Baseball: Drugs cloud hangs over the Boys of Summer

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The Independent Online

Normally, March is baseball's happiest month. After the long winter lay-up, major league teams are stretching their muscles in the warm sunshine of Florida and Arizona, preparing for the season ahead. Middle-aged fans play hookey from work to attend exhibition games and start behaving like star-struck kids. The most modest club can dream of the World Series, while ordinary minor leaguers are given try-outs, and for a fleeting moment imagine that this year, finally, the big time beckons.

Normally, March is baseball's happiest month. After the long winter lay-up, major league teams are stretching their muscles in the warm sunshine of Florida and Arizona, preparing for the season ahead. Middle-aged fans play hookey from work to attend exhibition games and start behaving like star-struck kids. The most modest club can dream of the World Series, while ordinary minor leaguers are given try-outs, and for a fleeting moment imagine that this year, finally, the big time beckons.

But spring training in this poisoned March of 2004 is different. Baseball may be facing its biggest scandal since the Black Sox and the thrown World Series of 1919. From Phoenix to Fort Lauderdale, a miasma hangs over every training camp, and an invisible question mark hovers over every bulked-up hitter who takes a practice swing. Does he or doesn't he? Is that home run for real - or is it a steroid-fuelled fraud?

For a decade now, as home-run records have tumbled and previously modest hitters have produced seasons that would have made Babe Ruth proud, there have been rumours of widespread drug use in baseball. But suspicion turned into full-blown crisis with the discovery of the previously undetectable "designer steroid" tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, whose distribution was traced to the San Francisco nutritional supplements company Balco.

Last month four people were charged with tax evasion and money laundering in connection with the distribution of illegal steroids. One of them was Balco's founder, Victor Conti. Another was the personal trainer of Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants - who just happens to be the biggest star in baseball, and the holder of the most revered record in the sport.

The uproar was instant. Already, in his election-year State of the Union address, President Bush (who, of course, once owned a baseball team) had departed from his usual script of terrorism and the economy to urge the country's professional athletes to clean chemicals out of their act. Now Mr Bush is pressing for a "steroid summit" with representatives of the four US major league sports and the US Olympic Committee.

At a packed Senate hearing last week, baseball's commissioner, Bud Selig, and Don Fehr, the head of the powerful players' union, were bluntly informed that America's national pastime was becoming "a fraud in the eyes of the American people".

So far, nothing is proven. Bonds, who in 2001 shattered the single-season home run record once held by Ruth, was summoned to testify before the Balco grand jury, as were Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, two superstar sluggers of the New York Yankees. Earlier this month the San Francisco Chronicle reported that federal investigators have been told that the three were supplied with steroids.

All of them deny the charge. But the damage has been done. More boos than cheers greeted Bonds as he made his first exhibition game appearance in Mesa, Arizona, this month. One fan unfurled a caustic banner: "Everyone knows that steroids produce numbers." Owners and union warily circle each other, the players are divided among themselves.

Baseball's giants of yesteryear, who plied their trade when THG was not even a gleam in a mad scientist's eye, are outraged by the notion that the sport's most hallowed statistics might have been polluted by cheats. As the former Yankee Reggie Jackson, eighth on the career home run list, puts it, "Come on. You can't break records, hitting 200 or more homers in three or four seasons, the greatest hitters never did that". Babe Ruth, the greatest hitter of them all (whose favoured drug was alcohol) was first to hit 60 homers in a season, a record which lasted 34 years. In 1961, Roger Maris of the Yankees amassed 61, a total not exceeded for 37 years. Then, in just four seasons from 1998, the 60-homer mark was topped six times, culminating with the 73 by Bonds in 2001. Coincidence? Perhaps. But the sport has long had extraordinarily lax drug rules. And few people believe that smaller stadiums and weaker pitching alone account for the surge in home run hitting.

Belatedly, regularly scheduled drugs testing was introduced in 2003, and amazingly, even when players knew they would be examined, seven per cent of them contrived to fail. This season, baseball is introducing random steroid testing, but the penalties are derisory.

An Olympic athlete like Dwain Chambers, found to have used THG, is automatically banned for two years for a first offence. Rio Ferdinand of Manchester United was suspended for eight months, merely for not showing up for a test. Not so in baseball. A first offender will undergo treatment and counselling. Thereafter, suspensions and fines kick in - but not until a player has been caught five times is he banned for a whole season.

In part, the feeble rules reflect the clout of Fehr and his union, one of the most powerful in world sport and arguably too concerned with maximising the earnings of its members. Then there is the intense mutual suspicion between union and owners. Had Selig pressed harder on steroids during the tense 2003 negotiations for a new labour contract, almost certainly there would have been a repeat of the crippling strike of 1994-95.

"We've never been able to trust them [the owners] at their word," David Segui, a veteran hitter for the Baltimore Orioles told the Washington Post. A tough drugs regime, he said, would give them "one more hammer to use against us. And you know they would. That's the reality of the business side of baseball". But there is another reality behind the sport's refusal to take drug abuse seriously. Predictably, it may be summed up in a single word: money.

Home runs, not unhittable pitching or high batting averages, are baseball's ultimate gold standard. Bonds makes $18m (£10m) a year (not counting endorsements), Giambi has a seven-year $120m (£67m) deal with the Yankees, while Sheffield is on $13m (£7.2m) a year - and not because of their prowess at slapping singles through the infield.

The lavish remuneration rewards their ability to deliver one of the most thrilling spectacles in sport: collaring a 90mph pitch and in a prodigious combination of speed, strength and eye, send it rocketing out of the ballpark for a home run. This, the baseball industry believes, is what fans pay to watch. So why kill (or more accurately, slim down) the pharmacologically enhanced geese which lay these golden eggs?

But if the reaction to Bonds in Mesa is any guide, the baseball industry may be wrong. Much of baseball's charm is in its history, and now the history may have been distorted. Both the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa which enthralled America in the summer of 1998, and the Bonds blitz which helped lift the country's spirits in the wake of 9/11, are suspect.

Even as he was compiling his 70-homer season in 1998, McGwire admitted taking androstenedione - a precursor substance which is classified as a steroid and increases levels of testosterone in the body. "Andro" is banned by the National Football League, by America's college sports, and by the International Olympic Committee. Technically it is still not illegal in baseball, but last week the US pharmaceuticals watchdog, the Food and Drug Administration, ordered companies which made "andro" either to prove the drug did no harm, or drop it from their product range.

In retrospect, Bonds's 2001 feat looks even more remarkable. The cynics say that more than just sound eating habits and gruelling workouts turned the willowy figure of the late 1980s into today's slab-muscled strongman - who pulverised the home run record at the age of 37, when most great baseball hitters are starting to fade

No one knows how many major leaguers use steroids. Possibly the seven per cent figure is not far off the mark. But other estimates range as high as 50 per cent. Jose Canseco, another mighty slugger who in a more innocent age was - along with McGwire - one of the late 1980s "Bash Brothers" in the formidable Oakland Athletics line-up, has claimed that 80 per cent of players were on steroids.

Canseco, it should be said, has a book to sell this autumn. But no one disputes that baseball faces a massive credibility crisis, which neither Selig's order to the owners not to talk about drugs, nor Fehr's equally fatuous insistence that intrusive drug-testing violates players' privacy rights, can conceal.

Just as in baseball's two great previous scandals, the fixed World Series, and a 1985 cocaine scandal which involved dozens of players, the allegations this time are in the courts, beyond the control of the sport's administrators. Just suppose one of the Balco Four agrees to tell all to prosecutors in return for a lighter sentence, or Bonds, Giambi or Sheffield is shown to have lied to the grand jury. Where will the national pastime be then?

HOW MAIN US SPORTS TACKLE DRUGS

* Baseball: Random testing from this season, but only for steroids. A first offence results in treatment. Subsequent ones carry increasing fines and suspensions.

* Basketball: Random testing for steroids and recreational drugs like cocaine, heroin and marijuana. First offence for recreational drugs is punished by five-game suspension. Steroid use brings a life ban.

* NFL Football: All steroids, growth hormones, street drugs and stimulants such as ephedrine are banned. One test failure brings a four-game ban (a quarter of the season). A third offence means a full season's suspension.

* Olympics: A prohibited list of more than 100 substances, as well as a ban on blood doping. One failed test brings an automatic two-year ban, a second means suspension for life. Athletes who fail drug tests at the Games lose their medals.

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