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The Unlikely Juicer

Why’d you do it, Marvin Benard?

When the report of George Mitchell's commission investigating steroid use in baseball was released yesterday, my immediate reaction was the same as Jonathan Cohn's: that maybe Barry Bonds, unforgivable though his sins were, will--finally--no longer be treated as a scapegoat for a problem that went far beyond him. The name on Mitchell's list of steroid users that jarred me most deeply, though, was not Bonds's. Nor was it Roger Clemens's, Miguel Tejada's, or even Chuck Knoblauch's (somewhere, Keith Olbermann's mom is smiling). It was Marvin Larry Benard's.

Benard, few will recall, was an obscure outfielder who had trouble getting on base and struck out far too often, but who nevertheless managed to hold down the leadoff spot for some pretty good San Francisco Giants teams between 1998 and 2001. Growing up as a Giants fan during those years, I considered Benard to be, in some sense, representative of baseball at its best. Born on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, Benard immigrated to Los Angeles with his parents at the age of 12, and after toiling through high school, junior college, and college ball, was selected by the Giants in the 50th round of the 1992 amateur draft, after 1,390 other players had already been taken.

This is, to put it mildly, not a typical career trajectory for a starting Major League outfielder. Television announcers would always marvel at Benard's achievement (invariably after mispronouncing his last name Bernard). For my part, I'm not sure which is more remarkable: that Benard managed to make it to the big leagues, or that he was an actual, real-life, halfway decent Major League position player developed by the Giants' decrepit farm system.

In any event, seeing Benard's name on Mitchell's list disturbed me because Benard starred in one of my fondest baseball memories. In 2000, the Giants moved into a gorgeous new ballpark in China Basin, on the shores of San Francisco Bay. They opened the park in less-than-stellar fashion, with an embarrassing three-game sweep at the hands of the hated Los Angeles Dodgers. By July, when the Dodgers came calling again, they had finally figured out how to win in their new digs (they would finish the season with a home record of 55-26, best in baseball).

The teams split the first two games of the series; Sunday night, July 2, was the rubber match. Since I lived in San Diego, I rarely got to see the Giants on TV, so it was something of a treat to tune in to the ESPN telecast with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. It was a beautiful summer night in the Bay Area, and as one of the first national telecasts from what was then called Pacific Bell Park, it was a minor coming-out party for the franchise. Miller and Morgan probably spent more of the telecast marveling about the beautiful view across the bay to Oakland than they did actually calling the game.

The Giants jumped out to an early lead, but the Dodgers tied it with two runs in the seventh and two more in the eighth off of the normally untouchable setup man Felix Rodriguez. The game was tied, 5-5, heading to the bottom of the ninth. The Giants had the top of the order up--Benard.

This was perfect: the Giants needed only one run to win the game, and leading off was the team's speedy centerfielder. A walk, maybe, or an infield single, then a sacrifice bunt from future American League batting champion Bill Mueller, and then a game-winning base hit from J.T. Snow or Jeff Kent (Bonds had the night off)--that should have been what was in my mind's eye as Benard stepped into the box. That's the way you're supposed to win games in the National League.

Alas, I had more immediate gratification on my mind. Benard had racked up a grand total of ten home runs in his first four Major League seasons, but in 1999, he mysteriously jacked sixteen of them. He would never be anything resembling a real power hitter--even the best steroids in the world can only do so much for a 5'9", 180-pound water bug--but his sudden explosion of power made a walk-off home run at least a realistic possibility. Please, I thought to myself, as the chants of "Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!" reverberated around the ballpark, let him hit one.

On the mound was Mike Fetters, a rotund half-Hawaiian reliever best known for his bizarre pre-pitch routine: facing third base, he would take a deep breath, pause, immediately snap his head ninety degrees to the left in a motion that looked guaranteed to produce whiplash on every pitch, and enter his delivery. Fetters offered up a belt-high, get-me-over fastball, and Benard swung and got every single bit of it. I was sure it would land in the bay; in the home-run graveyard that is right-center field at Pac Bell, it barely cleared the fence and dropped into the first row of the arcade seats: Giants 6, Dodgers 5. Drive home safely.

I can't say exactly why this particular game meant so much to me. It was, after all, just another contest in July--although it was against the Dodgers, and it was on ESPN, and it served as pretty decent revenge for that god-awful April series. It was also the kind of midseason, gut-it-out win that makes you say to yourself, Hey, we might have something here. (We did: the team finished 97-65 en route to winning the N.L. West.)

The only problem is that it never should have happened. Benard's fly ball should have been caught on the warning track, and the game should have gone into extra innings. (Though, who knows, maybe the Giants would have scored another run off of Eric Gagne, who pitched the first five innings for the Dodgers, or Matt Herges, who threw a scoreless sixth. Both were also named in the Mitchell report.) Should I have suspected something fishy was going on when Benard's power numbers suddenly surged? Maybe. I was only fifteen, and if Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa could combine for 136 home runs in a season, why shouldn't Marvin Benard be allowed his humble sixteen? Whatever the logic, I had no doubts. Unforgettable home runs in clutch situations are not occasions for asking questions, particularly for teenagers.

Steroids warped the outcomes of thousands of baseball games over the past two decades. But what matters more to me is that they corrupted that one game eight Julys ago--the game I have always thought of when the Giants are headed, tied and at home, into the bottom of the ninth. Being a Giants fan during the Bonds era required a willing suspension of disbelief. I suppose I consoled myself, consciously or not, in part by taking refuge in the glory of the untainted, unheralded role players: Benard, Armando Rios, David Bell.

This is why, when I saw those names on Mitchell's list, I couldn't get the sour taste out of my mouth for the rest of the day. Mitchell wasn't just pointing a finger at Bonds, Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Miguel Tejada, or even Marvin Benard. He was pointing it at me. He was asking me why I embraced so readily such an improbable memory--why I somehow believed the temptation to cheat had only ensnared players making eight-figure salaries. Guys like Benard were supposed to be the antidote to the league’s steroid problems, reminders that, whatever other issues baseball might have, games could still be won courtesy of walk-off homers by scrappy, diminutive 50th-round draft picks. Oh, well.