Baseball on Drugs

For nearly two and a half years, a relentless drumbeat of allegations, confession and innuendo has sullied Major League Baseball's self-image and provided endless fodder for pundits inside the game and out. The current drama began in May 2002, when Ken Caminiti, a standout third baseman who retired in 2001, described for Sports Illustrated his own use as well as the rampant and routine use of steroids and amphetamines by big leaguers. The second act began unfolding in September 2003, when investigators raided Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, or BALCO, a northern California firm that specialized in legal nutritional supplements and, according to the feds, illegal substances that BALCO had provided to elite athletes in track and field, football and baseball.

Two months later, Major League Baseball announced that between 5 percent and 7 percent of its players had tested positive for steroids during the previous spring, an outcome that meant the league would move toward its first full-scale testing in the spring of 2004. Meanwhile, the pressure only increased. In his State of the Union speech in January 2004, President Bush urged the sports establishment to remedy the drug situation. The following month, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a 42-count indictment against four men in the BALCO case, including founder Victor Conte. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) threatened congressional action to "clean up baseball" if the game didn't act.

Major league baseball owners and players huddled and announced on Jan. 13 the new ground rules for drug testing. At press time the agreement had not been finalized, but a spokesman for Major League Baseball said he expected to have final wording by March 1. On the day of the announcement, players union head Donald Fehr said he would be "very surprised if over time this doesn't take care of the problem virtually completely." Asked last week to assess his sport's drive against steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, baseball commissioner Bud Selig told reporters, "As a sport, we have done everything that we could at this point ... we've done what we needed to do."

Selig's and Fehr's eagerness to put baseball's drug issues behind them is understandable, but few people expect steroids to vanish from baseball quickly. The new rules do mean more frequent testing and slightly harsher penalties. Rather than one test per year as before, players are now subject to one unannounced test per season and may have to take additional random tests in or out of season. For a first positive, a player will be suspended for 10 days without pay and named publicly. Before, a first violation put a player into treatment and not into the headlines. Now a second violation brings a 30-day vacation without pay, compared with 15 days off and up to a $10,000 fine. A third violation means a 60-day suspension versus 25 days under the old rules. A fourth offense will result in a one-year suspension, as compared to 50 days or a $50,000 fine under the old rules.

By baseball standards this is dramatic progress, but the sport still lags others by a certain standard of "toughness." The National Football League tests athletes year-round; a first violation means a four-game suspension, or 25 percent of the regular season, which would be 40 games for a baseball player. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which runs college sports, has year-round testing in football and track and field as well as testing at its post-season championships. Student athletes who fail a test can lose a year of their collegiate eligibility. But the gold standard in testing is the Olympics, which conducts anytime, anyplace check-ins, with first-time violators facing a two-year ban.

While opinions on the impact of baseball's new program vary widely, there's no mistaking the strategy. Drug testing is the heart and soul of baseball's new rules, old rules and just about its whole approach to patterns of drug use in the sport that have shifted over decades. Like presidents and drug czars, Selig's record on the drug question has not dimmed his confidence in the sport's ability to eradicate drugs or in the tools they're using. He has been a staunch advocate of testing as the key and "zero tolerance" as his mantra.

"I've been saying for some time that my goal for this industry is zero tolerance for steroids," Selig told the Chicago Tribune in announcing the mid-January agreement. "This agreement ... is an important step toward achieving that goal." In Selig's ideal world he would bring the minor leagues' policy up to the majors: four random tests per year, a 15-game suspension for a first positive. But in the major leagues Selig and the owners tangle with a powerful and confident union whose leadership, unity and negotiating leverage have pummeled the owners for decades.

Baseball's January announcement that it had addressed its "drug problem" evoked a lot of derision. Many people skewered the penalties, which some believe confirm yet again baseball's love-hate relationship with performance enhancement. "Every major league owner would like to see steroids removed from every team except his own," is how one former big league manager expressed it to the Village Voice. "You know that everybody knew what was going on, but as long as the turnstiles kept clicking, they didn't care," a veteran baseball man told the Philadelphia Daily News.

Tuesday, the New York Daily News published the comments of an FBI agent in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "I alerted Major League Baseball back in the time when we had a case [about 10 years ago] that (former player Jose) Canseco was a heavy user and that they should be aware of it," Special Agent Greg Stejskal told the Daily News. "I spoke to the people in their security office."

Baseball officials denied Stejskal's story, which came to light as Canseco, a once-feared slugger, resurfaced as the author of the best-selling expose, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big.

Also under heavy fire has been baseball's omission of amphetamines, which, according to published reports going back to the early '70s, have been about as hard to score in baseball as a Snickers bar. Tony Gwynn played for 20 seasons with the San Diego Padres and was one of the modern era's greatest hitters and most respected players. In 2003 he told The New York Times, "People might think there is a steroid problem in baseball, but it's nowhere near the other problem; the other, it's a rampant problem. Guys feel like steroids are cheating and greenies (amphetamines in pill form) aren't."

According to the Baltimore Sun, Gwynn estimated that half of the game's position players (non-pitchers) routinely use amphetamines. If a player chooses not to pop a greenie for a game, his teammates say he is "playing naked."

Another reason for the skepticism about baseball's new program is the shortcomings of testing. Dr. Gary Wadler teaches medicine at New York University and is widely recognized as a knowledgeable observer of performance enhancement. Wadler told The New York Times that Selig's confidence that baseball can banish steroids is "absolutely a pipe dream. The best you can ever hope for is to decrease the incidence, hopefully in a meaningful way."

Wadler pointed out some tough technical issues as well. "How is baseball going to do this and who will pay for it?" he asked the Miami Herald. "You're talking about physiology, chemistry, pharmacology, laboratory science, adjudication, appeals mechanisms, transparency. And it's only going to get more complex."

In December 2004, Victor Conte, the man at the center of the BALCO case, told ABC News that passing drug tests "is like taking candy from a baby." Dr. Charles Yesalis of Penn State has studied and written about steroids for more than 20 years. "Drug testing," he said to the Sporting News, "catches only stupid, foolish and careless people."

The steroids-in-baseball uproar is touching a deep nerve in America's collective psyche. It throws together national passions for baseball, altered states and winning with cultural beliefs about competition, fairness and the purpose of sports. Steroids-in-baseball is a passion play full of intriguing characters, complex plots, cultural weight, and fresh twists and turns, all unfolding against a backdrop of huge money and celebrity.

For the drug policy reform movement, steroids-in-baseball is noteworthy for its growing usefulness to politicians who want to shape perceptions and define issues. In addition, there are clear signs that performance-enhancing substances are the hot new front in the "war on drugs." Over the years, baseball's approach to performance enhancement has mirrored that war in its broad strokes. Baseball demonizes users and substances; shapes policy based on political calculations and not on effectiveness in achieving a worthwhile goal; keeps the substances and users underground and beyond the reach of science and medicine; and assumes that ever-harsher penalties will deter extremely competitive people from gaining an edge in an ultra-high-stakes game. With spring training, a great secular American ritual, beginning this week, baseball is still a long way from home.

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