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By Hooker or Crook

Christopher Smith

Wonderful game, baseball. Nothing quite like the sights and sounds of the good old national pastime. The happy crack of hickory on horsehide. The dazzle of white flannel against a freshly mowed acre of emerald-green outfield. The irrepressible excitement of kids high up in the stands, faces aglow beneath their crooked-brimmed caps, eagerly pounding a thousand little fists into a thousand little mitts. Ah, yes, the wonders of baseball. The sweet music of test tube clinking on beaker down in the lab. The urgent exhalations of the home team's star southpaw as a $40 hooker slides her hand into his pants. The incomparable din of U.S. senators bellowing in one great voice for reform.

Who can wait for the fat man in the blue suit to once more let fly his command? Play ball! Maybe the Washington Nationals, who might end up in Witchita.

Crusty baseball czar Kenesaw Mountain Landis would love it. Who needs the Chicago Black Sox when you've got Barry Bonds, inflated to comic-book proportions by the miracles of modern chemistry? Who cares a whit these days about Ty Cobb, his high spikes and his big mouth, when we've got Jason Giambi, unencumbered by legal counsel or common sense, confessing every sin ever committed in sliding pads to an astonished federal grand jury? Poor dope. He should have taken a cue from former Yankee Yogi Berra, who once complained to an interviewer, "I didn't say everything I said."

Pete Rose bet on baseball? Who cares? Sammy Sosa corks his bat and then lies about it so unconvincingly that not even the eight-year-olds believe him. While his team is collapsing in a last-ditch grab for a pennant, Sammy slips into his street clothes and walks briskly to the car. Mickey Mantle was a drunk? So what. Late third baseman Ken Caminiti, a pioneer on the frontier of artificially induced Big League muscle development, admittedly swallowed, injected and dutifully massaged into his ever-expanding flesh enough steroids to craze a pride of lions.

Have you heard? Darryl Strawberry used to go out at night and inhale things. Babe Ruth sometimes romanced women not named Mrs. Ruth. Well, that's nothing. Pitcher Denny Neagle, he of the $19 million Colorado Rockies contract and the throwing arm as useless in recent years as Venus de Milo's, admittedly sought succor from his woes last month in the darkened front seat of his car. Neagle's relief pitcher? A forty-year-old West Colfax streetwalker identified as Jill Russell. Given her excellent hand-eye coordination, maybe Jill can fill Big Denny's vacant spot in the Rockies rotation.

Oh, misery. Thy name is BALCO -- short for Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, which has been accused of providing extra muscle juice to several athletes. In an unlikely fit of sentiment, the Philadelphia Inquirer last week declared: "Baseball's heart is breaking." Really? A recent Sports Illustrated poll found that 65 percent of fans surveyed said the Bonds/Giambi steroids revelations would not affect their interest in the 2005 baseball season one bit. Hey, why should we care? Any of us. When Mike Ditka materializes on the boob tube and tells every shlub on a barstool that he's got just the stuff to ensure a three-day boner and there's a plastic surgeon in every shopping mall who can give your Aunt Edna a body like Pamela Anderson's, who's gonna quibble over some 175-pound shortstop who suddenly transforms himself into the governor of California? Self-improvement is a religious experience in this crazy woild, and you grab it where you can. Shoot enough Botox into your forehead and you'll look like Brad Pitt. Rub "the cream" on your biceps and you, too, can be Mark McGwire. In just four weeks. Ask your doctor if anabolic steroids are right for you.

Besides, the Red Sox just won their first World Series title since the Battle of Bunker Hill, and everybody who loves baseball is just thrilled about it -- even in certain unscorched districts of the Bronx. We won't come down from that high till mid-summer -- and it wasn't even chemically induced.

Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, veteran baseball writer Thomas Boswell has called every one of Bonds's home-run records "a steroid lie." But don't tell that to the San Francisco Giants' front office. Instead of wringing their hands in anguish or kicking Bonds off the team, Giants officials are counting the precious days until their synthetically enhanced misanthrope passes Henry Aaron as the all-time home-run champ. Wonder what that ball will go for on eBay? One thing's for sure: McCovey Cove will be chock-full of kayaks, and most of them will be fitted out with machine guns.

For his part, baseball commissioner Bud "Lite" Selig sputters that if baseball fails again to deal with its own dirty laundry, then heŠwell, then, he will be kind of put off. Good for Bud. For now, the Colorado Rockies and the New York Yankees are already put off. Here in Denver, the Rockies' owners sent Neagle and his $19 million contract packing because he's just not the kind of sleazy guy they want on the roster. Sure. Right. It didn't matter a particle that, because of his injured arm, Neagle hadn't pitched since the dead-ball era. His release was purely a character issue. What do you think? If Neagle had, say, won eighteen games for the Rox last year, don't you think Jerry McMorris and the Monfort brothers would have sent a $5,000 call girl up to his suite whenever he damn well wanted one? Instead, the owners are spouting off like Bill Bennett at vespers, and gray-suited bureaucrats in several suburbs are scrubbing Neagle's name off their kiddie-league ballparks as if he were some discredited Soviet police chief.

As for Giambi, the Yankees are trying to void his seven-year, $120 million contract because, they say, the big guy was a bad boy in the steroids department and has got to go. Well, have a look at that bottom line: When Giambi was a .350 hitter and the American League's Most Valuable Player, nobody in the five boroughs bothered to peek inside his medicine cabinet. Now that he's batting a paltry .250 and coming off a series of mysterious ailments, including a visit by some kind of intestinal parasite, Giambi's suddenly a moral blight on Steinbrennerdom and a horrible example to the nation's youth. Yes, and the Boss will personally see to Jason's pension plan.

Truth be told, not all the mortal sins are being committed on the baseball diamond. Even as we speak, basketball star Ron Artest is up in the $200 seats punching out half-soused hecklers. Kobe Bryant, who likes to hit on hotel chambermaids, is accusing Karl Malone of hitting on his wife. The Snake flips the Bird. Melo gets caught on videotape with gangstas, but, word, that was somebody else's Baggie in his carry-on. Hockey thug Todd Bertuzzi takes to the exhibition ice up in Canada, and the fans give him a standing O. Marion Jones, the world's fastest woman, turns out to be as juiced up as Barry; now that Jones's track career is kaput, maybe San Francisco will take her on as a pinch runner.

Next thing we know, Lou Gehrig will turn out to be a child molester, and they'll start talking about how Jack Nicklaus used to sell heroin in the locker room at Augusta. Until then, we've got the ugly spectacle of baseball in ruins -- at least until they throw out the first pitch in April and everything is fine again. Given the current woes and many missteps, we might recall the time that the elegant wife of New York mayor John Lindsay, making cocktail talk with the aforementioned Mr. Yogi Berra, remarked that he looked very cool in his new summer suit. "Thanks," Yogi replied. "You don't look so hot yourself."


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