His aides wanted to delete it from his speech, and President George W. Bush was mocked by ESPN and Meryl Streep for it afterward. But when he used his 2004 State of the Union address to raise the issue of steroids in baseball, it boosted the issue to the top levels of politics.
Nine years later, analysts say Major League Baseball may never have reached the point this week where it issued the biggest suspensions in 90 years had official Washington not turned the spotlight on performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
Soon after Mr. Bush’s remarks, a House committee opened a public set of hearings that would, over the course of four years, call some of baseball’s biggest stars to testify — with some refusing to testify and others vehemently denying steroid use.
Months after his 2005 appearance, one of those players, Rafael Palmeiro, would be suspended under baseball’s doping policy — the first in a line of suspensions culminating this week with MLB’s announcement that Yankees star Alex Rodriguez and 12 others would be forced off the field.
“Those hearings basically changed the game,” said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who was chairman for the 2005 hearings and ranking Republican for a second round in 2008. “Without them, it’s hard to see how you were going to get any changes.”
State of the Union
Mr. Bush took a risk when he raised the issue in his 2004 State of the Union address — a speech usually dedicated to weighty issues and legislative priorities. In 2002, he used the speech to coin the phrase “Axis of Evil” to refer to Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and in 2003 claimed that Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain yellowcake uranium for nuclear weapons.
But even as he updated the country on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2004, the president issued a call for baseball to act on PEDs.
“The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football and other sports is dangerous,” the president said. “So tonight I call on team owners, union representatives, coaches and players to take the lead, to send the right signal, to get tough and to get rid of steroids now.”
While applauded by the lawmakers with whom he spoke, Mr. Bush faced derision outside the Capitol. Miss Streep mocked the president during the Golden Globe Awards presentation, saying it was not an important issue, while ESPN’s Page 2 feature joked that Mr. Bush had “added steroids to the Axis of Evil.”
The president’s aides suspected they would take flak for including the lines.
“I was very skeptical (along with others) about including the steroids section. I thought it would cause some confused head shaking — and it did,” Michael Gerson, who was Mr. Bush’s chief speechwriter, said in an email to The Washington Times. “But President Bush insisted — it was only included because he wanted it included.
“And now he looks pretty good,” Mr. Gerson added.
Mr. Bush, who was co-owner of the Texas Rangers before ascending to the governorship, would have baseball games on TV for late-night flights on Air Force One. Mr. Gerson also said that when he would have lunch with Mr. Bush in the private dining room off the Oval Office, the president sometimes checked box scores.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Mr. Bush joked that one of his worst decisions was approving the trade that sent Sammy Sosa from the Rangers to the Chicago Cubs. Mr. Sosa went on to become a beloved 60-home-run slugger and was one of the witnesses who denied PED use at the 2005 hearing, but he would later be linked to a positive steroids test from 2003.
Sports Illustrated would say later that Mr. Bush’s speech “set the societal agenda.”
Others say the Bush speech set a tenor that the rest of the federal bureaucracy would abide by when it went after stars such as Barry Bonds, but argue that it was congressional investigations and the Justice Department’s prosecutions that forces baseball’s hand.
Mr. Davis, the former congressman who headed the hearings, said having Congress get involved put pressure on baseball to act and gave the owners and league officials the cover they needed to push the labor unions into making a deal. He said it was clear to baseball that if MLB didn’t take steps, Congress would intervene.
“When we brought it up originally, we were fought tooth-and-nail by the baseball establishment — owners, presidents, unions, everybody,” Mr. Davis said. “After the hearings [Commissioner Bud] Selig called up and said thanks a lot. He said this was tough for us, but we got through it. We all wanted it cleaned up.”
Outside of Congress, the administration was ramping up its own investigative machine.
Internal Revenue Service Special Agent Jeff Novitzky began an investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) and Barry Bonds, who holds the two most important home-run records (homers in a season and in a career) but has been accused earning them while on PEDs.
Bonds would be convicted of obstruction of justice in 2011 stemming from accusations that he lied to investigators when he denied using PEDs.
The Justice Department also pursued Roger Clemens, one of baseball’s most decorated pitchers, on charges of lying to Congress after his 2008 testimony to Mr. Davis’ committee. That snakebit prosecution ended with Clemens’ acquittal.
Matt Welch, editor in chief of Reason magazine, who has written on baseball and the government, said the government made a point of going after high-profile end-user players — an important strategic decision.
“That really showed this was about making examples. That was explicit in George W. Bush’s State of the Union address. This was all about making examples,” he said.
He said he is conflicted by the efforts. As a baseball fan, he said, he can think of other reasons the records ballooned when they did, including smaller ballparks and league expansion, which traditionally is thought to benefit offense by watering down pitching talent.
Still, he said, if the league decides it wants to clean up, he is fine with that.
Professor John Nauright, co-director of the Center for the Study of Sport and Leisure in Society at George Mason University, said governments around the globe have pushed the steroid issue, from Canada’s investigation after its sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, to the French government investigating cycling after the 1998 Tour de France.
American officials were somewhat late to act, even as ballplayers’ physiques ballooned and hitting records fell.
Mr. Nauright said there is a good chance the leagues eventually would have cleaned up on their own, thanks to pressure from fans who want to know that the game and its records are legitimate.
For now, he said, Congress is likely to take a wait-and-see approach.
“I think if Congress perceives that the leagues are taking action, I think they will back off. The pressure point will be to continue to say we’re watching you and if we feel you’ve gone off the rails we’ll come after you,” he said.