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TableTalk: Cheaters, Liars & Ringing Bells

The holiday lunch table conversation - replete with juicy burgers, greasy fries, and my wimpy chicken Caesar wrap - covered a variety of topics, starting with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and the Steroids Era. Should these mopes gain entrance into the Hall of Fame when the balloting is announced on January 9th?

We all know the answer to this one, yet it continues to occupy our attention. My two pals, Bill and Doug, like myself, are in their 60s, and none of us made the case to let any of the denounced athletes into the sacred bastion. However, the cases of Bonds and Clemens, both of whom had Hall of Fame numbers prior to ramping up their games and extending their careers with PEDs, at least merit discussion.

In seven years in Pittsburgh between the ages of 21 and 27, Bonds averaged better than 26 home runs a season; he drove in more than 100 runs three times; he was MVP at age 25, and; he reached base at a .456 clip in 1992. Whose performance was better than that?

Breaking in with the Red Sox as a 21-year-old in 1984, Clemens won 95 games his first six seasons, including 1986 when he won 24 games and snagged both the Cy Young and MVP awards. If only he had laid off the juice, never met Brian McNamee, not lied to Congress, and decided that pitching to age 38 instead of 44 was acceptable, he'd be a shoo-in.

But the issue, in my mind, isn't solely about Barry or Roger. What about the writers who vote? There were few cynics or questioning observers in the 90s when the ballparks were filled with crazed fans as the nation witnessed the re-writing of the record book.

"McGwire and Sosa's breathtaking race for the single-season home run record that has changed hands just once in 71 years is a godsend for baseball, a welcome respite for stressed parents, and yet another opportunity for the nation to play out its racial and ethnic anxieties," reporters for the Washington Post gushed in a way typically over-the-top report from September 1998.

"But most of all, in an era of disillusionment with heroes, in a summer of soiled role models, McGwire and Sosa - who hit his 57th homer Friday night - have captivated millions of fans who had soured on baseball.

"Wherever McGwire and Sosa go, and for millions more watching on TV or listening to the radio, the home-run race is about something more than a desire to witness history. It is about recalling what is good, about renewing faith. It's about who we want to be."

Only if we aspire to being revealed as frauds, it turns out.

Yet many of the same writers who pulsated over 70 home runs have a very different take on the same athletes today. They want nothing to do with them. Keep them as far away as possible.

If a Hall of Fame for writers existed, would the members of the press who wrote glowingly about the accomplishments of guys like Bonds and Clemens be shunned today?

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While we were on the subject of cheating, the departure of A.J. Pierzynski arose. Doug is a Tigers fan, having grown up in Toledo, so he feels little nostalgia about the Sox's erstwhile catcher.

Meanwhile, Bill and I will never lose the vision of A.J. taking off for first base as Angels catcher Josh Paul rolled the ball back to the mound in the bottom of the ninth in the second game of the 2005 ALCS. This was to White Sox history what Merkle's Boner - I just love that! - or historic home runs by Bobby Thompson, Bill Mazeroski, or Kirk Gibson are to the rest of baseball.

Arguably the defining moment in franchise history since the Sox had lost the first game of the series - as it turned out the only loss of their entire postseason - the Angels were about to force extra innings in Game 2. Had they won that contest at the Cell, the Sox would have been down 0-2 heading to Anaheim.

Pablo Ozuna ran for A.J., stole second, and came around on Joe Crede's double. Our guys never looked back.

Baseball is a game where (non-chemical) trickery is celebrated rather than condemned. A coach who can steal signs is a valuable commodity, and tell me the last time an outfielder trapped a ball and didn't try to sell it as a legitimate catch. There is no finer example of a sly, crafty competitor than Pierzynski. And now he's gone.

The Sox easily could have kept him since A.J. got the minimum - a one-year deal from Texas. I wonder whether Jake Peavy, whom the Sox signed for two years at $29 million, could have had some influence on A.J.'s departure.

Jake and A.J. had a bit of a flare-up in 2011 after Jake was lifted in a game against the Cubs, although both downplayed the incident. However, Tyler Flowers, A.J.'s apparent successor, had a presence when Peavy pitched last season, starting 12 of the 32 games when Jake was on the mound. (For comparison, Chris Sale started 29 games and Flowers was his catcher only six times.)

Possibly Jake and others wanted to take their chances with Flowers rather than continue with Pierzynski.

Tony La Russa's latest book is a tedious account of the Cardinals' 2011 championship season, but his take on team chemistry is worth noting:

"[Former White Sox GM] Roland Hemond - the most beloved guy still alive in baseball - once told me, 'If you have true chemistry on your team, it will be like tomorrow I added a superstar to your roster - a 20-game winner, a top closer, or a 30/30/30 middle-of-the-lineup hitter,'" LaRussa writes.

I never digested the periodic chart and Bunsen burners were an enigma to me. But if you believe people like La Russa, the social dynamics of a group of 25 young men - working, traveling and living in close proximity - over the course of six months is one factor in a team's success. Maybe it was time for A.J. to leave. But the memories endure.

* * *

Finally, what would a luncheon be without mentioning violence in football, the popularity of grave concern about concussions, former players with dementia and brain trauma, and dissecting the brains of poor fellows like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson?

The question is, "Knowing what you know now, would you let your kids play tackle football?"

Most people to whom I've posed this inquiry, including my lunchmates, quickly reply in the negative.

I'm not convinced that letting your youngster participate in a park district or Pop Warner league is detrimental, but a steady diet of the game into high school and college might be cause for concern.

What is curious is the about-face NFL Films, ESPN, Fox Sports and the other purveyors of the game have assumed since concussions - and far more serious injuries - became an issue. When was the last time you heard Cris Collinsworth or Joe Buck describe a player as having gotten his "bell rung?" You think Jon Gruden or Al Michaels ever describes a wide receiver who just "got knocked into next week" anymore?

After decades of big hits highlights and putting Dick Butkus, Jack Tatum, Ray Lewis and numerous other notorious vicious defenders on a pedestal, we now have tags like Football at a Crossroads, ESPN's investigation of the health issues surrounding the game. This coming from the very same people who publicized and celebrated the most aggressive and life-threatening snapshots week after week.

No one should be surprised. These are the folks who gave us Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa until our bellies were overflowing. They ought to have naming rights for the Whatever Works Network.

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Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox beat. He welcomes your comments.

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1. From Tom Weinberg:

You chicken wrap wimp. Glad you agreed that Tony's book sucked except for a few paragraphs. His cursory mention of the guy who anointed him as a 30-something-year-old manager, then did Socratic dialogue with him after every game in the Bards Room pissed me off. Veeck was so lovable. Tony is and was a hard-boiled guy . . . definitely blessed with a growing baseball mind, but warm, outgoing with others - no way.

Wasn't sure whether you think AJ should be gone. This other guy can't hit, no matter what the chemistry is or isn't.

2. From Brad Herzog:

I don't know, Roger. I'm kind of partial to the argument that if we removed any player who ever used amphetamines or corked his bat, we'd be left with Christy Mathewson and empty wall space. The problem, as I see it, isn't what we should do about Sosa and McGwire and the rest. It's how do we handle Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza and all the other folks who . . . well, maybe they juiced, maybe they didn't. We start getting into a sort of baseball McCarthyism - convicted via suspicion. And then we have a few folks who make the Hall of Fame just because they got away with it. It's a mess.

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