Steroid scandal is tough to manage

Perhaps never before has a sport so badly needed an elder statesman the likes of Joe Torre. Friday, he keynoted the first day of the rest of baseball’s life the way few others could.

“The healing has to start now,” he said.

At the beginning of the week, the Dodgers’ manager could have reasonably assumed he would be addressing the media here, on this day before spring training, about Manny Ramirez . . . or his recently released book on his years with the Yankees . . . or his pitching rotation.

Not this time. There were bigger fish to fry. Overviews sought. Philosophies established. Damage control begun.


Badly needed was a sense of the future, of the mood on the inside and expectations of the mood on the outside. This occasion needed more Henry Kissinger than Tom Lasorda.

Monday, when Alex Rodriguez went on television to admit to the world that he had cheated by taking performance-enhancing drugs in the early 2000s, the time-honored template of spring training changed. Questions of hitting and pitching would pale in importance to questions of ethics in a sport that currently seems to have few.

A superstar had fessed up. Two others of similar stature, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, are under a cloud of suspicion. A little more than a year ago, the Mitchell Report named names of dozens of others and only Clemens balked.

Now, with the ticket-purchasing, TV-watching public given numerous reasons to spend its vastly smaller paychecks elsewhere -- precisely when baseball embarks on its annual spring-training propaganda exercise of branding and ticket-selling -- the sport badly needed somebody such as Torre.

On this crucial moonwalk, it got one small step for the game.

Torre was neither defensive nor evasive.

“This is a black eye,” Torre said. “All of baseball shares the blame, including me.”

Torre also said, “It is going to be tough, but we need to regain the fans’ trust. It’s not going to happen overnight.

“This is sad. Things like this come out and they never go away. Now, every home run, somebody is going to wonder why. I’ve always been so proud of baseball history, and I’d love to get that tradition back. But it’s going to be tough.”

Torre has a special view of this, which brought an extra responsibility to address it. He managed the Yankees from 1996 through 2007 and won four World Series titles in that time. The last four of those seasons, he had Rodriguez on his roster.

“I’m happy Alex admitted taking the drugs,” Torre said. “Knowing him so well, I know how proud he is of the things he has achieved. I know how important it is to him to add to his numbers.

“But now, given that things are tainted, it will be tough. People don’t forget. I’m saddened for him. I know New York and I know this is going to be very difficult.”

Although Rodriguez’s admission was about his days as a member of the Texas Rangers, Torre said he never saw any signs of anything untoward with any player in the Yankees’ clubhouse.

“I’d walk through, and there’d be nobody hiding, nobody stopping their conversation when they saw me,” he said.

But he said that didn’t exonerate him, or anybody else in the game, from a measure of responsibility.

“I’m naive,” he said, “and I hope I stay that way.”

Torre said that, while he hated what had happened, part of him understood it.

“It’s like when a player comes at me and is angry. I don’t look as much at what he said as why,” Torre said. “I try to think of why players would do that. What is the temptation? Then I remember how I came back in 1999 after having surgery [for prostate cancer]. I remember sitting in the dugout and thinking I understood better how this was just a game. And pretty soon, the bases are loaded and Bernie Williams is up and I start thinking I’d sell my soul for him to get a hit.”

Rodriguez’s use of performance-enhancing drugs was leaked off a list of 104 names of players who tested positive as part of baseball’s supposedly confidential survey testing in 2003. Torre struggled with the question of whether the other identities should be revealed. He said he was bothered by information specified as secret and personal becoming public.

“Do we need more names to point out that we have a problem? Do we need a bigger sample?” he asked. “If we introduce more names, we are only slowing our recovery.”

Torre will turn 69 in July, and yet those years have made him less hardened and more poetic about the game that has been his life. He said he always sees baseball as something brand new, as a ballet of teamwork that, when put together, is a thing of beauty.

He said he knows this will take time, but he was clear in his wishes for the future of his game.

“Let the black clouds part,” he said.

Asked what he would do if the room were filled with 50 baseball fans, rather than 50 reporters, Torre got to perhaps the most pressing need.

“I’d apologize,” he said.