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BILL DWYRE

Drug cheats in baseball spur 'what-ifs' from opposing players

Growing anger is summed up by former Angels star John Lackey, now with Boston. He says of Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, who is appealing his suspension: 'There are a lot of things I want back from him.'

Bill Dwyre

7:22 PM EDT, August 19, 2013

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The straight line from cheater to victim in baseball's drug world is muddied. It shouldn't be, so let's put the boots on and wade in.

John Lackey, the former Angels star pitcher who now toils in Boston with the Red Sox, crossed that bridge a few days ago. With defiance.

The Red Sox hate the Yankees, and vice versa. As the teams headed into a key, late-season series, Lackey told reporters the continued presence of Alex Rodriguez in a Yankees uniform, while appealing his 211-day suspension because of new allegations of drug use, did not sit well with him.

"I've got a problem with it; you bet I do," Lackey said. "It's pretty evident he's been doing stuff for a lot of years I've been facing him."

Here is the straight line: A-Rod has hit five homers off Lackey in his career.

"There are a lot of things I want back from him," Lackey said.

Then there is Kirk Gibson, who manages the Arizona Diamondbacks with the same guts and gusto with which he played for the Dodgers. Gibson recently called out Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, who is supposedly close to a public apology about his use of performance-enhancing drugs and current suspension.

"I bet he is practicing his apology in a theater somewhere," Gibson said.

Here is the straight line: In the 2011 National League division playoff series, Braun's Brewers beat Gibson's Diamondbacks in a tight matchup that ended in an extra-inning fifth game. In the series, Braun went nine for 18, with four doubles and a home run.

Let's bring this closer to home.

It is 2009, Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, Angels versus Yankees. Yankees lead the series, 1-0. New Yankee Stadium is abuzz.

The night is cold, rainy and miserable. Some players wear hoods that cover their ears and much of their face. Not Angels starter Joe Saunders. He pitches in short sleeves. The closely contested game carries on past midnight.

In the top of the 11th, Chone Figgins loops a single to left that brings home Gary Matthews Jr., who just beats the throw to the plate. It is 3-2 and the Angels are three outs from returning to warm and friendly Anaheim with a 1-1 series split.

On the mound is closer Brian Fuentes. Fuentes had 48 saves that season, 204 in a 12-year major league career that ended with his retirement Aug. 8, 2012.

Fuentes, the pride of Merced, was a lefty with a funky delivery — kind of a sidearm slingshot. It came at hitters from angles they'd never seen, and on that night, Fuentes says the funky was flying.

"I had good stuff," he says.

Hitters were going to have extra problems with him in the cold. Balls certainly didn't fly off bats. Contact stung. It felt like the kind of game where the winner would scratch one out. Broken-bat single, booted ground ball, Texas leaguer over the first baseman's head and landing on the chalk.

Then Rodriguez stepped to the plate.

In February of that year, he had called a news conference after names of alleged performance-enhancing drug users in baseball started to leak. He admitted to being one in the early 2000s, when he was with the Texas Rangers, and said the usual stuff about being under pressure and regretting it now.

"My years as a Yankee have been clean," he said.

Fuentes was, indeed, sharp. He immediately went to 0-2.

Then he made a mistake that still haunts Angels fans and management. His next pitch was up, just in the strike zone, and Rodriguez hit it into the porch in right field, barely clearing Bobby Abreu's glove. Score tied, 3-3. Fuentes would retire the next three Yankees, but the damage was done. In the 13th, the Yankees scratched out a run on a throwing error by Maicer Izturis to win.

Here is the straight line: The Angels lost the series in six games, and they haven't been even remotely close to the playoffs since.

Can you put all that on A-Rod, on one homer in 2009? No.

Can you wonder a lot? Yes.

"There are lots of what-ifs, could-bes and should-have-beens," Fuentes says now.

He is happily retired in Merced, enjoying family time he never had.

"Nineteen summers of pro baseball," he says. "I didn't even know what it was like to have a barbecue or go on a boat."

He says he hasn't thought much about the new A-Rod drug allegations.

"I just threw one bad pitch," he says.

But he says his friends were all over him about the recent A-Rod news, saying of that homer in 2009: "See, we told ya."

He also says he heard about it every time he took the mound in Angel Stadium in recent years as a member of the Oakland A's.

"Angels fans never forgot it," he says.

Fuentes is no different from many players, current and past, in his building anger over what cheaters do to the game.

"I don't dislike Rodriguez as a person," he says, "but I definitely lose respect. This stuff needs to be stopped. Penalties need to be harsher. Fifty games, at the salary of some of these guys? That's a steal."

Fuentes remembers that night in Yankee Stadium all too well.

"It was absolutely disappointing," he says. "I don't think I realized the impact it would have until later."

One more straight line, this one a delivery from Fuentes that is not the least bit funky:

"There are a lot of guys, sitting at home, not playing, because a cheater took their job."

bill.dwyre@latimes.com