It takes a U.S. attorney with subpoena power and determination to break up a criminal distribution system called BALCO. It takes a pusher-turned-snitch, who, facing federal charges, admitted he had supplied illegal steroids to some famous customers.
The clients, including Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, were called before a San Francisco grand jury. Though each publicly denied illegal steroid use, when their testimony was leaked to The San Francisco Chronicle, it told a different story. Giambi admitted using steroids. Bonds said he did too, but not intentionally. One sports columnist labeled that story “snake oil.”
So now the clouds have assembled into a perfect storm facing Major League Baseball.
Add to this a growing interest by the federal government. President Bush made an uncharacteristic departure in his State of the Union to warn about steroid use. One might assume he saw it up close when he was part-owner of the Texas Rangers. Also, Sen. John McCain has warned that he will introduce drug-testing legislation in January if baseball does not act.
While football, track and other sports have moved to arrest illegal doping, baseball has been all but indifferent. No major-league player was tested until 2003, then only once on a pre-announced date. No team has ever exercised the “reasonable cause” provision in every contract, not the Yankees for Giambi, the Giants for Bonds or any other bulked-up player.
Cynics say it doesn’t really matter. Steroids are ubiquitous and omnipresent in baseball. Just by watching the changes in their bodies, any intelligent fan would reasonably assume Giambi and Bonds were on steroids. With prime-time television awash in advertising for products to chemically enhance sexual performance, why shouldn’t a baseball player add strength to chase dollars and records? Why shouldn’t the public just enjoy each season’s home-run chase?
Well, compare it to an environmental catastrophe — a spill of oil or agricultural chemicals — where, it is said, the run-off pollutes the eco-system. That is exactly what has happened with the spread of steroids in sports.
In this case, the steroid pollution seeps down into the eco-system of high school and college sports. One college baseball coach put it this way: “Steroids enable a small college player to bulk up, add strength and maybe make it to Alabama or Notre Dame.”
In high schools today, coaches watch their players devour muscle magazines and spend exorbitant sums buying nutrition supplements. These supplements are presumably legal, but they also may be the functional equivalent of a gateway drug. “When does nutrition cross the line into steroids?” asks a high school football coach. To stem the tide, coaches show films provided by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes of former pro-football player Lyle Alzado, as he crusaded against drug use before he died of brain cancer which he blamed on the effects of steroids.
Right now, however, from the point of view of the kids, doping looks like it’s worth the risk A pharmacological game of cat-and-mouse is going on in sports. Chemists making masking agents to hide steroid use are running way ahead of their anti-doping competitors.
Illegal drug use in one form or another has vexed Major League Baseball for a long time. In 1985, commissioner Peter Ueberroth wanted testing when the issue was cocaine. More recently, former commissioner Fay Vincent said, “If George Steinbrenner didn’t know Giambi was using steroids when he signed him, he was the only one.”
It is not hard to see what needs to be done: random, unannounced tests year-round, including the off-season, as in the minor leagues.
President Bush has appointed a close friend and former Texas Ranger partner as his representative in discussions between the commissioner’s office and the players’ union. Sen. McCain is waiting. In March, he warned baseball officials that their sport was in danger of becoming “a fraud in the eyes of the American people.” Commissioner Bud Selig has said that if he can’t get the players’ association to agree, he will welcome federal intervention.
With Barry Bonds in the cross hairs, Major League Baseball can’t duck this problem much longer.
Ken Bode is Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University