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Reds' Leake experiences harsh realities of being in spotlight

The cops said Reds pitcher Mike Leake walked into a Macy's department store in downtown Cincinnati Monday and stole six T-shirts worth a total of $59.88. Since then, unnamed sources have claimed Leake wasn't stealing shirts, but exchanging them.

It doesn't matter what sources say. It hardly matters whether the 23-year-old did the misdeed or not. He has been judged. The tribal council has spoken.

"I've had baseball guys I know call him John Dillinger,'' Reds manager Dusty Baker said Thursday, referring to the infamous bank robber in the 1930s.

Don't do anything wrong, kid. Don't do anything even seemingly out of step. We will find you and expose you, for the instant amusement of the masses. You aren't a person to us. You're a unique page view.

Who'd have thought the alleged theft of $60 worth of T-shirts would be instant national news? Only anyone aware of the TMZ-ing of the planet. Which is to say, most of us.

Mike Leake might have broken the law. He might be guilty of nothing more than knuckleheaded-ness. He will pay with his reputation, either way. Leake could grow into his potential. He could ease with grace into his spotlight. He'll always be remembered as "the guy who stole the T-shirts.''

Fame is captivating and challenging and bewildering, even for those accustomed to it. Before Monday, Leake was a kid learning on the fly, a pitcher who last year went straight from Arizona State to the Reds, whose style resembled that of Greg Maddux. Leake started last season 5-0 with a 2.22 ERA by teasing the corners of the strike zone with 87 mph fastballs. He tired in July and the Reds shut him down in August. Leake finished 8-4.

When the Washington Nationals called up the phenom Stephen Strasburg, SI.com asked me to interview Leake about handling the pressures of big-league success.

Today, Leake is used-up grist from the insatiable Internet mill.

If Leake didn't know before Monday the sort of world we live in, he surely knows now. "It was nice to go out and erase some things and pitch,'' he said after Thursday's 7-4 win over Arizona in which Leake worked seven strong innings, while listening to jeers from the home crowd.

The mound had to seem like a fortress for Leake, given his previous three days. "He was more comfortable (on the mound) than he was standing in this locker room the last couple days,'' Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo said.

By Tuesday morning, Leake's arrest was front-page virtual news on every sports website I checked, including this one.

At 9:30 a.m. Eastern time, a producer for a radio talk show in Seattle called. He wondered if I could be on the show, "to talk about the Mike Leake situation.''

Situation?

Seattle?

"It's definitely a strange world we live in these days,'' Arroyo said. "There isn't a place you can walk on the planet where someone can't snap a picture of you with their phone.''

If you talk to retired players, especially players whose careers predated the Internet, they shake their heads and all but cross themselves when you ask them how their lives might have been different had they played now. As Baker said, "I'm glad I played when I did. You were covered, in a lot of ways.''

In the mid-90s, when Deion Sanders played centerfield for the Reds and was in his prime, he said envy caused me to write "negative'' things about him. I was jealous of his wealth and fame. This is what Sanders believed.

I told him I'd like to be him, for one day. I'd want to know what it was like to shut down an entire half of a football field, as a Pro Bowl cornerback. I'd like to experience scoring from first base on a bloop single to rightfield, as I once saw him do. I might even enjoy the flattery of being instantly recognized in public.

For one day.

After that, I'd be entirely pleased with returning to me.

And that was before the Internet and cell phones with cameras, and video recorders the size of a credit card. What if Deion were in his prime now?

We know too much about too much. It doesn't enhance our enjoyment of the games to know that police arrested Mike Leake on shoplifting charges. It used to be our games promoted a bit of innocence and that was OK. Would anyone's affection for Mickey Mantle have been heightened by stalkerazzi photos of him closing a saloon?

"I heard (fans) say, when (Reds centerfielder Drew) Stubbs was on first, 'Steal like Leake,' '' Baker said. "Our society has got into tearing down, more than elevating.''

It's not to suggest jocks should get a pass. To whom much is given, much is expected. If the fear of infamy causes one athlete to call a cab instead of driving drunk, maybe the Internet's insatiable appetite is tolerable. And if Mike Leake -- whose signing bonus two years ago was slightly more than $2 million and who earns $425,000 a year -- is guilty of stealing $60 worth of shirts, he should get the same treatment as anyone else.

In the meantime, must we muddy up the guy, for our own amusement?

"It's not gonna stop now,'' Baker said after the game Thursday. "We're not even on the road yet.''

The Reds are in St. Louis for the weekend. An enterprising radio guy there already has had shirts printed: Mike Leake Stole This Shirt For Me.

Leake threw seven innings Thursday, allowed three runs on four hits, got the win. It was the easiest thing he's done all week.

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