IT'S EASY TO DISMISS THIS STEROID USER'S TELL-ALL BOOK, BUT THE SAD TRUTH IS THAT BASEBALL HAS A PUMPED-UP PROBLEM. PLUS: HOCKEY'S NEW CURSE

However, if that's too cryptic or polite for you, let me translate: Canseco is a giant slime ball who would say anything to milk his baseball career for one more giant paycheck. How low would he go? Well, he's the kind of guy who doesn't kiss and still tells. In his new book (which will go nameless out of respect for the written word), he insists he never slept with his pal Madonna because "I just wasn't that into her ... not really my type"--a backhanded insult he passes off as honesty.

Nobody disputes that Jose has a major credibility problem. This is a man, after all, who believes that racism and conspiracy put an end to his baseball career when absolutely everybody else knows he squandered his own prodigious talents with lackluster training and a dissolute lifestyle. None of this would concern us if Canseco hadn't stepped up to the plate and become the first ballplayer to name names--outing those with whom he claims to have shared a steroids moment or two. And they are big names too: Mark McGwire, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro and Jason Giambi. Big names guarantee big sales: the book reached No. 3 at amazon.com last week.

But just because Canseco has base motives and zero credibility doesn't mean that what he says isn't true. Former National League MVP Ken Caminiti, whose death last fall from a drug overdose lends a particular poignancy to his previous confession of steroid use, once estimated that 50 percent of all players were using at the time he won his award in 1997. Even if he was exaggerating slightly, that's a lot of ballplayers using performance-enhancing drugs. Not all of them are going to turn out to be jerks. The list of cheats is going to include sensitive guys who care about children, and players who are quintessential team guys on the field and in the locker room.

The Canseco Five, all of whom are still active except McGwire, have denied using steroids let alone shooting them in Jose's company. (Palmeiro finds himself in the particularly ironic position of denying the use of performance-enhancing substances at the same time he is a national spokesman for another performance-enhancing drug, Viagra.) McGwire's friends have been particularly vehement in his defense, insisting that the two men weren't even buddies when they were the so-called "Bash Brothers" in Oakland. I don't find that argument all that convincing, having made googly eyes at guys I couldn't stand if they were pouring quality stuff. McGwire's defenders, including his former manager Tony LaRussa, suggest that Canseco's attempt to tarnish him stems from jealousy.

No doubt. Still, denials are, of themselves, hardly convincing. Every athlete, the clean and the dirty alike, denies, denies, denies. I can't recall a single athlete who has fessed up to cheating until after he or she was caught. And even those tend to go on protesting their innocence, insisting they are victims of faulty tests, pernicious officials or far vaster conspiracies. Giambi is, of course, a prime example. In public he repeatedly denied steroid use, even after he had testified to a federal grand jury (as revealed in the San Francisco Chronicle) that he injected, swallowed and rubbed on his body various steroids and injected human growth hormone to boot. So when it comes to Giambi's latest round of denials regarding Canseco, why would we believe a word he says?

It has been easier to build a consensus of suspicion in other sports. A dramatic. mid-career improvement by a swimmer or runner is viewed by insiders as a prima facie case, if not exactly proof. But in baseball, where half of the 50-plus homer seasons in history occurred from 1995 on, we searched for and found alternative explanations galore. New ballparks were built for power, bats were lighter, balls were wound tighter, pitching was worse due to expansion, hitters pumped iron. Of course, many players arrived for spring training looking like they not only pumped iron, but had also swallowed the pump. The obvious explanation for the power surge became even more obvious last season: with the debut of even minimalist steroids testing, nobody hit 50 home runs (not to mention 60 or 70) for the first time in a decade.

Major League Baseball had hoped that the whole issue would simply go away now that--under extreme duress--it is implementing a new and defensible, if not exactly distinguished, drug-testing program. But it won't go away. It will come up when Barry Bonds resumes his chase of Hank Aaron's hallowed record for career home runs. It will come up again when Mark McGwire is eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2007. It will come up every time Roger Maris' children wonder why their dad isn't in the Hall and why baseball showed his record so little respect. And it will come up every time we fans try to assess the accomplishment of this generation's record-breaking sluggers. After all, with 462 career home runs and 200 stolen bases, Canseco, by historical standards, should be a lock for the Hall, though we know he now has less of a chance than Pete Rose or Shoeless Joe Jackson.

There is a strange inclination--even among reporters who suspect there is, at the very least, some overarching truth in his allegations--to excoriate Canseco for a breach of protocol or possibly ethics with his revelations. He has been labeled a "rat" and a "snitch" and blistered for betraying friendships, team loyalties and everything else ostensibly noble about the game. The clubhouse is treated as if it were every bit as sacred as the confessional. In the face of that, I am struck by how former Oakland A's pitching great Dave Stewart, while bashing his former teammate as a cancer in the clubhouse, made it clear that he did not necessarily regard Canseco as a liar.

The truth is that Canseco's allegations aren't all that startling. Just titillating. Far more telling was the revelation in The New York Times that the New York Yankees agreed to remove a steroids clause from Giambi's contract when the team signed him as a free agent. And the disclosure in the New York Daily News that the FBI had warned Major League Baseball about steroid use by Canseco and others a decade ago. And the revelation by LaRussa on "60 Minutes" that he knew Canseco took steroids because he boasted about it.

We can blame Canseco because he remains an unrepentant cheat, a clown who extols the virtues of illegal drugs for our children. But let's not blame him for being the messenger. As the long ball helped rescue the game from the devastation of the 1994 strike, Major League Baseball--its executives, its owners, its managers and its union--all turned a blind eye to steroids. And we the fans, we the press cheered on. We all knew--fans in Fenway Park used to chant "steroids" at Canseco and he'd just laugh--and nobody seemed to care. We chose just to see the glory. With Giambi's and Bonds' grand jury testimony and now Canseco's book, we see the ugliness and deceit. It won't be our last glimpse.

The Making of a Hockey Curse

Except in Canada and a few U.S. hockey hotbeds like Detroit and Buffalo, this week's cancellation of the National Hockey League season was greeted by sports fans with a collective yawn. That is nothing new. Fans have been yawning for years at the deteriorating quality of the NHL game. Which is why the league would have entered this season with only a shell of a TV contact, a revenue-sharing deal that cast it once and for all as a minor league.

It was a minor league in which salaries somehow--primarily as a result of profligate owners in a few cities--had climbed to an average of $1.8 million. Now the future of the NHL is uncertain. The league insists it will return next year while the players say all concessions are off the table and negotiations will have to start from scratch.

Speculation abounds that the NHL will try to break the union and resume with replacement players. And there is talk from the other side of players forming a new league. Most of it strikes me as posturing, not to mention preposterous. The only reality now is that the Stanley Cup, the oldest championship trophy in North American sports, will not be awarded this year. The only other time that happened was in 1919, the result of a flu epidemic. It was also, coincidentally, the last time the Boston Red Sox were baseball's world champions. Sounds like a new curse in the making.

IT'S EASY TO DISMISS THIS STEROID USER'S TELL-ALL BOOK, BUT THE SAD TRUTH IS THAT BASEBALL HAS A PUMPED-UP PROBLEM. PLUS: HOCKEY'S NEW CURSE | News