millions of fans know that the waters will recede eventually. The hope is that that day is coming soon, and once it finally does, it will have washed the last of the wreckage out to sea for good.

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