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A dark time

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Manny Ramirez led the American League with 43 home runs last season. Adrian Beltre was the National League king with 48.

The statistics remind one of an era from baseball's past, before cartoon numbers put up by batting-box Popeyes powered by curious cans of spinach made a mockery of the sport.

Thursday's edition of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that Jason Giambi, who rode an explosion in his power numbers to a rich contract from the New York Yankees, admitted to a grand jury he took steroids.

This is as surprising as a Scott Peterson confession.

It is, however, another bit of concrete evidence that tarnishes baseball at the turn of this century and further cements why history will look back on this era with a cynical eye.

It wasn't the return of the slugger, as baseball so desperately wanted to market it. It was the return of the cheat.

Friday, we may get more revelations when BALCO founder Victor Conte, the one who supplied some of the drugs that fueled the homer boom, speaks to ABC's 20/20. Eventually there will be a trial that may finally draw out the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

And the truth is baseball had it coming. Baseball asked for this with its non-existent drug testing policy – a policy that would have made it legal for Giambi to shoot up in the on-deck circle. Baseball was begging for this when it embraced and sold the long ball even when it knew that these 60-some odd home run seasons were frauds.

Mark McGwire shattered Roger Maris' single season record with a bottle of Andro along for the ride. Ken Caminiti was named MVP and admitted, before his death, he was juiced. Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds followed along while the whole the country laughed at their expanding muscles and, in Bonds' case, cranium.

We're obligated to say that Bonds and Sosa are innocent until proven guilty. But in the court of public opinion, the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

In 2001, the year Bonds slugged 73 home runs, 48 dingers wouldn't even get you into the top five in the NL. As the evidence grew and innocent, clean players were marginalized, baseball did nothing.

Owners and the players association either knew but were corrupted by the sound of spinning turnstiles and new stadium construction, or were blatant idiots.

Last year, embarrassed by the burgeoning BALCO scandal and under extreme pressure to act, baseball finally instituted a drug policy. It is weaker than Amsterdam's. But at least no one hit 70 again – although a lot of that was because managers refuse to let BALCO Bonds even swing.

Now baseball must deal with the fallout, the backlash, the realization that it operated something on par with the WWE for five or six years.

It will only get worse, of course. What do you do with McGwire, who looked ready to pop during his 70 home run season? What about Sosa, who corked his bat? What about the dozens of others who may still get caught up in all of this?

And eventually there will be the elephant in the room – Bonds' pursuit of Hank Aaron's record, a quest that is almost impossible to believe, accept, or root for.

Baseball made its own mess. Now Selig has to do something forceful to solve it or go down as a mockery, fiddling while the biceps burned.

Is any future generation actually going to believe it was just coincidence that during a rampant drug scandal the sacred home run record was broken and rebroken and then finally obliterated?

Only 17 times has a player hit 56 or more home runs. Eleven of those seasons came between 1997 and 2001, including all six 63-plus campaigns.

And then, suddenly, 43 homers returned to being a career year?

Do you think you can tell your grandchildren that one with a straight face?

Last year we returned to gentler, healthier, more believable numbers. Maybe the scourge of BALCO is over. Maybe this ugly, pathetic era has come to an end.

But baseball's culpability and cleanup has just begun.