Alex Rodriguez pounced on the question like a hot grounder. When asked if the current wave of young talent had a responsibility to restore Major League Baseball's tarnished image, the New York Yankees third baseman responded, "I think the baseball image is great. I do. The game is at an all-time high."
Sitting at his media table the day before the MLB All-Star Game on July 11, Mr. Rodriguez expressed an opinion largely shared by players on hand for the festivities in Detroit-that steroids and anything else giving baseball a bad name should be dealt with swiftly and then pushed aside, no further scrutiny needed.
With 21 first-time All-Stars peppering the rosters and the excitement surrounding the 2006 World Baseball Classic, baseball players had the perfect opening to escape-or depending on one's viewpoint, evade-the clouds that have hung over the game in recent years. Baseball may be reeling from the BALCO investigation, congressional hearings, and Texas pitcher Kenny Rogers' unprecedented on-field tirade, but it's all old news to the players.
"I think you guys were the ones who made a big deal of the steroids," St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols said to reporters. "Hopefully, this All-Star Game might [help people] forget all that stuff until the offseason."
With many faces of the steroids scandal-Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Sammy Sosa-absent from Detroit, it was easier for players to declare that they had achieved closure on the issue, pointing to a tougher drug-testing policy implemented this season. Even Atlanta pitcher John Smoltz, a seven-time All-Star who has been very outspoken against both steroids and baseball's molasses-fast response to the problem, was optimistic about the near future.
"So many things are happening in this game, so many bright stars are coming out from so many different places, that I think it's going to finally put to bed some of these issues," Mr. Smoltz said.
But it's hard to put aside the issue of Mr. Rogers when he's taking up locker room space among the All-Stars. Mr. Rogers was fined $50,000 and suspended 20 games for shoving two cameramen-one of whom was sent to the hospital as a result-before a game on June 29. Yet the league allowed him to play in the Summer Classic.
Though he took a full week to apologize for the incident, and despite an outcry by fans and media, the 18-year veteran had nothing but support from his colleagues. "We've all made mistakes in our life, and you know what, he stepped up and apologized for it, and I have respect for that," said Los Angeles Angels outfielder Garret Anderson.
The fans at Comerica Park weren't so ready to forgive and forget. When he entered the All-Star Game in the seventh inning, Mr. Rogers was greeted with hearty boos, which turned to cheers when he yielded a two-run homer to Andruw Jones.
That reaction indicated that even if baseball's image is as sparkling as Mr. Rodriguez claims, a challenge still remains: recapturing the fans' trust. Juiced-up players may be easier to eradicate than the perception that the clean ones are still overpaid, spoiled, and out of touch with the fans.
St. Louis outfielder Jim Edmonds, alluding to the National Hockey League lockout, said, "We never thought we were making mistakes, and now we see other sports doing what we did, we realize, wow, something should have been done a long time ago."
That means the collective bargaining agreement, which expires after the 2006 season, must be negotiated more smoothly than in 2002, when a strike was narrowly avoided.
"I have no doubts that baseball is in a good position right now and makes billions of dollars," Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent said, "so I don't doubt that we'll be able to get something done to continue [improving] baseball's image." -Brad Locke is a sports writer in Tupelo, Miss.