GUILTY IN COURT OF CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE

By Murray Chass

February 14, 2013

With his many zealous fans lined up to buy their hero’s book, Mike Piazza figures to soon have a place on the best-seller list. The book, however, will most likely be on the wrong list. It would be more properly placed under fiction.

Up front, let me acknowledge that in his playing career, Piazza never tested positive for use of banned performance-enhancing substances. I will also acknowledge that I believe in the jurisprudence of innocent until proven guilty.Mike Piazza2 225

However, the steroids era of baseball has prompted me to adopt a variation of that theme. It’s now innocent until proven circumstantially guilty. Substitute common-sense for circumstantially if you’d like; it comes out the same way. If you’d prefer, you can use insultingly.

Any of those terms fits Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and now Piazza, who in his new work of fiction claims he did not use steroids. His denial belongs up there with President Clinton’s claim that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

The problem with Piazza’s denial is that his fans are the only ones who unequivocally believe him. Baseball people believe otherwise.

“I think it’s fair to say the prevailing view is one of suspicion, without a doubt,” said a high-ranking executive.

In the book, co-authored by Lonnie Wheeler, a Cincinnati writer, Piazza acknowledges having used androstenedione, a steroids precursor that Mark McGwire made famous, before baseball banned it. He also tried amphetamines, he says, before they were banned.

Amphetamines, he says, made him too jittery, and he opted for Dymetadrine, described as a light asthma medication that sends more oxygen to the brain. Also on his list of legal substances were Ephedra, which burns fat, and Vioxx, which Piazza says he used “because it was an intense anti-inflammatory and it made me feel good.”

But he didn’t use steroids.

I must admit my reaction to Piazza’s “medical list” was similar to that expressed on WFAN in New York by co-host Craig Carton, who said on the air, “If you don’t think that Mike Piazza did some type of steroid, you are crazy. “You now want me to believe you’re willing to put all these random drug substances in your body for an edge, to help you get out of bed in the morning after catching 22 straight days, as he says, right? But, ‘I didn’t do steroids.’ Come on. Come on. Come on. Smoke, fire. Smoke, fire.”

His co-host, Boomer Esiason said Piazza’s account “seems to me to be very honest.” To which Carton responded, ““Are we going to be that naive?”

Esiason, it should be remembered, is a former football player, who just might have a different mindset about these things.

A bit of background on the book would do well here.

Michael Bamberger, a Sports Illustrated senior writer, was the initial writer for the book and would have shared in the lucrative advance that has been said to be $800,000 or $750,000. Bamberger, however, encountered a problem.

“I was concerned whether he would be forthcoming about the steroids,” Bamberger said by telephone, “whether he was using performance-enhancing drugs. He wouldn’t commit at that point to being forthcoming. On that basis I didn’t feel comfortable going ahead. I hope he addressed it in a truthful way.”

Mike Piaza BookWhen Bob Bender, the editor at Simon & Schuster, signed the contract for the book, Bamberger said, “he didn’t stipulate that Piazza be required to address steroids.”

Bender did not return numerous calls over several days seeking comment on the contract and the book. Neither did his assistant. David Black, the literary agent, who put the deal together, refused to discuss the book after previously failing to return calls.

“I’m not going to talk to you,” Black said. “No comment.” Asked why he wouldn’t talk, he said, “No reason. I’m not going to talk to you. The person to talk to is Mike Piazza.”

The agent had a point there, but my attempt to set up an interview with Piazza was unsuccessful because no one from the publisher’s publicity department called back. Even if someone had called, though, it’s unlikely that an interview would have been arranged. Piazza wasn’t taking to the news media.

He had a book signing session at a Manhattan book store Monday, the day before the book was officially placed on sale, but the publisher had said before the session that reporters weren’t welcome.

This is what the New York Daily News reported:

“Despite the publisher, Simon and Schuster, making clear that Piazza would grant no interviews to the print media before or after the signing – an interesting strategy to try and sell books – a small group of reporters waited inside Barnes & Noble to see if the catcher-turned-author would grant a few minutes of access.

“But Piazza seems to be letting his book do the talking, including his take on the topic of performance-enhancers and whether he used them during his 16-year career.”

Wheeler, Piazza’s co-author, wasn’t talking either. Although Lonnie and I aren’t close friends, I have known him for years. In fact, his telephone number in a very old phone book (lots of dead people in it) of mine still works. But when he answered his phone, he said apologetically, “I’ve been embargoed. They’re leaving the media to Mike, who’s on tour.”

And not talking to the media.

“It shouldn’t be assumed that every big hitter of the generation used steroids,” Piazza says in the book. “I didn’t.”

Tommy Lasorda, Piazza’s benefactor and manager in Los Angeles, believes the former catcher.

There’s no proof Piazza used steroids, Lasorda told the Daily News last month. “I’ve got to say he didn’t take it,” Lasorda said. “That’s how I feel. I just don’t think he took them.”

Lasorda might want to rethink his position by becoming familiar with Tony La Russa’s experience with Mark McGwire eight years ago. When McGwire was summoned to appear before a Congressional committee looking into steroids in baseball and repeatedly said, “I’m not here to talk about the past,” La Russa supported his former first baseman, saying he didn’t believe he used steroids. McGwire, though, subsequently admitted that he had.

Or Lasorda could read page 240 of Jeff Pearlman’s book about Roger Clemens, “The Rocket That Fell to Earth.”

Among several anonymous quotes on Piazza and steroids, Pearlman quotes Reggie Jefferson, a Clemens teammate in Boston, as saying, “He’s a guy who did it, and everybody knows it. It’s amazing how all these names, like Roger Clemens, are brought up, yet Mike Piazza goes untouched.”mike-piazza-225

Jefferson’s comment didn’t come as news to reporters who covered the New York Mets when Piazza was their catcher. They talked about the difference in Piazza’s body, how he looked massive when he got to spring training, then shrunk as the season progressed. They talked about his severe mood swings.

Even more noticeable than the size of his body was the acne that covered Piazza’s back. His fans have made a practice of ridiculing me when I have mentioned the acne, but acne is a telltale sign of steroids use. There was another telltale sign. When baseball began testing for steroids – not before but when – Piazza’s acne disappeared and his back was completely clear and as smooth as a baby’s butt.

Had Piazza agreed to an interview this week, I would love to have had the opportunity to ask him about his back and the timing and disappearance of his acne. But the guy who just published an $800,000 book, isn’t doing interviews.

Why should he care about book sales? He got his money. The publisher, on the other hand, should care for the same reason, but neither Mr. Simon nor Mr. Schuster wants to ruffle Piazza’s feathers, you know, the ones left from the steroids.

I know from experience that when I write about Piazza and steroids, especially the acne part, I can expect to be inundated with a torrent of e-mail responses from Piazza’s zealous fans.

There’s never enough time to answer all of the e-mail so I decided I would try something different. I am going to reply to reader mail before I receive it. A writer friend suggested I could call it not my response but my presponse. So here is my presponse:

I know that you don’t agree with my view; in fact, I know that it offends you. But I calls ‘em the way I sees ‘em. You certainly are entitled to your opinion, and I don’t begrudge you your opinion. But you are not objective, and you are willingly blind to whatever your hero might have done.

If he cheated, he cheated, and he deserves whatever negative consequence that befalls him. If you want to ignore the acne and make excuses for it and invent reasons for its sudden disappearance, please feel free to engage in any fantasy you desire.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.