- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Subpoenas have been served. Cheaters have been shamed. Testing never has been tougher, and to hear the sport tell it, every cup of glow-in-the-dark urine proves the program works.

So is anyone ready to declare an end to the Steroid Era in track and field?

Silence.

Mr. Conte?

Crickets chirping.

Ms. White?

Rolling tumbleweed.

Bueller?

Sound of one hand clapping.

OK, trick question. Nobody with an IQ over a school zone speed limit — or even Jose Canseco — would argue performance-enhancing drugs in track are a thing of the past. The money is too big, the temptation too great, the biotechnology too sophisticated. Ever heard of gene doping? You will. Track’s steroid era isn’t coming to a close; it’s just getting started.

And major league baseball is no different.

Of course, that isn’t the buzz at spring training, where green grass and fresh dew conspire to addle the brain. Though the game’s Grand ‘Roid Inquisition continues to lurch along — Jason Giambi’s magical mystery apology at one end of the spectrum, Barry Bonds’ angry “Sanford and Son” soliloquy at the other — the whole sordid affair is viewed through a rose-tinted rearview mirror.

Terrible time. Can’t believe it happened. Glad that’s over. Phew. Steroids are like last night’s bad blind date: nothing a little morning latte can’t fix.

Now that baseball has a freshly brewed drug program in place — testing begins Thursday — “Sports Illustrated” trumpets the dawn of a “new day.” Bud Selig states “we had a problem, and we dealt with the problem.” One optimistic scribe even put an expiration date on the Steroid Era: January 2007.

Then there’s Bonds, who last week compared the drugs-in-baseball issue to a looping, decades-old sitcom — never mind that the latter makes money for Nick at Nite, while the former enlarges hat size to Cro-Magnon proportions.

“I think we need to go forward, move forward, let it go,” Bonds said. “Y’all stop watching Redd Foxx in rerun shows and let’s go ahead and let the program work and allow us to do our job.”

Sounds good. Given the choice, who wouldn’t take blue skies and the crack of the bat over “flaxseed oil” and weeping backne? Yet as Bonds and Canseco are quick to point out when chiding the press, there’s a difference between reality and perception, between things as they are and things as people would like them to be. And when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, the truth is as plain as a puffed-up pair of biceps.

Anybody who proclaims an end to the Steroid Era is either lying or a fool. Possibly both.

Start with the sport’s new get-tough policies. On one hand, they’re more credible than what came before (read: zilch), same as Canseco is more credible than, say, the Tooth Fairy. This is a plus.

On the other hand, a federal tax lobbyist could ram an entire K Street law firm through the program’s loopholes.

Selig and Atlanta pitcher Tim Hudson believe major leaguers have too much pride to risk the embarrassment of getting caught using steroids; as such, testing and punishment will keep the game clean. However, deterrence only works if juicers think they will get busted. And that’s a mighty big “if.”

Under the new system, players are subject to one mandatory steroid test a year, with the possibility of additional random tests. Not exactly stringent. Human growth hormone, touted in Canseco’s tell-all book, is banned but not tested for. Amphetamines and other stimulants — long a part of baseball, verboten everywhere else — remain perfectly kosher.

The message? Find undetectable drugs. Take lower doses. Keep on poppin’ greenies. Chances are, they will be OK.

“I said six years ago when the Mark McGwire [androstenedione] scandal broke, one thing you could do is have all these sports federations pool $100 million each and give it to chemists around the world, give them five years and see what research does to close loopholes,” said Dr. Charles Yesalis, a Penn State University epidemiologist and an expert on drugs in sports. “Frankly, I wouldn’t bet my house on it. With every loophole that closes up, one opens.”

Likewise, punishment leaves much to be desired. First-time offenders receive 10-day suspensions; second-time offenders, 30 days. Strike four results in a yearlong ban — presumably, enough time to find a better masking agent — while a fifth offense may be dealt with in a manner of the commissioner’s choosing.

Dunk tank? Ballpark litter pickup? Sit in the dugout corner wearing a giant syringe-shaped hat? Negotiate a deal with Linda Cropp? Perhaps Selig can get creative.

“The penalties are not strong enough,” Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson said last week. “First offense, 10 days? Five times? You’d have to be awful stupid to get caught five times.”

Speaking of dumb: Two years ago, around 70 big leaguers reportedly flunked anonymous steroid tests that were advertised in advance. D’oh! So maybe the system will work. Don’t bet on it. Drug policing in track and field is harsher, better funded and infinitely more invasive. Still, it doesn’t take a bearded female shot-putter to see that the sport of Ben Johnson and Kelli White is swimming in chemicals.

Again, what makes baseball so different? Pinstripes and a gushingly romantic literary canon? Please.

Prohibition didn’t end drinking. Sending urine cops to knock on Maurice Greene’s door at 6 a.m. didn’t prevent BALCO. Baseball’s war on drugs is a lot like the war on drugs as a whole — an eternal, unwinnable holding action, less a battle against specific behavior than general human nature.

Where there’s a will to cheat, there forever will be a way. Especially when $100 million contracts are involved.

“I had a big-time football coach tell me one time, ‘Well, steroid use is much like bridge painting,’ ” Yesalis said. “How can you get 800 feet in the air and paint? Well, it’s my job. The numerous elite athletes I’ve interacted with that have used drugs, about 1,000, they view those drugs as tools of their trade. The way you and I use computers.”

Selig and company should keep that in mind. Ultimately, the biggest problem with baseball’s new steroid policy isn’t that cheaters will slip through the cracks — it’s that everyone else will revert to pretending otherwise. Such is the sport’s tendency toward sunny self-delusion, the springtime mind-set that helped create this mess in the first place.


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