MIKE PIAZZA AND STEROIDS REVISITED

By Murray Chass

March 22, 2009

The name of the book is “The Rocket That Fell to Earth.” The author is Jeff Pearlman. The publisher is HarperCollins. It goes on sale March 24. It is about Roger Clemens and, in fact, is subtitled “Roger Clemens and the Rage for Baseball Immortality.” But for a few pages it is also about Mike Piazza.

Those are the pages that intrigue me. Those are the pages some readers of this site might want to read. Or not, if they want to go on denying that Piazza and steroids might have had a relationship during his surprisingly productive playing career.

I hope the same readers who sent e-mail messages to this site harshly – in some cases viciously – criticizing me for the Piazza column I wrote earlier this month will read those pages. They should read the rest of the book as well, but for now let’s focus on the Piazza pages.

They appear in the section in which Pearlman writes about the on-field relationship between Piazza and Clemens, one of the most incendiary batter-pitcher duels in recent years.  Piazza battered Clemens, and Clemens hit Piazza in the head with a pitch and flung the sawed-off barrel of Piazza’s bat in his direction.

By this point in the book, the author has already established that Clemens used steroids and human growth hormone, using Clemens’ former trainer and now adversary, Brian McNamee, as the source of the information. “McNamee said he injected Clemens between 16 and 20 more times that season,” Pearlman writes, refering to the 1998 season when Clemens played for and McNamee worked for the Toronto Blue Jays.

About Piazza, 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.”

Pearlman quotes others about Piazza’s steroids use, but he does not name them. I don’t think it’s fair to quote unnamed people about someone’s steroids or other drug use, although most players would not talk about another player’s use if they were going to be identified.

Aside from the comments attributed to Jefferson, Pearlman’s most interesting sentence about Piazza is perhaps this one: “Writers saw his bulging muscles, his acne-covered back.”

Ah, the acne-covered back. It was my reference to Piazza’s acne-covered back that provoked the most vehement responses to my column. I wrote that back acne is a telltale sign of steroids use, and I was ridiculed for linking Piazza’s acne to steroids. There was still more outrage expressed for my speculation for why Piazza’s back cleared up. 

I must have received half a dozen reasons for why Piazza shed his acne, but the critics, besides stepping all over each other trying to excuse and explain their hero, ignored the critical factor. The acne disappeared as soon as Piazza was faced with random testing and that as soon as Major League Baseball began conducting suspension-inducing tests for steroids use in 2004, Piazza’s back became clear and smooth. No more acne, just like that.

I don’t know if Piazza used steroids or any other performance-enhancing drugs. I never said in the column that he did. I raised the possibility, citing his acne as circumstantial evidence. Bloggers, I am told, had a field day with the column, but I have spared myself the pleasure of reading what they wrote.

I have had more important things to read, Pearlman’s book, for example. Writing about Piazza, Pearlman outlines his development as a player, noting that as a walk-on as a freshman at the University of Miami he had one hit in nine times at bat. This was the player who a reader, who said he had been Piazza’s roommate and teammate at Miami, described as “a hard worker and a great hitter with tremendous power.”

Considering how serious a baseball school Miami is, it seems likely that such a great hitter with tremendous power would make a greater impression and get more playing time than 1-for-9.

But Pearlman’s book is about Clemens, and with McNamee’s assistance, he leaves no doubt that Clemens’ great career was chemically aided. Clemens won seven Cy Young awards but only four before Pearlman/McNamee say he used performance-enhancing drugs.

According to the book, McNamee’s steroids injections of Clemens began in June 1998. Clemens, Pearlman writes, trusted McNamee, the Blue Jays’ strength and conditioning coach, enough “that he felt comfortable asking him to inject him with steroids.” Pearlman says McNamee found the request disturbing but nevertheless a few days after the Blue Jays returned to Toronto from a road trip to Florida “injected Winstrol into the pitcher’s buttocks for the first time.” The pitcher provided the steroids and the needles, Pearlman writes.

Between 16 and 20 injections followed that season, “almost always in Clemens’ SkyDome apartment.” McNamee, however, recalled injecting the pitcher one time in the visiting clubhouse at Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field, “rushed it and Clemens wound up with an abscess on his left buttocks.”

“Before the injections,” Pearlman notes, “Clemens had registered 10 or more strikeouts on one occasion that season. Over his final 17 starts, he had 10 or more strikeouts 10 times.”

Pearlman’s numbers are accurate, lending credibility, I believe, to McNamee’s recitation of events. Clemens won his fifth Cy Young award that season. No. 6 came in 2001 when Clemens, now 39 years old, compiled a 20-3 record with the Yankees. Clemens “depended heavily on steroids,” Pearlman writes.

He adds: “McNamee made weekly trips to Clemens’ apartment on 98th Street and First Avenue. He would leave his car out front with the doorman, Carlos, and take the elevator up to the 10th floor. Clemens would retrieve the steroids and needle kit from a walk-in closet. The two would enter the master bedroom, and on the king-sized bed Clemens would carefully lay out a hand towel, on top of which he placed the ampoule, the needle, the gauze and a bottle of rubbing alcohol.

“Clemens would then drop his pants, bend over and have McNamee inject him.”

McNamee injected Clemens about a dozen times that season, Pearlman writes, all in his apartment except for one time he did it in the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, using “a side area beside the team’s” whirlpool.

A small circle of blood oozed from Clemens’ buttocks on that occasion, Pearlman writes, prompting Mike Stanton, a veteran Yankees’ reliever, to ask if Clemens had started using drugs.

“Hey, man,” Pearlman says Clemens replied, “whatever I can do to get an edge.”

PEDRO PURSUES PAYOFF

We keep reading that Pedro Martinez wants to pitch for the Mets. The Mets have said repeatedly they are not interested in Pedro. The reason they might not be interested is the money he wants to sign. If he lowers his economic sights, like everyone else in the country, maybe the Mets would be interested.

Martinez, 37 years old, was able to pitch only one full season in his four years with the Mets, during which he earned $53 million. He started only 5 games two years ago, missed a third of last season and when he did pitch lasted more than 6 innings only twice in 20 starts. Given that recent history, the Mets and other teams believe it would be too risky to sign him for what he wants.

Martinez wants the kind of contract John Smoltz got from Boston. It calls for a $5.5 million guaranteed salary plus $5 million in roster bonuses — $125,000 for the first day he’s on the active roster, $500,000 if he’s on the active roster the last day of the season and $35,000 each day he’s on the active roster from June 1 through Oct. 3.

The bonuses might have to be structured differently because Smoltz started only five games last season, all in April, and is coming back from elbow and shoulder surgery, but whatever Martinez is proposing it amounts to more than the Mets want to pay.  

If he asked for a $2 million guaranteed salary and reasonable bonuses based on number of starts, the Mets could be interested. If Pedro is too proud to take such a small salary, he will very likely have to sit at home nursing his pride this season.

WHITHER THE YOUNG PITCHERS?

A year ago Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were preparing to open the season in the Yankees’ starting rotation. Where are they now? They are in the Yankees’ minor league camp, having been sent down the road last week.

Whether they rejoin the Yankees will most likely depend on the health of the team’s starters. One of them may some season replace Andy Pettitte in the rotation, but the other starters are either young enough or making enough money that they won’t be going anywhere in the near future.

Hughes (at left) and Kennedy are the central figures in the Yankees’ biggest blunder in years. Last winter general Brian Cashman rejected the idea of trading for Johan Santana, preferring to retain Melky Cabrera, who lost his center field job last year and may not regain it this year, and the two pitchers, one of whom the Yankees would have had to give up for Santana.

Not only didn’t Cashman want to give up either Hughes or Kennedy, but he also thought they were good enough to help the Yankees win the division title. The pitchers weren’t, and the Yankees didn’t.

Cashman spent $243.5 million this winter to cover the mistake he made last winter, signing CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Santana cost the Mets $137.5 million plus four young players, but had the Yankees acquired him he very possibly would have helped them do what Hughes and Kennedy didn’t.

What was especially troubling about Cashman’s decision was he made it in his new role of total responsibility for the baseball operations. And how did he try to correct his mistake? Like all of his general manager predecessors under George Steinbrenner and the owner himself – with gobs of money.

INJURIES ARE WHERE YOU FIND THEM

Trevor Hoffman (Milwaukee, at right) suffered a rib cage injury. His teammate, Braden Looper, also had a rib injury. Fausto Carmona (Cleveland) had his right forearm bruised when it got in the way of a line drive. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia’s World Series most valuable player, has been dealing with an inflamed left elbow all spring.

Brian Schneider, the Mets’ catcher, has had a strained right calf. J.D. Drew, Boston’s right fielder, had a contusion on his right hand. Derrek Lee, the Cubs’ first baseman, has had a sore quadriceps.

None of these players played in the World Baseball Classic. They incurred their injuries the old-fashioned way – in spring training.

Much has been made of the danger of playing in the Classic. Some people think it increases the risk of injury. Some players have been injured in those games, but players are injured in Florida and Arizona exhibition games, sometimes in workouts.

I suppose if someone doesn’t like the idea of the WBC, he can come up with any reason whether it’s valid or not. 

Meanwhile, Ivan Rodriguez and Sidney Ponson can say “I got my job through the World Baseball Classic.” Houston signed Rodriguez and Kansas City signed Ponson following their WBC performances.

MARLINS ON THE BRINK

Florida Marlins owners and officials may be hyperventilating, or maybe they’re holding their breath. The Marlins are closer than ever to getting a new park in Miami.

They won one vote last week when Miami city commissioners voted 3-2 for a financing plan for a new park. Now they face one more vote Monday by the Miami-Dade County Commission. The last three Marlins owners – H. Wayne Huizenga, John Henry and most recently Jeffrey Loria (at left) – tried and failed to get a new park.

“Weve been doing it for seven years; the Marlins’ owners have been doing it for 10 years,” David Samson, the club president, said Sunday. “This is the closest we’ve ever been. We’re one vote away.”

 

Samson didn’t want to predict the outcome of the vote but said the Marlins have gone over the documents with each of the 13 commissioners. “We’ll see what happens,” he said. Asked if they have Champagne on ice ready to celebrate a yes vote, he said, “It’s been too long a road. The Champagne for me is opening day in 2012.”

Major League Baseball officials have lobbied aggressively to aid the Marlins, and the combined effort may finally pay off. On the other hand, the Marlins have been close before and the state legislature has shattered the effort. The state legislature is not involved in the current proposal.

Marlins players are as eager to get a new park as club owners and officials. They figure if the team gets a new park and starts drawing more fans it could start paying higher salaries. The Marlins’ $27 million payroll was the lowest by far in the majors last season.  

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