Blast from the past

Here's a curious case for all sides of the steroid debate, for the amateur lawyers who have bastardized the concept of innocent until proven guilty, the hard-liners who view performance-enhancing drugs as Satan's elixir and the majority that cares not to blacken or whiten a gray issue.

On the day George Mitchell – baseball's appointed steroid deputy dog, with all the power of a cap gun and tin badge – barked that steroids are "an egregious form of cheating," the Texas Rangers moved a step closer to signing Sammy Sosa, who may or may not have used them on the way to 588 career home runs.

How Major League Baseball reacts to performance-enhancing drug use has always been as important as the use itself, for it was baseball's laissez-faire attitude that got it entangled in this whole mess in the first place, and its stubbornness that led to the flaying on Capitol Hill almost two years ago. On that day, Sosa lost his capacity to speak English – an ability that, miracle of miracles, returned when he left Washington – and reinforced speculation about his transformation from a waif Dominican teenager to a musclebound home run machine.

And from teams' recent moves, it seems as though baseball is reverting more to its old ways of compliance than the vigilance commissioner Bud Selig, Mitchell and others like to preach. Sosa, his name muddied even though there is no public confirmation of a positive steroid test, is going to receive a minor-league deal, and Rangers manager Ron Washington seems ready to hand him the designated hitter job. Guillermo Mota, with a looming 50-game steroid suspension, nonetheless fetched a two-year, $5 million deal from the New York Mets. And Barry Bonds, the target of a wide-ranging government investigation, Selig's scorn and national contempt, still is negotiating the perks in his contract with the San Francisco Giants even after testing positive for amphetamines last season, according to the New York Daily News.

Whether baseball has softened its stance on performance-enhancing drugs intentionally is immaterial. Perception counts, and, fair or not, Sosa forever will be etched with Bonds, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro on the Mount Rushmore of steroid use.

Still, the ambiguity gives Texas the necessary wiggle room to sign Sosa without too much of an outcry. Were the Rangers to pursue, say, Palmeiro – who, recent reports indicate, would like to play again – the hailstorm of negative publicity likely would overwhelm the good a 42-year-old could bring.

Sosa, for that matter, isn't much different. He's 38 and spent 2006 at home because he swelled with too much pride to take a minor-league deal. He brings an ego the size of Pangaea – one that Rudy Jaramillo, his first minor-league manager and the Rangers' hitting coach, swears he'll keep in check – and a bat that has been caught with cork. He quit on the Chicago Cubs in 2004 and flamed out with the Baltimore Orioles in 2005.

Yet Sosa intrigues because of what he was, not is. He charmed us in 1998 with his sprint to right field, his hop-step out of the batter's box when he crushed balls onto Waveland Avenue, his heart-tapping, finger-kissing shtick. Baseball needed him and McGwire, needed their home-run race and their faux friendship, needed something to remind people why they do love the game.

The home runs may have been enhanced. The excitement was genuine.

It's difficult to let go of our heroes, even the flawed ones. It's why they get third and fourth chances when the second was more than enough. It's why McGwire going all Houdini these days still piques our interest. Maybe we want to forgive him, just to see if he can get things right next time.

Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, the provider of Sosa's opportunity, no doubt will catch flak for it – a snide comment here about how he was a senior at Cornell in '98 (which is true) and a jab there wondering whether he's trying to bring the Rangers back to their steroid heyday of the Jose Canseco years (which, hopefully, isn't).

With the signing of Eric Gagne, the trade for Brandon McCarthy and some other tinkering, Daniels has built an intriguing team in an American League West division that looks for the taking. Reunited with Jaramillo, playing on an incentive-based contract and motivated by his own failures, Sosa gets to start over with low expectations in Ameriquest Field, one of baseball's best hitters' parks.

Baseball, meanwhile, braces for the backlash. Mitchell himself warned that without cooperation in his investigation, the government likely would involve itself even deeper. That could be an idle threat. Federal agencies will pursue performance-enhancing drugs so long as they're illegal; Mitchell's investigation has nothing to do with law enforcement. The House Committee on Government Reform wanted to shame and embarrass baseball with its hearings. Done again, they would look like overwrought grandstanding, which they very may well have been the first time, too.

Perhaps, in order to get a better window into baseball's past, Mitchell need only take a gander at the present. More and more, they're looking the same.