Federal probe casts shadow as players report to spring training

Posted: Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Jason Giambi looks as if he's gone on the BALCO diet. That's the diet where a player's been so scared by links to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative's alleged steroid distribution ring, and baseball's new drug testing, that he slims down from a muscle monster to a human being.

Four months after the New York Yankees' man of steel last stripped off his pinstripes, he showed up in training camp Monday with a leaner body, shrunken chest, deflated biceps and skinnier legs.

He drew double-takes as he walked through the Yankees' clubhouse in Tampa, Fla., as if he were an impostor, a lookalike without all the beef.

Giambi, one of the dozens of sports stars who testified in the federal grand jury probe of BALCO, was quick to say his new look has nothing to do with steroids, or a lack of them. If you believe him, he never did use steroids to achieve that sculpted-in-granite body that he had the last few years.

All he did was stay away from junk food and step up his workouts as he recovered from surgery on his left knee, Giambi said. Poof, his body morphed from The Hulk to a shadow of himself.

''Just cleaning it up and losing some of that excess body fat I had,'' Giambi said.

Pardon a little skepticism here. Giambi didn't seem to have more than a few ounces of fat on him last year. If he was sneaking Ring Dings or slathering Cheez Whiz on his snacks, it sure wasn't showing up in his tapered waistline.

A lot of players' bodies and performance will be scrutinized this spring and summer in the wake of the BALCO case and with the start of baseball's drug-testing program initiated after anonymous survey testing last season showed 5-7 percent of the tests were positive.

Players may think it's unfair to paint them all broadly with the brush of steroid use. But that's what baseball gets for skirting the issue so long, watching players grow muscles upon muscles, and allowing everyone a free pass on the testing that goes on in other sports.

Giambi and new Yankees teammate Gary Sheffield both were subpoenaed to testify Dec. 11 in the BALCO grand jury probe, which resulted in four indictments the founder and an executive of the lab, a prominent track coach, and Barry Bonds' trainer, Greg Anderson.

Federal documents claim Anderson admitted he gave some ballplayers steroids, though it's not known if he named names. No athletes have yet been indicted, and being subpoenaed did not mean an athlete was a target of the investigation.

Asked Monday whether he had taken performance-enhancing drugs, Giambi said: ''Are you talking about steroids? No.''

Giambi said he did not know BALCO founder Victor Conte and said he welcomed baseball's drug testing this season.

''This has really shed a different light on everything,'' Giambi said.

Sheffield turned testy when pressed on the topic. He spoke about it a couple of times this month during informal workouts and said he had not used steroids.

At the San Francisco Giants' camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., Bonds arrived big as ever and seemed little changed from last season. He said he welcomes drug testing in baseball.

''They can test me every day if they choose to,'' Bonds said. He says he's about his 228-pound playing weight. He has repeatedly denied using steroids.

''I believe if I wasn't going for records, it would be a nullified situation,'' said Bonds, who is two home runs shy of tying Willie Mays for third on the all-time list with 660. ''If you want to be at the top, you've got to have broad shoulders. ... I know who I am. I know what I stand for. I know what kind of ballplayer I am.''

It's impossible to tell, simply by looking at players, whether they're on or off steroids.

It is feasible for an athlete to shed muscle mass over a period of months by reducing weights in his workouts, doing more repetitions, dramatically increasing aerobic exercises, and altering his diet.

Maybe that's exactly what Giambi did.

It is also possible for an athlete to maintain the bulky benefits of steroids even after reducing their dosage and cycling off them for a while.

Given the loopholes in baseball's testing program no tests between the end of last season and the start of spring training players can easily escape detection.

Steroids expert Charles Yesalis at Penn State says he's suspicious of steroid use when he sees an athlete's body change radically, either gaining or losing muscle mass, in a relatively short period.

''They can still use testosterone judiciously,'' Yesalis said. ''I would suspect that's what's happening.

''Baseball players really have it soft because they have that four- or five-month no-testing window. Boy, you've got to be pretty dumb to have that window and get caught. If you still get caught, I think we could have a great debate if their IQ is above room temperature.''

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org.



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