DENVER — Chase Headley blasted 31 home runs, led the National League in RBIs and ranked fifth in MVP voting.
Look at all of that good stuff to talk about. Yet here was Headley, at his locker in the Padres spring training facility, being asked by a nosey reporter about the worst stuff: performance-enhancing drugs.
"Actually, I don’t think we can be offended by that question," Headley told me when I inquired about the whispers that follow a breakout season in Major League Baseball.
We should expect this type of mature answer from the former valedictorian at Fountain-Fort Carson High School.
And we should expect this line of questioning after another clouded MLB season three weeks away.
Headley does. Instead of smacking me with a pair of Nike cleats for asking him about PEDs, the Colorado native smacked his millionaire colleagues with a dose of reality.
“Unfortunately, there are some guys that have put us in that situation,” Headley said. “I don’t want to say that’s the right thought process (to be skeptical). But it’s the prevalent thought process because it happens so much.”
In modern-day baseball, that is where we are: An obviously gifted player blows up with a breakout year and our instinct is to speculate on whether he juiced his way to the top.
We see a 29-year-old whose power numbers soared from the previous year (four home runs in 2011; 31 in 2012). We see a transformation from slapping singles to the opposite field to blasting in 115 RBIs (almost double his previous career high of 64 in 2009).
Decades of cheating in baseball programmed our natural response: There must be something unnatural at work.
Headley acknowledged he is the perfect target for this type of skepticism. He doesn’t like it, but he gets it. The maturity in his answer knocked me over like a fastball high and inside.
“I would much rather somebody like you ask me about it,” said Headley, whose family has moved from Colorado Springs to Nashville, Tenn. "Then I can say what I have to say. Personally, I know what I’ve done and I know what I do. I know it’s nothing different than what I’ve done the rest of my life and the rest of my career.”
I would rather not be skeptical when a talent like Headley finds an All-Star groove in the batter’s box. I would rather soak it in like a kid watching Ken Griffey Jr. for the first time.
Headley told me his leap had nothing to do with PEDs. It came from a mechanical adjustment and a focus on creating more power, under the watchful eye of Padres hitting coach Phil Plantier.
“It’s not like it magically appeared,” said Headley, who twice slugged over .550 in the Padres farm system. “I put together a season like that in the minor leagues a few times.”
But we have to be skeptical, as Headley said, and we must continue to be.
This offseason featured more bad stuff than good stuff: an empty Hall of Fame class and a new line of All-Stars, MVPs and Cy Young winners allegedly linked to PED usage.
That put us where we are — left to wonder if a breakout year is a product of breaking the rules.
“If you asked me three years ago, I would’ve said we don’t have a (PED) problem. I really didn’t think that we did,” Headley said. “I didn’t see it. I don’t know if that was a blindness on my part or what. You just don’t know, now that these things are coming out.
“Don’t get me wrong. We have a really strong drug program that’s working. And that’s a double-edged sword — you want guys that cheat to get caught, but you don’t want to see anyone doing it.”
After talking at length with Headley in front of his strangely clean locker, I sense he leans toward the former. When a rival "gets caught," Headley is more anger than anxious.
“These are the guys I’m competing against, not only to win a championship but to make a living,” Headley said. “That’s the bottom line of what we do. This is a career for us. We are supporting our families through this career. You want it to be an even playing field. You want the guys that are cheating to get caught.”
The whole thing is unfortunate, like we can’t fully enjoy the rise of a baseball star. This is hooking a trophy trout and wondering if we are actually the sucker on the end of the line.
"Unfortunately, it’s a fair question that I would rather people ask me than speculate about,” Headley said.
Fortunately, one of baseball’s top sluggers understands why that question is first on our mind.
Paul Klee is the Denver sports columnist for The Gazette. He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Twitter (@Klee_Gazette).
Fountain’s Chase Headley hopes his career year in 2012 rolls into the 2013 season. Here’s when you can catch the Padres star vs. the Rockies:
April 5-7 — Padres at Rockies
April 12-14 — Rockies at Padres
June 6-8 — Padres at Rockies
July 8-10 — Rockies at Padres
Aug. 12-14 — Padres at Rockies
Sept. 6-8 — Rockies at Padres