Baseball needs to get serious about steroids

Posted: Friday, June 21, 2002

Baseball's commissioner and union head are talking a good game about steroid abuse. Trouble is, it sounds like all talk. As if the only things that matter are counteracting bad publicity and placating a few critics in Congress.

Bud Selig and Donald Fehr have finally acknowledged, at least tacitly, that baseball has a drug problem.

That's a lot farther than they were willing to go four years ago when Mark McGwire kept androstenedione in his locker while launching 70 moonshots. Their reaction then was to shrug it off and commission a study, asking Harvard scientists to check out andro.

Big surprise, the scientists told them two years later that andro does raise testosterone levels and might lead to liver damage and other nasty problems. Selig and Fehr didn't do anything then or when, around the same time, 10 team doctors warned of widespread steroid abuse. Nor did Selig and Fehr express alarm when more and more players showed up each spring with grotesquely transformed bodies, claiming their new 30 pounds of steely muscle came just from working out over the winter.

Now with Jose Canseco saying, albeit in his typically hyperbolic way, that 85 percent of ballplayers are juiced, and Ken Caminiti acknowledging that he used steroids during his 1996 MVP season, no one can pretend that baseball does not have a mess to clean up.

''You're talking about the health and welfare of a group of people, which is very important,'' commissioner Bud Selig said Wednesday in Milwaukee while calling for steroid testing in the labor agreement under negotiation.

''No one cares more about the game, the health of the players, than the players themselves,'' players association boss Donald Fehr told a Senate committee Tuesday during hearings on steroid abuse in baseball.

Fehr allowed that it might be time for Congress to study andro. Robert Manfred, baseball's executive vice president for labor relations, said Congress should consider reclassifying andro and similar testosterone boosters from over-the-counter supplements to controlled drugs that require prescriptions.

That's easy for Fehr and Manfred to say. It doesn't call for any accountability from the players or the owners.

What would mean something would be a year-round, random drug-testing program. A program that has teeth in it, that would punish players for cheating and send a message that steroids won't just be discouraged, they won't be tolerated.

Jerry Colangelo, owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Phoenix Suns, noted at the Senate hearing that the NBA has mandatory random tests for steroids. The NFL also tests for steroids while the NHL, like major league baseball, has no policy regarding their use.

Random testing, Colangelo said, ''would be a necessary and fundamental step in the direction of ridding steroid use in major league baseball.''

Fehr is not willing to go anywhere near that far. He still puts protecting players' rights to privacy ahead of worries about their health and influence over youngsters. The union might accept limited steroid program but don't count on players handing over urine samples whenever a tester shows up without cause.

Similarly, Selig's comments notwithstanding, baseball owners don't have the interest, gumption or resolve to press for Olympic-style testing. For one, muscle-bound home run sluggers sell tickets. For another, there are more urgent problems -- a luxury tax and contraction, for example -- on the collective bargaining table. With strike talk fouling the air, neither side is likely to go to the mat over steroids.

So all the talk of doing something about steroids is probably just that. Lip service. A way to sound sincere in response to embarrassing claims by Canseco and Caminiti. Yet it's a start.

Selig and Fehr are saying things now that they should have said four years ago when McGwire acknowledged using andro. Instead, afraid of sullying McGwire's record as he and Sammy Sosa helped revive baseball from the lingering morbidity of the 1994 strike, Selig and Fehr danced around the issue. They can't do that so easily anymore.

Sen. John McCain, who requested the Senate Commerce consumer affairs subcommittee hearing, pointed out that andro sales skyrocketed after the revelation of McGwire's use. ''Like it or not, professional athletes serve as role models,'' McCain said. ''That's more important than whether a group of highly paid athletes are using anabolic steroids.''

McCain is right. Maybe it doesn't matter much whether major leaguers risk their lives for the sake of a few good seasons. But it does matter that they influence thousands of teen-agers. It's a subject that deserves more than just talk.

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

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