Baseball: Steroids cast a shadow over the ballparks

America's favourite sport is facing up to its biggest scandal since 1919

A short tram ride from the Pyramid Arena where Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson were finally engaged in gloved combat last night Memphis was witnessing another clash of might and muscles, though this time the weapons were bat and ball. The Memphis Redbirds and the Oklahoma Redhawks may be minor league as far as baseball is concerned but the sport they represent is currently embroiled in a Major League scandal.

Indeed, it is the most shocking to come out of the ballpark since "shoeless Joe'' Jackson shamelessly sold the Chicago Whitesox down the river in the 1919 World Series.

According to the prestigious magazine Sports Illustrated, which has conducted a three-month investigation into drug abuse in baseball, steroids are now so rampant that the game has become a pharmacological sideshow, with half its participants on performance-enhancing substances.

What emerges from dozens of interviews with leading players is a portrait of baseball's intensifying reliance on steroids and other drugs to help players hit harder, run faster and recover from injury more quickly.

These drugs include an array of stimulants ranging from human growth hormone (HGH) to ephedrine-laced dietary supplements which make the banned British skier Alain Baxter's inhaling of a tube of Vicks hardly seem worth a sniff.

The most worrying aspect is the shrugging acceptance of abuse not only by the sport, but by the fans. Unlike other major United States sports, American football, basketball and athletics, there is no official testing in spite of the Baseball Commission's desire to do so. The players' union will simply not agree to it, claiming it is an "invasion of privacy''.

The only time the cheats are likely to be caught out is if they are selected for the Olympic Games, where the International Olympic Committee insist on testing competitors in all sports. So "baseball junkies'' can be banned from the Games – but not from their sport.

Evidence of how America's favourite sport has become infested with drugs comes to light because a number of players have "blown the whistle'' on what goes on in the locker room. Among them is a household name, Ken Caminiti, whose 15-year Major League career ended after a stint with the Atlanta Braves last season. He has revealed that he won the 1996 National League Most Valuable Player (MFP) Award while on steroids. He admitted that by the end of that season his testicles had shrunk and retracted and doctors found that his body had virtually stopped producing its own testosterone. "It took four months to get my nuts to drop on their own,'' he said.

Yet Caminiti, a recovering alcoholic and former convicted drugs abuser claims he would not discourage other players from taking steroids, because they have become a widespread, and even necessary, choice for those seeking a competitive edge. "It is no secret what is going on in baseball,'' he says. "At least half the guys are using steroids. They even joke about it.''

According to the Arizona Diamondbacks star Curt Schilling, vials of steroids and discarded needles are a common sight in both bullpen and locker room. He says that he is not a drug user himself but now he thinks twice before giving a team-mate a traditional slap on the backside for a good performance. "I'll pat guys on the ass and they'll look at me and say: 'Don't hit me there, it hurts'. That's because that's where they shoot the steroid needles''.

According to Schilling some players even get their wives to stick the needles into their buttocks for them, and they even have their own jargon for shooting up and pill popping. They call it "playing naked''.

"This game is so whacked-out that guys will take anything they can to get an edge,'' said Caminiti, who reveals that the supplies are easily obtained from pharmacies just across the US border at Tijuana in Mexico. "Steroids make you faster and stronger. I'd be running bases and think: 'Man I'm fast, I feel like a kid again'. You just fly''.

He says players use a wide selection of over-the-counter stimulants that are barred by the IOC, with exotic labels such as Ripped Fuel and Ultimate Orange. For stronger effect, however, they take the illegally obtained Ritalin, a central nervous system stimulant that provides stronger focus and concentration.

Drug abuse in baseball, or indeed most other major sports, is not new. Mark McGwire was cheered all the way to his record breaking 70 home runs for the St Louis Cardinals in 1998 by fans unconcerned that he'd admitted use of muscle building stimulants. "If you polled the fans,'' says Caminiti, "they'd say they don't care. They want to see warriors who win.''

There is a final irony to this shocking tale. Major League baseball now has a new sponsor, which happens to be a drug, albeit one with an unconventional use of the word "hard''. It is Viagra.

In view of the shrinking effect of steroids on certain parts of the male anatomy, it certainly gives a fresh meaning to the sports phrase, a whole new ball game.

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