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'Roids no longer all the rage in baseball

That old saying about "sunshine being the best disinfectant" is receiving more validity these days. This time it's coming from a surprising source.

The newest proof is in the fact that the home run totals for the first half of the major league baseball season are down. Way down. Dingers are even giving way to two-run doubles and great defensive plays on ESPN's "SportsCenter."

Barry Bonds, who will turn 43 Tuesday, had been hitting as if he were 73 until his recent breakout. As he visits foreign parks in his pursuit of Hank Aaron's home run record it's evident Bonds could be the most unpopular man in American sports except for Michael Vick. Dog lovers don't bear as much distaste for Bonds.

You could trace this all to baseball at last coming to grips with its steroid scandal. Commissioner Bud Selig and his minions are no longer pretending that it doesn't exist. Donald Fehr, the head of the players' union who has been the juiced-up sluggers' best pal, is no longer completely stonewalling.

Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who appeared before a congressional committee investigating the use of performance-enhancing drugs 2 1/2 years ago, have been unmasked as disgracing themselves. Recently Jason Giambi, the Yankees' vanishing first baseman, finally met with former Sen. George Mitchell, presumably to bare all about his steroid past. Last Tuesday, Mitchell said his report would be made public soon and it would name names.

Mitchell negotiated peace between the warring factions in Ireland. The Irish might have been tougher to mend, but baseball has been tougher to bring to the table.

The evidence has been there for a long time in baseball. In the eight seasons from 1981 through '89, American League home run kings averaged 41 per season. In the period of 1995 through 2002, when the aroma of scandal was strongest, the average for homer champions was 52, 11 per season higher. In the National League over the same period, the evidence was even stronger. From '81 through '89, the champions averaged just over 40 home runs. From '95 through 2002, when McGwire, Sosa and Bonds were trying not to glow in the dark, the average winning homer count was over 54.

In 1998 McGwire hit 70, in '99 he hit 65. In 2001 Bonds broke McGwire's record with 73 homers. Sosa, a modestly successful slugger for most of his career, hit 50 and 49, respectively, to win the crowns in 2000 and 2002.

Only the more naive fans weren't snickering.

Meanwhile, the scandals have been, little by little, going public. The jocks, as well as the kid athletes who imitate them, were finally getting the idea that taking steroids wasn't the same thing as Popeye the Sailor Man gulping down a can of spinach. Horror stories such as the roid rage that reportedly led pro wrestler Chris Benoit to kill his wife, smother his 7-year-old son and then hang himself, brought reality home with explosive power.
It turns out that watching wonderful plays by new era infielders such as Jose Reyes and David Wright of the Mets, Chase Utley of the Phillies and Brandon Inge of the Tigers as well as new-age center fielders such as Grady Sizemore of the Indians, Curtis Granderson of the Tigers and Aaron Rowand of Philadelphia is a lot more satisfying than witnessing endless homers on "SportsCenter."

We've watched Aaron Hill of the Blue Jays stealing home against the Yankees and Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki hitting an inside-the-park homer in the All-Star Game, feats that seemed to have gone out of fashion. Not that home runs are completely passe. Without Alex Rodriguez's phenomenal summer, the Yanks would have been eliminated by now.

The good news is that sunshine is helping to make baseball better than ever.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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