The Tampa Bay Rays are on a historic run. Pennant races are heating up. Baseball is humming at the peak of summer.
But as the Major League season ramps up, accusations emerging from a Miami clinic are threatening to overwhelm other story lines.
Milwaukee Brewers All-Star Ryan Braun was suspended this month in connection with an MLB investigation into performance-enhancing drugs from the clinic. More suspensions seem inevitable with up to 15 players, including New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, allegedly tied to the Miami facility.
Baseball is mythologized as a simple game reflecting America's core values, but the fact is the game has been roiled by scandals dating at least to 1919. Now the bogeyman is performance-enhancing drugs. It's a public relations nightmare for league officials and another betrayal for diehard fans.
"It makes me sick, not for myself so much, but for the kids who need heroes," said 84-year-old baseball fan Charles Gallic of St. Petersburg. "You know, there's no heroes in the world today."
The "steroid era'' of baseball has tainted the public perception of the sport, said Travis Phelps, 36, a baseball coach at St. Petersburg High School.
"Its reputation now is that of cheaters, and by no means is it everybody, but a few people have really tarnished the game for everyone," said Phelps, a former professional pitcher who played with Braun in 2006.
Players who cheat could hurt fellow athletes struggling to make the majors legitimately, said Ty Griffin, a baseball coach at Tampa Catholic High School and former Olympic player.
"What about those guys playing Ryan Braun's position in the minor leagues and haven't had a chance (to get promoted) because he has been putting up numbers?" Griffin asked.
The saga has dragged on for years, often with stars refusing to admit their ties to performance-enhancing drugs, even in the face of ample evidence.
"They deny and they ruin other people's lives and then you find they're guilty all along," said Stuart Mellish, 55, a fan from St. Petersburg. "That's a betrayal of trust."
Rays starting pitcher David Price said the Braun suspension is a "step in the right direction," and he wants to see a level playing field.
"Obviously we all hope that nobody's cheating, but those who are cheating — I don't think there's a single guy in here who wouldn't want to see them get caught," said Rays outfielder Sam Fuld. "It's one player, but you do feel like you are being cheated.''
The Rays have largely avoided the imbroglio, and Mellish, a former season ticket holder, said he does not believe any players on the team are using performance-enhancing drugs.
"No one's hitting 40 or 50 home runs for the Rays," he said.
The outcry against Braun might be good for the sport, he said.
"Maybe we've hit, as a society including the players, we've hit sort of a critical point where we're just tired of it," Mellish said.
At the least, says Osceola High School baseball coach Stefan Futch, this is a warning to young athletes.
"You've got to keep your nose clean," said Futch, 42. "You've got to work hard. You've got to do things the right way."
Gallic, the octogenarian baseball fan, said it's that old-school ethic and style of play that attracts him to the Rays.
He said the team employs a traditional approach to the grand old game, valuing skill over power.
But America's pastime has lost its innocence, he said, and no one is entirely free from the gloom that drugs have injected.
"It's all dollars and cents, the whole thing is," Gallic said. "It's poisoned the whole sport. It's poisoned every sport."
Times staff writers Marc Topkin and Joey Knight contributed to this report. Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8804. Follow him on Twitter @zacksampson.