There is a certain spirit around the start of MLB spring training. The familiar sounds of a ball popping into a new catcher's mitt, the snap of fresh chewing gum, the faint buzz of a mower clipping the outfield grass...and the screech of a microphone being hastily set up in a makeshift media tent to address the latest performance enhancing drug report.
The spirit of the game has evolved over time, but is still here to remind us that baseball has returned for another year, warts included.
For many sports fans, the day pitchers and catchers to report to MLB camps in Florida and Arizona signifies the unofficial start of spring. It's like seeing the first budding flower of the year, knowing we're six weeks away from the first passing glance at an actual petal.
Still, there's excitement when everything is clean and new, when the Kansas City Royals have a better chance of making the playoffs than the New York Yankees. It's an exciting day for everyone in baseball.
And still, there are those warts.
The rumors, accusations and scandals have become every bit as commonplace as the glove popping, gum snapping and lawn mowing. All around the league, the questions linger from another offseason highlighted by PED news.
With spring training beginning, the media crave the first few days of player availability—a payoff for beat writers and columnists who will spend the next month watching stretching, fundamental drills and exhibition games rife with minor leaguers while the stars relax in the sun.
One of the biggest questions this particular spring is when Alex Rodriguez will talk about the latest PED allegations that had his name strewn across every American website and print publication for weeks. The embattled slugger won't play until halfway through the season, if at all this year after hip surgery.
It was recently reported that Rodriguez won't even show up to spring training, waiting to report when the team heads back up north in late March. But while A-Rod may be able to avoid the initial spring training media horde, it will come for him eventually.
For others, like Ryan Braun of the Brewers, Nelson Cruz of the Rangers and Gio Gonzalez of the Nationals, the question and answer sessions have already begun.
Then there are the guys who have actually been caught. While the Toronto Blue Jays will have more attention than ever before with their major offseason additions, much of that attention will be focused on Melky Cabrera, whose name accompanied some of the aforementioned stars in the records of Miami-based "specialist" Tony Bosch.
Of course, Cabrera has already been caught, so his inclusion in the Miami New Times report last month came as less of a surprise than some of the other names. Still, the "Melk Man" will certainly garner some attention.
But it won't just be the investigation in Miami that has PED users making headlines this spring.
In late November, Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz was suspended 25 games for using Adderall without a prescription. Ruiz developed into a star for Philadelphia last season and will be needed if the Phillies have any chance of getting back to the playoffs in 2013.
Not only will "Chooch" have to answer for why he cheated—or at least how in the world he was careless enough to get caught—fans in Philadelphia are most concerned with how the All-Star backstop will perform without the aid of his focus pills that clearly gave him an edge in 2012.
That, after all, is the giant elephant in the clubhouse—or makeshift tent if the player is high profile enough to warrant that kind of set-up.
Fans don't really care if the players are dirty, especially not if one of those players is on our favorite team. Baseball loyalists are savvy enough to realize that most players are on something, and those who have not been caught are likely just using better stuff over no stuff at all.
That isn't to say there are no clean players—odds alone suggest there must be—but the definition of "clean" has changed so much over the last two generations it's hard to even know what's clean and what isn't.
Players who use greenies aren't clean anymore, but that kind of boost was used for generations. Adderall is used for people with attention deficit issues, but has become so widely abused in baseball that it's classification changed this offseason to be considered a performance enhancer.
What might be next? Cortisone has long been considered a career-saving steroid injection, but will abuse of that product lead to it being banned too? Even performance enhancers that are considered clean by MLB aren't by some of its teams.
In some ways, this offseason has been more about the Steroid Era than any to come before it. The Hall of Fame voters are the last gatekeepers to immortality, and the decision to elect no one to Cooperstown put PEDs—and those purported to have used them—back above the fold of the game's current headlines.
Still, the game blooms once again. With the Hall of Fame fight for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and a host of known or rumored cheaters preceding one of the bigger current PED scandals in recent memory, baseball's dark side seems to have done little to derail the excitement of fans waiting to start the season anew.
Again, the Royals might be better than the Yankees, so who cares about anything else right now?
Pitchers and catchers reporting is still, despite all the sideshows, the beginning of a new hope for 30 baseball communities. With the start of the season comes more failed tests, suspensions and investigations that will uncover the network of drug use that permeates the very fiber of the game.
Everything about baseball—good and bad—is back, first with pitchers and catchers and again in a few days when the rest of the players officially report. The press conferences, the investigations, the test after test after test—they have all become as much a part of the game as the bats and balls.
Baseball is our national pastime, and for generations—good and bad—the game has paralleled society. We too are flawed and imperfect. As much as society embraces its own faults, it does so with the return of baseball.
Welcome back, pitchers, catchers, managers, sluggers, mascots, bat boys, ball girls, peanut vendors and, yes, drug suppliers. Welcome back, baseball, warts and all.
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