Bernstein: Eric Thames & MLB’s Discomfort

By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist

(CBS) Brewers first baseman Eric Thames hit his 11th home run Tuesday night, and baseball’s best and least likely story continued in Milwaukee’s 9-1 victory over Cincinnati. The 30-year-old Thames, who last played in the big leagues in 2012 before returning from the Korean league this season, is now batting .371, with an on-base percentage of .482 while slugging at a rate of .929. A player who once bombed out of baseball is now bombing away and is affably challenging skeptics who assume his performance and chiseled physique are the product of chemistry.

“If people keep thinking I’m on stuff, I’ll be here every day,” he told reporters after the game. “I have a lot of blood and urine. I’m just here to play ball and do my best to stay healthy.”

Thames was indeed “randomly” drug tested Tuesday night, MLB.com reported.

It’s not just cynical fans or pundits around the game glancing sideways at him, either, but opponents. Cubs pitcher John Lackey went so far as to use a cartoonishly suggestive wink when discussing how Thames could possibly have hit an opposite-field homer off him, punctuating his speculative comment of “That’s kind of one of those things that makes you scratch your head.”

Lackey’s pitching coach, Chris Bosio, got in on the implication act too in an interview on 670 The Score, noting that Thames is “doing stuff that I haven’t seen for a long time,” comparing him to Barry Bonds and Manny Ramirez, saying “his body has changed” and also invoking the term “head-scratcher.” That’s two Cubs not leaving much to imagination.

This is where we are in baseball, now, with reasonable and aware people left unable to witness a hot streak by a mostly unknown power hitter without wondering how he happened.

As Thames said what he said Tuesday night, one could applaud his transparency while understanding why others could think “that’s what they all say.” This came just days after Pirates outfielder Starling Marte took an 80-game rip for testing positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone and came in a Brewers locker room in which you can turn your head and look into the eyes of Ryan Braun.

It was Braun who once tested positive, dragged the name and reputation of the sample-collector through the mud to win an appeal on a technicality, only to then be so deeply connected to the Biogenesis clinic scandal that he was eventually forced to admit performance-enhancing drug use. He was suspended 65 games for his violation and subsequent behavior.

Thames need look no further than his own teammate for reasons why fans can feel conflicted. It’s merely reality that we can’t ignore. Players have used PEDs and still do, and our desire to care is determined by capricious whim based on who and when and whether or not it matters to our team.

There’s no fairness or consistency. There’s only the lingering aftermath of what was the Bud Selig “Steroid Era,” the ensuing crackdown that tarnished many and allowed other users to retain their good standing, then the redemption of even those who admitted using steroids to gain an edge.

When Lackey and Bosio point the finger at Thames like they did, it’s fair to note that Manny Ramirez has been a batting consultant for the Cubs, credited for his work with Javier Baez and others.

Why does it matter more in baseball whether or not a given slugger is using a muscle supplement accepted or banned by MLB, especially with no rhyme or reason dictating public sentiment toward the users and abusers on the field, coaching in dugouts, broadcasting and analyzing games, already in the Hall of Fame or soon to be? That’s a discussion for another day.

But Eric Thames has hit enough home runs after enough time away to be the latest example of an uncomfortable and paradoxical conflict for which baseball has only itself to blame.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s “Bernstein and Goff Show” in afternoon drive. You can follow him on Twitter  @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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