Baseball: Scandal of steroid abuse overshadows season's start

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The Independent Online

Maybe the Chicago Cubs will win it all for the first time since 1945. A few counter-intuitive optimists in Boston think that with the powerful new arm of Curt Schilling, the Red Sox can break a World Championship drought stretching back to the last year of World War I.

But the question that haunts the start of the 2004 baseball season is another. Will this be the year when the sport finally confronts the steroid abuse that has surely helped to fuel the home run explosion of the past decade? In any prediction of events on the field, the usual suspects figure large.

Both the Cubs and the Red Sox, defeated in the National League and American League championship series last year respectively, strengthened the key area of pitching - the Red Sox with Schilling, the Cubs with the acquisition of four-times Cy Young-winner Greg Maddux.

In the AL, the Yankees as always loom large. New York's pitching may be suspect, but baseball's richest franchise has reinforced an already potent hitting line-up by securing Alex Rodriguez, reckoned the best player in baseball, from the Texas Rangers and Gary Sheffield from Atlanta.

By coincidence or otherwise, the Yankees' record payroll of around $180m (£98m) roughly equals the record fundraising total of Bush/Cheney 2004. The election result will be known a few days after the World Series. But baseball's immediate future will be played out in the shadow of steroids. Some time this summer the trial will start of the four men indicted with illegally distributing performance-enhancing drugs through the San Francisco nutritional supplement company Balco.

One of the four was the personal trainer of Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants slugger who in 2001 set a new single-season home run record. Last autumn Bonds told the grand jury probing Balco that he did not use steroids.

Now his lawyer claims that the government is out to turn Bonds into a scapegoat, by using preserved urine samples to set up perjury charges against him. The player still maintains his innocence, but the Balco time bomb may only be defused by agreement between the clubs and the players' union on a new testing regime to replace today's almost laughably lax regulations.

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