Come to think of it, how much less cartoonish is the game today? Not that anyone's making any accusations, but there's an awful lot of Sosa and McGwire in the rockets launched by Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard and Richie Sexson...
At the dawn of 2006, 1998 was less than a decade in the past and crusades were ongoing all throughout baseball. Everyone was in a hurry to shift blame or cast judgement due to the steroid epidemic that had fueled the game's power surge and made sluggers like Ryan Howard so enthralling.
As a young first baseman - yes he did play a position other than "hitter" - in 2005, Ryan Howard's monstrous ways at the plate were inevitably going to attract attention. He came up at just the right time to be suspected endlessly, but here in 2015 we still haven't found the evidence that he was breaking any rules. And yet, even while his career fades to black and he gets projected to hit .230 in 2016, his 13th year in the majors, a PED rumor somehow linked itself to him, thanks to what appears to be a deeply flawed, deeply questionable source.
It's something that's been attached to his name, for better or worse, since the beginning.
In September, with Howard's MVP award inching ever closer, USA Today put out a story on him being hailed as the first pure slugger who might surpass Roger Maris' now pathetic home run single season mark, giving fans a clean hitter to root for after Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds all were busted for using PEDs and also for killing a bunch of people, judging by the backlash they received.
Howard, meanwhile, was able to remind everyone of his innocence without feeling he had to embrace the image of the transfiguration of baseball's savior (Chris Davis took a different route in this situation seven years later).
"I know what people are saying, and everybody wants to make a big deal out of it. I'm not going to lie; I'd love to hit 61, 62 homers. But not for that reason. To me, the record is still 73, not 61. I know people are going to be suspicious about everyone now. I know I don't have anything to hide. I've never done anything. It's just a shame it's gotten to this point."
The part of baseball's clean-living hero had been cast, and would now likely face greater scrutiny because of the role he played.
While hitting .222 for the Braves, Andruw Jones explained to everyone that there were still plenty of steroid-takers in baseball, but not all of them outed themselves with incredible displays of hitting. Still, though, Ryan Howard received the latest of his career's piss tests in order for baseball leaders to try and make sense of his incomprehensible power. And at the dawn of spring training for the 2007 season, Howard once again slapped a clean test result on his fridge.
Following his 2006 NL MVP award-winning season in which he led the league in home runs (58), RBI (149) and touched bases (383), Howard would lead the league in nothing the following year except for strikeouts. Still, though, he finished fifth in NL MVP voting, but before Howard could even get going that season, the New York Times sent one of its fluttering scribes to profile him. In regards to steroids allegations, they said Howard was "big from the womb" and "is generally assumed around baseball to be clean."
The best part, however, was when they put Howard's glittering smile up against the wretched demeanor of another steroid-era ball basher.
"Even before the steroid allegations, Bonds was one of the game's sour personalities, unloved by fans outside his home city and often reviled by his own teammates.
Howard, by contrast, is cordial with the press, well liked in the clubhouse and much more likely to offer fans a smile and an autograph than a scowl. He arrives early for games and can usually be found with his big frame folded into an easy chair or couch in front of a large TV, watching videos with teammates. He gets high marks for his 'demeanor.'"
Who would have thought that a player who was "cordial with the press" would receive such loving praise from them? As opposed to that mean old Barry Bonds - he used steroids, remember?!
Howard almost took home the NL MVP a second time, once again leading the league in home runs and RBI - and this time, he played in all 162 games, not like that pathetic 159-game season he put up in 2006.
But Albert Pujols beat him out in MVP votes, 369 to 308; a far closer margin than their respective WAR that season (Pujols = 9.2; Howard = 1.8). Obviously we were still getting a lot of "WAR: What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! My column:" headlines in 2008.
By season's end, people, like Torii Hunter, were ready to blame a clear drop in home run totals on the ramped up steroid testing throughout the sport. In the sad little American League, that may have been true, as Miguel Cabrera led the charge with only 37 dingers that season, the lowest for a home run champ since Fred McGriff hit 36 for the Blue Jays in 1989.
But in the National League,
... the power drop wasn't as evident among the NL leaders. Philadelphia's Ryan Howard hit 48 homers and topped the majors for the second time in three seasons.
How was Howard able to maintain such power without the aid of drugs? The answer, of course, is by messily devouring Philadelphia street urchins during every full moon.
The New York Times suddenly turned on Howard this season - maybe he was less cordial at some point - citing a notable weight loss in the 29-year-old. Was this a sign that perhaps he maybe had been juicing after all?!
Among the biggest losers are Brett Myers and Ryan Howard of the championship Phillies, who lost 30 and 20 pounds... We have seen some sluggers and power pitchers lose bulk in recent years, in the wake of increased testing and penalties for steroid use...
"You have to be a little skeptical, given the context of watching bodies change," Dr. Gary Wadler, an internist and member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said Thursday. "The explanation then was that they were eating more and working out more. Now if you hear players say, ‘We changed our ways,' all you can do is be suspicious."
"All you can do is be suspicious." That's it, that's the only thing.
This was what people wrote about back then - here's a guy who writes a glowing biography of Howard, praising him as the clean slugger everyone should get behind because he's never been linked to steroids; then ends the story by directly suggesting that Albert Pujols, who hadn't been linked to steroids either, was probably using steroids, based on a hunch. But what if the author himself is using steroids, and they'd gone to his brain and were controlling his body, so that he would avoid suspicion of his own usage by casting blame on other parties?! WE HAVE TO TELL THE PEOPLE.
Thankfully, we had the New York Daily News around to inform us that Howard attended a golf tournament with Jimmy Rollins the previous December hosted by David Ortiz (gasp!) that was also attended by Alex Rodriguez (GASP!) and the trainer that reportedly "worked" with A-Rod during his "loose-goosey" years (GASP!!!).
By 2011, nothing had surfaced, and even the sleaziest baseball rumor-rats had seen their passion for poking holes in Howard's power fade. In fact, Howard was a part of commissioner Bud Selig's go-to Good Guy Squad, that included sluggers who had never been caught cheating, like Albert Pujols or Ryan Braun.
Then, Ryan Braun popped a sinister lozenge in his mouth, and everything changed.
Braun had never been linked to PEDs previously; in fact, at the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis, when commissioner Bud Selig addressed efforts by Albert Pujols to tamp down questions about steroid use, he invoked Braun as a shining example of the sport's tough testing policy.
"Albert Pujols is absolutely right. He has been tested since he started playing," Selig said. "So has Ryan Howard. So has Ryan Braun, Ryan Zimmerman. Since they were in the minors."
The whole reason Howard was on that list was so that Selig would have another guy everyone thought could be on steroids to exemplify as not being on steroids. If one of other white knights was a turncoat, who knows what these other guys were up to?
Meanwhile, Philly Mag decided they didn't need to wait for a positive drug test to ask if everyone hated Ryan Howard. The following year, they would ask why everyone didn't hate Ryan Howard even more. Not many Ryan Howard fans over there at Philly Mag; and keep in mind the Phillies were still going to the playoffs at this point.
By now, sports didn't know what to do with steroid users. People were exhausted from shaming them; the youngsters who'd felt wronged after '98 were adults with bigger problems, for whom "cheating in baseball" no longer registered as a war crime, less interested in giving columnists who loved to chide the rule-breakers with unspent fatherly wisdom an audience.
In June 2012, ESPN wrote that there had never been a better time to admit to using steroids; seven months later, NBC Sports said it was better to shut up about it.
Meanwhile, no evidence surfaced that Ryan Howard had used steroids, but since he was hitting .219 with a .718 OPS, nobody was really asking.
Hey, what do you know; ten years worth of stuff has happened to Ryan Howard since he debuted. He got married. He won a World Series. He got hurt, horribly, multiple times. The family drama that had no doubt led to stress on his end surfaced publicly. His GM bashed him out loud to the press. The Phillies considered benching him. Then they benched him.
A weaker man may have turned to drugs. But the 36-year-old behemoth with the smile that launched a Subway campaign has still not had serious evidence turn up that he has ever used any substances considered banned by Major League Baseball. After all this time, the best witness anybody can find is a pharmacist who claimed Howard had been a client of his and then called his own statement "false and incorrect." Howard denied the charge as well, and his team backed him up.
Ten years of clean baseball has earned him the benefit of the doubt (and it helps that his output is now far from otherworldly). While the Phillies figure out what to do with the Big Piece, hopefully he's not reflecting on all the times he's had to defend himself throughout his career, as I just did.