Acquittals aside, MLB’s steroid era may be over

Former Major League Baseball pitcher Roger Clemens (right) leaves federal court in Washington during the perjury retrial of the seven-time Cy Young Award winner.

One of the problems with being a Red Sox fan for as long as I have is that we’re all suffering a bit of an identity crisis.

In other words, since becoming a fan of the team in the early 1970s, I’ve suffered through the ’75 series against Cincinnati’s Red Machine (which purists seem to think is one of the best ever), the improbable Bucky Dent 3-run homer that helped the Yanks beat the Sox in an unforgettable Eastern Division tie-breaker at the end of the ’78 season and the bizarre fielding error committed by Bill Buckner in Game 6 of the ’86 series against the New York Mets.

The Buckner incident was the strangest and saddest of all. Here’s a man who was the consummate team player, a tireless worker and experienced veteran with an outstanding record, whose entire career was reduced to ashes by this one event.

For serious Red Sox fans, this was more than an error. It was more than Bill Buckner. It was an otherworldly disaster set in motion by incomprehensible forces — as if the ghostly hand of Babe Ruth burst through the turf and knocked the ball out of Buckner’s glove. The bad mojo was so palpable that even Mets fans sympathized. One of them came up to me the next day and said, “I don’t know, man. I’m sorry. Your team really is cursed. And they’re going to lose again tonight.”

Need I point out that he was right? The identity crisis factored in after the Sox finally broke through and managed to win the 2004 World Series. On the one hand, there was this extreme elation. But by the start of the next season, many Sox fans didn’t know what to do with themselves. They were steeped in the psychology of being losers while remaining passionately loyal to their team, thus developing a unique relationship with fellow fans and the team alike.

And now all of a sudden that chemistry was changed and the fans felt a little discombobulated — in a good way, of course. But some of them started wondering if they shouldn’t become Cubs fans, too.

I got to thinking about the Sox with the recent acquittal of Roger Clemens of all the charges in his lengthy perjury trial. Clemens was an ace pitcher with the Red Sox during his 1984-96 tenure with the team, but had a churlish reputation and eventually fell out of favor with some of the fans for perceived malingering over injuries and not being much of a “team player” on those days when he wasn’t pitching.

When Red Sox management couldn’t entice Clemens to remain in Boston after the ’96 season (despite being offered the most money in the history of the franchise), the pitcher ended up with the Toronto Blue Jays and later the Yankees, during what was supposed to have been the twilight of his career. Well, he lit it up instead, winning the pitching triple crown and two Cy Young Awards during his only two seasons with the Blue Jays, and then helping the Yanks win consecutive World Series championships in 1999 and 2000.

He’d go on to do many other great things and by the time of his retirement in 2007 would lay claim to a 354-184 record, a 3.12 ERA, 4,672 strikeouts, be voted an All-Star 11 times, win 7 Cy Young Awards and two World Series rings.

It seemed to me that at a certain point — can’t say when exactly — his body changed. Jose Canseco would later write of the widespread use of steroids in major league baseball in his book, “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big.”

Clemens’ name was mentioned 82 times in the Mitchell Report on steroid use in baseball. On Feb. 13, 2008, he appeared before a congressional committee and swore under oath that he never took steroids. But a federal grand jury indicted Clemens on Aug. 19, 2010, on charges of making false statements to Congress on his use of performance-enhancing drugs.

A few weeks ago, on June 18, a jury decided in Clemens’ favor. Did he get away with it? I suspect that players like Mark McGwire (who finally came clean) are absolutely seething. The bigger story is that this verdict was a huge disappointment for the Justice Department, which was already reeling from the recent acquittal of John Edwards.

The verdict is also the department’s second defeat in the prosecution of a baseball star accused of lying about performance enhancers. Home run champ Barry Bonds was convicted last year of a charge of obstruction of justice, but a jury failed to reach a verdict on three other counts accusing him of lying to a grand jury when he testified that he had never knowingly taken the substances.

So whereas the Department of Justice may have lost, maybe baseball will be the winner in the long run. With all the attention given to steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs — and with increased vigilance over the players — perhaps the game’s integrity is (partially, at least) restored, and that the steroid era, if not over, is at least on the way out.

Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@comcast.net.