COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - Suspicions of steroid use dogged their careers, and even on the eve of their Hall of Fame induction when they should be celebrating their most glorious achievements in baseball, Pudge Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell found themselves answering questions whether or not they used performance-enhancing drugs.
Rodriguez, who used to simply say, “Only God knows,’’ now denies it.
So does Bagwell.
“I never took it,’’ Rodriguez said. “Never.’’
Still, despite all of the denials, there are Hall of Famers like Frank Thomas and Goose Gossage who have trouble believing them. They are skeptical, to say the least.
“If these guys had [guts], they would come out and say they did it for the good of the game,’’ Gossage told USA TODAY Sports. “We’re going to reward guys for cheating? Are you serious? Guys are laughing all of the way to the bank. It’s like when people talk about Barry Bonds for the Hall of Fame. Bull. He cheated. He broke the most sacred record in the game, the home-run record.
“Ken Griffey Jr. was supposed to break that record and he broke down. That’s what bodies are supposed to do. You don’t get better the older you get. It’s a joke.’’
And so this 2017 Hall of Fame class is tinged with some irony in that the one inductee who actually admitted to using drugs, Tim Raines, is considered the cleanest of the bunch in the eyes of some in baseball.
Raines confessed to using cocaine, not performance-enhancing drugs, during his early years in Montreal. He sought treatment, received counseling, and even testified during the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials that roiled the sport.
“He took the initiative to stand up like a man, and say I need help,’’ said Andre Dawson, Raines’ former teammate in Montreal who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010. “He approached me one day and told me, “I need help. I want to be like you.’ I didn’t know how to accept that.
“He made the determination, “I know what I need to. I put my arms around him, and told him, “You’ll be OK.’ That was the turning point in our relationship. We bonded after that. This guy was talented, so gifted.’’
Raines says that once he confronted his addiction, undergoing twice-a-week therapy sessions in 1982, he became a better player, dedicating himself fully to the game of baseball, and a better man, and now he, like Dawson and Expo great Gary Carter, will get his day in Cooperstown.
“I really don’t think I’d be here without him,’’ Raines said of Dawson. “The impact that he had on me was tremendous. He’s one of the few guys that I know that fits in the Hall of Fame, he had trouble getting to the ballpark because of bad knees, and to watch him play day in and day out was inspiring.
“He was like my big brother. A father figure. And just having him with me my first five, six years meant a lot.
“I owe him a lot to him for being a friend, a teammate and a positive influence on the way I played the game.’’
Raines may be the most beloved member of this 2017 Hall of Fame class - joining Rodriguez, Bagwell, former Commissioner Bud Selig and former GM John Schuerholz - representing not only Montreal’s glorious past, but its future.
He last played for the Expos 27 years ago, but it’s as if he never left.
“You know this weekend, putting that Expos cap back on, will bring exposure to the Expos and Montreal,’’ Raines said, “and hopefully get a team back.’’
The village of Cooperstown has been overrun by Expos fans and the people of Montreal, coming in by cars and buses. They’ve been walking around this town proudly wearing those old vintage uniforms, wanting to celebrate the moment with the man who made it clear that he would wear an Expos cap if he was ever inducted into Cooperstown.
“That’s what it makes it so special,’’ said Dennis Dostie, a native of Montreal, “is that he always said he wants to wear an Expo cap. He was proud to be part of us. And we’re so proud of him.
The Huculaks, Dave and Kelly, knew they would be here the moment Raines was elected, making immediate travel plans. So did Chris Lichocki, Brenda O’Brien and Anne Martie McKirdy. They cried together listening on the radio of the news that Raines was elected, toasted him that night, and plan to party hard all weekend.
“We acted like sixth-grade kids when we heard the news,’’ Lichocki said. “It was such a great moment, and it’s only going to get better.’’
It took 10 years for these Expos fans to even watch a baseball game again, McKirdy said, infuriated about the 1994 strike that ended their dream season, and the team’s relocation to Washington, D.C. And no, they refuse to root for the Nationals.
“You’re talking about a town that had so much pride in their city and the Expos,’’ said Gary Hughes, the Expos’ former scouting director and now Boston Red Sox special assistant. “Tim is kind of the last vestige of what’s left.’’
Raines calls it a responsibility to represent the Expos. He played for six teams in his 23-year career, and won a World Series with the New York Yankees, but never, ever considered wearing a cap other than the Expos.
“It means a lot,’’ Raines said. “I was drafted and signed by the Expos. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I lived for 12 years.
“So I think it helps the Montreal fans and Montreal itself knowing my alliance. It’s only fitting I’m going into the Hall of Fame as an Expo.’’
Raines was a seven-time All-Star who produced 2,605 hits, scored 1,571 runs and stole 808 bases, with an 84.7% success rate that’s the highest by any player with at least 400 stolen bases. Yet, his career was overshadowed by that other leadoff hitter, Rickey Henderson. Now, after waiting 10 years to be elected in his final year of eligibility, the wait is all worth it.
“I kept telling him, just be patient, the writers will get it right,’’ Dawson said, “and they did. It just took time. There’s only one Rickey. But [Raines] was the Rickey Henderson of the NL with Montreal, and he did it for a long time.
“Regardless of the process, or how long it took, the bottom line is that he’s a Hall of Famer now.
“No one will ever take that away.’’
And in Montreal, no one will ever forget.
“I was really, really upset that they lost their franchise,’’ Raines said, “and I’m hoping one day Montreal gets another baseball team. If they get a team again, I’ll do my best to be a part of it.
“I want to pay that city back for what they did for me.’’
It’s a love affair that refuses to fade in time.