Baseball: Mitchell set to out superstars in drug expos

Several of the biggest names in baseball, sluggers and pitchers alike, were named in a devastating report yesterday on the systematic drug abuse that took place during the sport's infamous 'Steroids Era' - roughly the decade between 1995 and 2005.

More than a year and a half in the making, the investigation led by the former Senator and Northern Ireland negotiator George Mitchell spared no one. The players, their union, and Bud Selig, Major League Baseball's commissioner, are all blamed for "a collective failure" over the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs that has cast a shadow over some of the sport's most hallowed records.

For years, Mr Mitchell told a news conference in New York, they turned a blind eye to the steroids problem. Mr Selig and the owners especially were anxious to avoid a showdown with the powerful players union, and to do nothing to halt the surge in home runs that helped bring fans flocking back to stadiums after the 1994/1995 strike.

The scandal first hit the front pages in 2003 with the exposure of BALCO, a small San Francisco area sports nutritional supplements company, as the distributor of illicit steroids to elite athletes. Among its clients were the disgraced Olympic champion Marion Jones and - allegedly - Barry Bonds, baseball's single season and career home run record holder. Bonds currently faces charges of perjury for lying to a grand jury over his reputed drug use.

Since then other players have been linked with steroids, including the potential Hall of Fame sluggers Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa. But the Mitchell report names dozens of other stars. Among them are such idols as Roger Clemens, considered one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, as well as his New York Yankees team-mate Andy Pettitte.

But even yesterday's revelations may only be the tip of the iceberg. Some retired players have claimed that up to half all major league players, numbering a thousand or more, were using steroids and other banned drugs at the height of the scandal. "They've identified the lowhanging fruit," a source told the Washington Post yesterday, "the odds are that many more are doing things."

The report calls for independent, outside-administered drug testing, to replace baseball's existing in-house system. Under intense pressure to act, Mr Selig from last year toughened sanctions against steroid users, imposing a 50 day (roughly one third of a season) ban for a first offence, 100 days for a second, and a life time ban for a third.

But the regime is still criticised as too lax. Victor Conte, who once ran BALCO, claimed yesterday that baseball rules outlawed only half of the substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Basically, he said, "MLB closes the front door to drugs, but has made clear the side door and back door are open."

In addition, Mr Mitchell said, oil-based steroids were being replaced by water-based ones, which pass through the body more quickly. There was also growing use of human growth hormone, detectable only through blood tests, not urine samples.

The report was is particularly damning in that it was compiled without help from the players' union, which advised its members not to give evidence. The only current player known to have been interviewed is the Yankees slugger Jason Giambi, who had already admitted steroid use.

But key evidence came from Kirk Radomski, a former New York Mets employee convicted of running a steroids ring, and from a separate federal probe into illicit drug distribution on the internet.

At the very minimum the report will trigger an embarrassing new round of Congressional hearings. "Baseball has developed a culture of cheating," says Elijah Cummings, a senior Democrat on the House panel that conducted earlier hearings in 2005. "If baseball is on the critical list, we need critical solutions."

In fact, the game is in rude health economically, with attendances, revenues and players' salaries reaching new peaks every year. But the latest batch of famous names could turn away a younger generation of fans, their heroes now tarnished.

The report makes no disciplinary recommendations, and Mr Mitchell yesterday urged that bygone should be bygones. Baseball needed "a new beginning," and would only harm itself if it revisited past controversy. Any offences committed by the players named had occurred between two and nine years ago, he noted, and more than half of them had since left the game.

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