- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Baseball’s steroid horror show is being played out in a San Francisco courthouse, in Congress, and in clubhouses around the majors. Reputations and records are at stake.

The integrity of the game is on the line.

And fans don’t seem to care.

At least not so much that they are staying away. Spring training attendance and preseason ticket sales are up. If the bottom line is how many bottoms are filling seats, baseball is enduring the crisis well — so far.

The doping issue that baseball tried so hard to ignore since Mark McGwire acknowledged using androstenedione, a steroid precursor, during his 70-homer season six years ago looms large over the game this season.

Now baseball is under pressure from the president, who spoke out against steroids in his State of the Union address, and from senators and representatives of both parties.

Barry Bonds’ trainer and three others face federal charges of distributing steroids to athletes. Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield were among dozens of athletes subpoenaed to testify in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative investigation. They deny using illegal steroids and there are no charges against them, but the stink can’t get much closer to the game.

As that case unfolds through the summer — with the possibility that testimony will reveal the names of players who juiced up — Bonds will be chasing the career home run records of Babe Ruth (714) and Hank Aaron (755) after having passed his godfather, Willie Mays, with his third homer of the year for No. 661.

Bonds, whose home run rate increased with age and muscle size in his mid-30s, has been besieged by steroid questions all spring. The scrutiny will get only worse as Bonds, who turns 40 in July, closes in on Ruth.

“Somebody definitely is guilty of taking steroids,” Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said. “You can’t be breaking records hitting 200 home runs in three or four seasons. The greatest hitters in the history of the game didn’t do that.

“Bonds hit 73 in 2001, and he would have hit 100 if they would have pitched to him. I mean, come on, now. There is no way you can outperform Aaron and Ruth and Mays at that level.”

Baseball has forbidden the use of THG, the recently unmasked steroid at the center of the BALCO case. Andro, whose sales soared after McGwire said he used it, is off limits now that the Food and Drug Administration has banned its sale.

Legislation pending in Congress would formally designate andro and more than two dozen other steroid-like supplements as controlled substances just like other anabolic steroids — making them available by prescription only under certain conditions.

The bill also urges tougher sentencing guidelines, so if the legislation passes and athletes take a banned steroid, “we’re going to send them to jail,” said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., a co-sponsor of the bill, which has been endorsed by the Bush administration.

Andro sales soared after McGwire said he used it, then plummeted from $55 million in 2001 to $15 million last year, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. Newer, more effective supplements pushed total sales of steroid precursors to $125 million last year — a phenomenon critics blamed in part on young people emulating pumped-up athletes.

Random drug tests without the cloak of anonymity for the first time in baseball carry greater risks for the players than the piddling penalties negotiated between the owners and the union — nothing but treatment for the first positive test and a 15-day suspension or fine of up to $10,000 for the second. The stiffest penalty is a one-year suspension or fine of up to $100,000 for a fifth positive test.

More significantly, players testing positive will be exposed as cheaters and their records will be viewed with skepticism. They also would have to be considered careless, arrogant or plain stupid to get caught by tests they knew were coming after 5 to 7 percent of last year’s tests came back positive.

Even if players had been using steroids to train through the winter and maximize their strength, steroid experts say, they had plenty of time before the first tests in training camp to flush the offending chemicals out of their system.

For that very reason, even players who do not test positive may remain under suspicion. The union’s strong stand against tougher testing and penalties wound up hurting all players and the game.

Muscular players who came to spring training lighter, such as Giambi, set off suspicions that they had once been on steroids and now are not, without proof either way.

Observers will be watching whether other players thought to be coming off steroids are more prone to injury and slower to recover from games and workouts.

“It’s kind of like people are being convicted before they’re even tested,” said Baltimore slugger and player rep Jay Gibbons, who insists his considerable muscles come purely from pumping. “Nobody knows who did what … and it’s really frustrating for a guy who works so hard, just to be accused of something.”

The frustration level is high all around baseball.

Commissioner Bud Selig, chafed about the focus on steroids, issued a drug policy gag order on management, as if that would make the problem go away. He told Congress he favored a tougher anti-doping program, similar to the one for players with minor league contracts. Union chief Donald Fehr stood up to Selig and politicians, insisting that stricter drug testing invades the privacy of players.

“The status quo is not acceptable,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Fehr. “And we will have to act in some way unless the major league players’ union acts in the affirmative and rapid fashion.”

There was a crack in Fehr’s staunch stand recently when he left open the possibility that players would agree to more stringent steroid testing before the labor agreement expires in December 2006.

“You have to be willing to look at things again as current situations change,” Fehr said.

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