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Baseball’s ugly past gets its grubby hands on Jake Arrieta

The Cubs' Jake Arrieta is sprayed with beer and champagne after pitching a complete-game, 4-0 victory over the Pirates last season to win the National League wild-card game. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Stephen A. Smith is a gasbag. Even his biggest supporters would have to admit that when the ESPN “First Take’’ yapper talks, they worry about windburn, if not wind shear.

So when Smith said Wednesday that Jake Arrieta’s astounding success over the past 12 months seemed peculiar, the response by the Cubs to the performance-enhancing-drugs innuendo was quick and angry. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein called Smith’s on-air comments “reckless.’’ And they were reckless journalistically, though any variant of the word “journalism’’ doesn’t deserve to be within 100 miles of “First Take.’’

Social media seems to have given everyone the impression that it’s OK to say anything at anytime in any forum, including television. It’s not. But it’s worth noting that Smith’s comments didn’t come out of a windy vacuum. There’s history involved.

The anger directed at Smith is appropriate, but if your blood is boiling, save your rage for baseball. Save your indignation for Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and the rest of the cheaters.

Any doubts that accompany Arrieta’s 21-1 record and two no-hitters over his past 25 regular-season starts are the effects of the original sin of the Steroid Era. Blame the past for casting doubt on the present.

It’s also worth noting that Arrieta said last week that opponents are raising eyebrows at his results. It’s not just a bloviating TV host asking questions about someone who goes from a middling pitcher in Baltimore to a Cy Young winner in Chicago. Nor is it just pesky reporters asking questions.

“It’s somewhat flattering, especially when some of those comments are coming from some of the best players in the game,” Arrieta said.

He said he finds the insinuations funny, but Epstein can’t locate his sense of humor on the topic. He said he sees how hard Arrieta works when he’s not on the mound. The problem with that line of defense is that it doesn’t prove a thing. Sammy Sosa used to challenge anyone who asked questions about his muscle-mass increase and soaring home-run production to spend a day with him to see how strenuously he worked out. To see improvements while on performance-enhancing drugs, you still have to train hard. Steroids don’t make you bigger and stronger upon ingestion. And we know what road Sosa took to all those homers.

That’s the problem with baseball. A sport that has always clung to the past can’t get rid of this dirty chapter. It’s a superbug that won’t die.

It stinks that there are questions. We’re witnessing greatness with Arrieta. But the questions about his Popeye physique were there before they were asked of him last week. I would guess that most Cubs fans have heard them brought up at least once in conversation over the past year. Maybe some have even asked the questions quietly to themselves. PEDs have become the default response to anyone who has had remarkable success after years of mediocrity.

Epstein took Smith to task last week.

“I found it to be completely reckless,’’ he said on ESPN 1000’s “Kap & Co. Show.’’ “(It’s terrible that) someone who has never met Jake, as far as I know has never been in our clubhouse – I don’t know if he’s ever watched him pitch – would make that type of accusation without talking to anyone who knows Jake and anyone who understands his work ethic and the changes that he’s made.

“This is not someone who used to throw 88 miles an hour and is now throwing 95. Jake’s stuff is essentially exactly the same as it was when he was in Baltimore and struggling. He’s just tweaked his delivery, added a lot of deception, added a lot of life because of the delivery changes and now he can command the baseball.’’

Surely Epstein understands that when the questions come up, it’s scar tissue talking. The Steroid Era burned everyone. You don’t forget that overnight.

When does the past run out of steam?  I don’t know.

The Cubs are understandably frustrated. Some fans want to know what happened to due process. There’s no due process in the court of public opinion, never has been.

Arrieta got his chance to respond. He handled the questions well — not with anger but with composure. He’s extremely analytical, and you can tell he at least understands why there might be doubts.

So we move on, at least until the next accusation, which surely will come because they always do. You can thank baseball’s ugly past for that.