Educated guesses necessary
Kathy Vogel Kuettner, a beautiful young wife and mother of three, died from lymphoma in July 2000, and a year later, Kathy’s House, a hospital hospitality house, was born in Milwaukee.
During one of my stays at Kathy’s House with my late brother John, in July 2005, we viewed a replay of Rafael Palmeiro looking right at Congress interrogators in March of that year and saying, “I have never used steroids, period. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that.”
My brother said, “Boy, either he’s a great actor or he never took steroids.”
“He’s a great actor,” I said, drawing the last loud laugh I remember getting out of him.
I explained that years earlier a few ballplayers, talking to me on background, had pointed to Palmeiro as an example that showed not every steroid user had Popeye forearms. I didn’t write it then because there was no proof, but I believed it. The proof came a couple of weeks after my stay at Kathy’s House when Palmeiro flunked a steroid test.
Palmeiro blamed it then on a contaminated needle from his Vitamin B 12 shots. Stop laughing. He really said that. Even funnier, he maintains that.
“I was telling the truth then, and I am telling the truth now,” Palmeiro told SI.com earlier this week. “I don’t know what else I can say. I have never taken steroids.”
For the first time, Palmeiro, just a four-time All-Star, is on the Hall of Fame ballot, due to be mailed today.
I covered the Orioles beat for the Baltimore Sun in 1994 and Palmeiro was always there at his locker for an interview before and after every game. Friendly guy. The little square box next to his name on the ballot I’ll mail today will remain unchecked, despite his 3,020 hits and 569 home runs.
Not long ago, either 3,000 hits or 500 home runs equated to an automatic ticket to Cooperstown. Not during the steroid era, where offensive numbers exploded, thanks to a diluted pitching pool, tight strike zones, smaller ballparks and, most of all, inflated hitters. Leaving Palmeiro and Mark McGwire off my ballot was not a morality play. I’ll vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens without hesitation when they become eligible.
The only fair way to vote is to make educated guesses and then try to adjust numbers to where they might have been had the candidate been clean. To only deflate the numbers of guys caught with their hands in the juice jar would not be fair to clean players from other eras and the steroid era. How do you know who juiced? You don’t, that’s why you have to guess, based on conversations with insiders, the eye test and studies of players’ careers. Frank Thomas and Lance Berkman, for example, always were outspoken opponents of steroids when players were under intense pressure to keep their yaps shut.
Nobody ever accused them, on or off the record, of unnatural muscle inflation. It will get dicey for writers explaining their choices. It’s one thing to be withhold a Hall of Fame vote on the basis of strong suspicions of steroid use, another to write about those suspicions without proof. Look for code words from the steroid era to resurface, such as the one I invented and was fond of using: Modern muscles.