It’s a stunning SoCal afternoon at Dodger Stadium, and just outside the ball-field gates near parking lot G, more than a hundred jabbering kids in full Little League uniforms jump around like it’s Christmas morning. Anxious parents snap photos, some of the kids play catch, and the unseen presence of one Barry Lamar Bonds looms all about them. The poster boy for steroids is in town chasing Hank Aaron’s all-time home-run record — the same week that these Little Leaguers are here to participate in a steroid-awareness clinic, a series of batting drills, lectures, pep talks from the experts and, best of all, a meeting with Dodger center fielder Juan Pierre.
Suddenly, the stadium gate opens wide. A mad scene ensues. The kids race out onto center field like a thundering herd. In a millisecond they are freely frolicking in Pierre’s workplace — the lush, green outfield grasses of Chavez Ravine.
Loudly, they discuss the previous night’s game, when Pierre seemed to run for miles before making a diving catch of a plummeting bloop off Bonds’ bat. Over and over, the kids re-enact the catch on the exact spot where Pierre’s body made contact with this hallowed ground.
“I think of Bonds, like, he’s really good, but I don’t like his steroids,” says 11-year-old David Mora of El Monte, who plays outfield and second base. “He should try for a year to play without steroids. If he can’t, I think they should put him in jail for two years.”
The event is being put on by the Taylor Hooton Foundation for Fighting Steroid Abuse. Taylor was the son of Don Hooton, who runs the foundation and was also the cousin of former Dodger pitcher Burt Hooton. Taylor committed suicide in 2003 due to steroid-related issues. Apparently, even in Plano, Texas, steroids are readily available.
“There was a 19-year-old who made a regular run to Mexico and came back to sell it. Taylor met his dealer at the local YMCA,” explains Don Hooton.
The Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004 placed steroids on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Schedule III list, hence today’s presence of federal heat.
“I normally don’t wear my gun when I speak to kids, but I’m gonna put it on,” explains Special Agent Lance C. Williams of the DEA, a ringer for Denzel Washington. “If you get involved with steroids or any illegal drugs, I’m a federal agent — a special agent, DEA — and our job is to investigate and arrest people who sell drugs.”
Why is the government so concerned about steroids?
“Because it is impacting the youth, this is something now that DEA is actively investigating,” he lectures. “That’s what the hot ticket is now.”
On this day, however, the kids don’t seem interested in guns, drugs or badges.
But I always am.
Are steroids the new reefer, the new acid, the new speed, the new crack, the new China white, the new ______?
“Yes. Although sentencing guidelines are catching up to heroin, they’re not there yet,” offers a wishful Williams.
Helping Pierre today are batting coach Bill Mueller, retired Dodger “Sweet” Lou Johnson and some very nervous Dodger PR people who maintain the timing of the clinic with Bonds’ arrival was mere coincidence.
The kids freak out as Juan Pierre finally appears in full Dodger blue.
“Y’all in my territory here, so don’t be spittin’ no sunflower seeds — I may trip over them tonight,” deadpans the diminutive Pierre.
Asked if Bonds is on steroids, Pierre sticks to the unofficial Dodgers talking points: “I don’t know. I’m staying away from that one.”
After running a hitting clinic, the spry 75-year-old Johnson embraces Pierre like a long-lost son.
They have much in common.
Both are black sons of the South. Pierre from Alabama and Johnson from Kentucky. As Jackie Robinson had pried the door open for Johnson, Sweet Lou held it wide for Pierre.
Signed to a minor league contract by the Yankees in 1953, Johnson had no chance to make a parent club that hadn’t even broken its own color barrier. (Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947.) In fact, in 1955, when the Yankees finally did integrate with the slow-footed Elston Howard, their manager, Casey Stengel, shouted to a press-filled clubhouse, “They finally get me a nigger and they get me one who can’t run.”
Those words say more about baseball tradition than Bonds’ possibly steroid-fueled homers ever could. See, both Pierre and Johnson have something that the Gods of Baseball appear to have decided Bonds will never receive: a World Series championship ring. Pierre won his in 2003 with the Florida Marlins, and Johnson got his right here with the Dodgers in 1965. The kids flocking around the two seem to understand.