MARYVALE, Ariz. – The walk – thick-thighed and bowlegged – was familiar. The cap – clean and fresh with a strange logo on the crown – was not.
Earlier, Eric Gagne had taken a few minutes to abuse his new headwear, thrashing at it with both hands like a man trying to tear a phonebook in half. But, his first morning in Milwaukee Brewers colors had moved quickly, from the hellos to the meetings to the minute-long, roundabout statement regarding his cameo in the Mitchell Report.
So, a cap that in a week or two will be squashed and sweat-stained, that in a month or two will be tattered and stinky, was out-of-the-box pristine.
New team. New hat. Old routine.
“I’m used to it now,” he said.
Gagne has made a few of these stops lately, in Texas and Boston and now Milwaukee, where the caps are foreign and the eyes narrow, where people don’t quite know what to make of Eric Gagne anymore, between the injuries and surgeries and falling velocity and rising rumors of illicit performance enhancement that sound not at all like rumors.
In a spring where camp doesn’t officially start until one of your guys stands stiffly before the cameras and explains himself (It was Andy Pettitte's turn later Monday, following the lead of Paul Lo Duca, Matt Herges, Paul Byrd, Gregg Zaun, et al), the Canadian-born Gagne made his unique by ducking the accusations in English and French.
He neither protested his inclusion in the report nor apologized for what might have put him in it, opting for bilingual evasiveness at the end of a silent winter.
“It was stressful,” he said. “Just stressful.”
Of course, there is Gagne stress, and then there is Pettitte stress, the difference laying in the details, along with one’s proximity to federal lawmen and Roger Clemens. Gagne got a few early calls, which he ignored before solving the problem entirely.
“You just change your phone number,” he said, smiling. “Pretty simple.”
To quote a central figure here, It is what it is.
To quote a lesser figure, c’mon bro, next question.
“I’m here today talking to you guys to let you know that I feel bad for my family, what they had to go through,” Gagne said while standing behind the Brewers’ clubhouse. “And all my friends. And especially my teammates here in Milwaukee. I think that’s just a distraction that shouldn’t be taking place. … I think the other thing that happened, I think right now we’re looking forward to playing baseball in ’08.”
The “other thing,” to summarize, included George Mitchell’s allegation that Gagne received two shipments of HGH, one of them delivered to Dodger Stadium, and took part in a phone conversation in which Kirk Radomski advised him on the proper method to clear an air bubble from a syringe. There was, too, an internal memo in which Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein was said to have written, “I know the Dodgers think he was a steroid guy.” Then a scout’s take, “… steroids IS the issue.”
Less than a year later, the Red Sox traded for Gagne. And fewer than seven months after that, Gagne was in Brewers camp, throwing easy batting practice, and $10 million richer.
Francisco Cordero is gone, meaning the Brewers really hope they got the Texas Gagne and not the Boston Gagne, and really hope Bud Selig doesn’t get all hyper about this thing and start throwing suspensions around. They have some games to make up on the Chicago Cubs and they’ve already got a center fielder – Mike Cameron – who is grounded for most of April. While they’re relevant again after all these years, the Brewers still have little room for washed-up relievers or vacationing outfielders. And, clearly, they could care less what Gagne was doing four years ago, so long as the elbow/shoulder/back/knee looks good.
“I think we’re well on the road to getting past all that,” manager Ned Yost said. “This is by me. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a done deal and over. I don’t think anybody in my locker room has taken it past that. We move on.”
“I don’t even think it comes up,” Jeff Suppan said. “I haven’t thought about it until you brought it up.”
One by one they arrive in camps and say their piece, the Mitchell men, embarrassed, defiant, contrite, whatever suits them that day. The lawyers write it down and the players relay it to the public, quickly enough, they hope, so as not to miss a bullpen session or batting practice.
They wear the clown suits for a circus generation, which is not at all unfair. It is what it is, they are what they are.
Then the sun cleared the tops of the metal bleachers here, and everybody grabbed a duffel bag, and nobody gave another thought about it.
“It was hard,” Gagne said, “but back to baseball. I’m happy to be back on the field, to get back with the boys and play baseball.”