WASHINGTON For all the talk about steroids, as baseball begins its new season more Americans think players' high salaries are the sport's biggest problem, according to an Associated Press-AOL poll released Monday.
The average major leaguer's salary was $2.3 million last year. While that was a slight decline from the previous year, it's twice what it was 10 years ago. Thirty years ago, players made roughly $41,000 on average.
Salaries were named as baseball's ''biggest problem'' by 33 percent of those surveyed, followed by steroids at 27 percent and the cost of going to a game at 22 percent, according to the telephone poll done for the AP and AOL Sports by Ipsos-Public Affairs.
About 40 percent of those surveyed described themselves as baseball fans, down from more than six in 10 at the height of the home run chase in 1998 between Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs.
''Baseball players definitely get overpaid,'' said Cynthia Walker, a pharmacist from Seattle who sees a link with steroid use. ''It gives them a competitive edge to be better and they're in better position to ask for big salaries.''
Baseball has no cap on team salaries and its owners don't pool money from local television revenues. Critics of the system say it favors teams in large TV markets like the New York Yankees.
''The economics of baseball are the big problem,'' said Fay Vincent, former baseball commissioner. ''The big clubs make a lot of money and the little clubs don't.''
But Vincent, like many fans, said steroids are a big problem, too.
Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said they care ''a lot'' about the issue. And 70 percent said they don't think a player found to have used steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs should be elected to the Hall of Fame.
Baseball players and owners put a tougher policy against performance-enhancing drugs in place last month following increased attention created by a federal grand jury investigation into illegal steroid distribution.
Stars like Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield were among the players who testified before the grand jury.
Under baseball's new agreement, first-time offenders are suspended for 10 days. It would take four positive tests for a player to be suspended for a year.
Tampa Bay's Alex Sanchez, a light-hitting outfielder, became the first player suspended Sunday. Sanchez has denied using steroids.
Thirty-eight minor league players were suspended Monday for violating baseball's minor league steroids policy.
Some in Congress have criticized the policy as too lenient, saying baseball should adopt the World Anti-Doping Agency code, used by most Olympic sports. It calls for a two-year ban for a first positive and a lifetime suspension for a second unless there are mitigating circumstances.
Public attention on steroids in baseball was heightened by a congressional hearing last month in which sluggers including McGwire and Sosa were called before a House panel.
Most Americans favor Congress' intervention, and four in 10 of those polled said lawmakers should do more.
''Somebody needs to take control of the situation,'' said Eric Chlebisch, a physician's assistant from Johnson City, Tenn. ''In this case, it falls to the federal government.''
Patsy Hamilton, a 61-year-old resident of Mt. Vernon, Ill., said she was saddened to see McGwire, who is now retired, repeatedly decline to answer questions from lawmakers about whether he used steroids. But she remains devoted to the game.
''I've always been a St. Louis Cardinals fan,'' she said.
The steroid controversy has blemished baseball's comeback from a devastating players' strike in 1994 that led to cancellation of the World Series. The average attendance of 30,401 per game last year was the highest in 10 years. And spring training attendance was at record levels this year, according to baseball officials.
While many people complain about ticket prices, baseball remains a relative bargain among the four major team sports. The average ticket price for a major league baseball game was $21.17 this year, a 6.3 percent increase, according to the Chicago-based Team Marketing Report. That's the biggest increase in five years.
The AP-AOL Sports poll of 1,001 adults was taken April 1-3, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The margin of error for the 401 people who described themselves as baseball fans was 5 percentage points.
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