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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

Controversial books unveiled MLB's dark side

Jose Canseco, right, made claims in his book

Jose Canseco, right, made claims in his book "Juiced" -- including some about former A's teammate Mark McGwire, left -- that were dismissed at first, but later were proven true. Photo Credit: TSN

It was the same network, same host, same week and totally different galaxies. One night after Bob Costas interviewed Mark McGwire, who refuted but essentially confirmed the steroid bombshells in Jose Canseco's book, the MLB Network showed Costas interviewing Jim Bouton, who stunned baseball 40 years ago by daring to write in his book that Mickey Mantle once hit a home run with a hangover.

Comparing Bouton and Canseco as authors is like comparing Greg Maddux and John Rocker as pitchers - one crafty and classical, the other crass and blunt. Still, they did have their parallels in casting light on the same sport.

Bouton and Canseco each was a pariah among baseball people for having taken aim at baseball's pedestals. Each was ultimately proven to have an ally in the truth.

"The similarity is in the reaction, a lot of criticism from the baseball establishment," said Stan Isaacs, former Newsday columnist and sports editor who covered Bouton and once voted for him for the Hall of Fame because of the impact "Ball Four" made on baseball. "Certainly, both shook up the establishment. Both of them had the intent to show the hypocrisy in baseball. Both were debunking a lot of stuff.

"Bouton's wasn't as self-aggrandizing and his was leavened with a lot of humor," Isaacs said.

The two books did happen to indirectly cross paths this week. Costas had Bouton lined up as a guest on his interview show and spoke with the former Yankee pitcher about having taken what seem now as gentle shots in showing that even big stars were human.

"I didn't mean to hurt anybody," Bouton said during the interview, agreeing with the host that the off-the-field high jinks by big leaguers were not much different from those at a Shriners convention. "We were Shriners with muscles," Bouton said.

Nonetheless, in his day, he was vilified. In an updated version of "Ball Four" in 1980, Bouton recalled how he was covering spring training as a television reporter and was chased off the field by Tigers manager Billy Martin, a longtime friend of Mantle. Many baseball people were livid with Bouton for having written such anecdotes as the one in which Mantle homered after a night on the town and told his Yankee teammates, "I swung at the middle ball."

Bouton did refer to players taking "greenies," pills designed to get them pumped up. But he studiously avoided naming names.

Canseco's approach was quite the opposite five years ago with the publication of "Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big." He detailed his steroid use and that of high-profile peers, particularly McGwire, his former Athletics teammate.

McGwire finally came clean recently about using steroids, confirming Canseco's allegation. But in his interview with Costas, the former slugger vigorously denied Canseco's claim that the two men had injected each other in bathroom stalls at Oakland Coliseum. For his part, Canseco went on a Chicago radio station the next day and challenged McGwire to a nationally televised polygraph test.

The length of a mammoth tape-measure home run by Mantle (for whom the phrase "tape measure home run" was coined) or McGwire couldn't begin to rival the distance between a hangover and a decade of taking illegal performance enhancing drugs. Suffice to say, as Isaacs did, "It shows how far we've come."

Brockport professor Merrill Melnick, an author and lecturer on the psychology of sport, said, "In Bouton's era, athletes' bodies were looked upon differently. At the risk of over-romanticizing the point, athletes' bodies were not viewed as `high performance, complex machines' as they are today. The latter orientation invites everything from genetic engineering to blood doping, to the use of any and all kinds of performance-enhancing drugs. Performance is the god that Sportworld worships today. Given a popular culture that has turned excessively violent, an obsession with maximizing performance of any kind, and a carefree and careless attitude toward good health practice, perhaps the transition from Ball Four to Juiced can be explained."

The transition from Bouton to Canseco makes an observer shudder at what might be next. Bouton's signed off his book with the nostalgic notion, "You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."

Canseco's last word is deliberately more ominous: "It's hard to believe that baseball will really change its stripes - unless there's a major shakeup."

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