Baseball: Big hitters face steroids clampdown after abuse survey

For the first time in its history Major League Baseball will next year impose fines and suspensions on players who use steroids, after a "survey" testing programme for the 2003 season came up with five to seven per cent positive results.

For the first time in its history Major League Baseball will next year impose fines and suspensions on players who use steroids, after a "survey" testing programme for the 2003 season came up with five to seven per cent positive results.

No individual players have been named, and the future penalties are modest by the standards of other sports. A first-time offender will merely have to undergo treatment. Even a player caught four times will face only a 50-day suspension without pay.

But the report confirms what has been widely alleged - not least by several former players - that drug use is widespread in the sport. In fact, the five to seven per cent finding is almost certainly an understatement.

Players knew testing would take place last year, and could have bulked up on steroids in the previous off-season when no checks were made. And given that pitchers have no need for steroids, the "survey" suggests that 10 per cent or more of hitters have been caught using them.

Drug use is widely suspected as a reason for baseball's unprecedented offensive explosion since the early 1990s. Indeed, the two most famous sluggers of the day - Barry Bonds, who hit a record 73 homers in 2001, and Sammy Sosa, the only player in history with three 60-plus homer seasons - have been forced to deny they used steroids.

Bonds, who plays for the San Francisco Giants, is a client of Balco, the Bay-area nutritional supplements company being investigated as the possible source of the previously unknown "designer steroid" tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, whose existence came to light after a tip-off earlier this year.

Both he and another Balco client Jason Giambi - formerly of the Oakland Athletics and now a top slugger for the New York Yankees - are among sports celebrities who have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the company. Bonds and Giambi are not accused of any wrongdoing.

The British sprinter Dwain Chambers and four top American athletes have recently tested positive for THG, which was not among the substances tested in baseball. Four Oakland Raiders players in the NFL have also tested positive for THG, it was disclosed at the weekend.

Bug Selig, the MLB Commissioner, promised to enforce the new system aggressively. "Hopefully, this will enable us to completely eradicate the use of performance-enhancing substances from baseball." But the implications are especially serious for the sport, which prides itself on the purity of the statistics of a game which has changed little over the decades. And some anti-drug campaigners are scornful of the effectiveness of the new penalties.

"You need penalties so severe that the athletes won't do it," Gary Wadler of the World Anti-Doping Agency said. "You get a two-year suspension in the Olympics on a first offence, and a lifetime ban on the second. Apply those standards to baseball and see what happens. This system is like Swiss cheese. It's more an IQ test than a drug test."

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