In July 1998, Steve Wilstein, a feature writer for the Associated Press, hit the road to follow the Great American Home Run Chase. As Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa went yard at a record pace, their awesome power and friendly competition reintroduced fans to the virtues of the national pastime. Crowds that had been driven away by the strike once again scanned box scores and bought tickets. Wilstein wasn't a regular on the baseball beat; going back to 1971, he'd covered events such as the U.S. Open tennis tournament, an Ali title bout and the Olympics. He appreciated the chase as a historic, if not magical, event. But today he admits even he was awed by the Bunyanesque feats of the Cards slugger.
After one game in St. Louis, with Big Mac taking his time in the trainer's room, Wilstein gathered with a dozen other reporters by his locker. As they waited, he began to fill his notebook with descriptions of the scene. He saw a photo of McGwire's son, a bat boy, on the top shelf of the locker, and sugarless gum -- a nice touch: McGwire's dad was a dentist. He saw a cap from a Roger Maris celebrity golf tournament. Interesting, given that McGwire denied paying attention to the man whose ghost loomed before him. And Wilstein saw a brown bottle labeled with a word he didn't recognize. He jotted it all down.
The moment passed, as did the night. After three weeks of tailing Mac and Sammy and Ken Griffey Jr., Wilstein returned home to Palo Alto to write another story about the race. When he came to the name on the bottle in his notes, he called a doctor friend. "What's androstenedione?" he asked.
"A precursor to testosterone," the cardiologist replied. "And it can be really bad for the heart."
Wilstein's own heart skipped a beat. He realized he had a story that was bigger than the one he had been assigned. Andro, he soon learned, was one metabolic step from testosterone and readily converted by the human body. Football's steroids
adviser, John Lombardo, told Wilstein, "Androstenedione is a steroid. It has anabolic qualities. Therefore, it is an anabolic steroid." The NFL had banned it a year earlier, as had the NCAA and the Olympics. In fact, Randy Barnes, the 1996 gold-medal shot-putter, had recently been barred from competition for life for using it.
When Wilstein sought confirmation of McGwire's andro use, the Cardinals dismissed him. "Androstenedione?" said a team spokesman. "He doesn't even know how to spell it." But then McGwire admitted to the AP that he'd taken andro for more than a year, and added, "Everybody I know in the game of baseball uses the same stuff I use."
Wilstein's piece, "Drug OK in Baseball, Not Olympics," ran on Friday, Aug. 21. He made it clear McGwire had broken neither the law of the land nor the rules of the game. But he also wrote that andro's ability to raise testosterone levels "is seen outside baseball as cheating and potentially dangerous."
At the time, McGwire was at 51 homers and counting. Big Mac jerseys were flying off racks, his team was posting a huge attendance gain and the chase was national news. The revelation threatened to unmask the slugger as more Frankenstein's monster than Popeye. Before that could happen, though, the manager, the team and the press all shifted blame to the messenger.
McGwire himself accused the reporter of "snooping." His manager, Tony La Russa, stoked the outrage. "A player's locker isn't something that you should snoop around and see what you can find out," he barked. "That's a clear invasion of privacy. And it's causing some real garbage here." The Cardinals wouldn't let La Russa bar AP's reporters from the clubhouse. Instead, they permitted St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz to stand in front of McGwire's locker to see if he could re-create the infamous moment. "To be able to decipher the label on this andro bottle, you have to intentionally look, and look hard," Miklasz wrote. "And that's out of bounds."
Wilstein was disappointed by the reaction, but he knew he hadn't touched anything in the locker. Plus, he had McGwire's admission. What he didn't know was how much added pop andro was giving the slugger. That was the part of the discussion Wilstein figured MLB would try to spin.
But Bud Selig and his advisers didn't know what andro was. The Sunday after Wilstein's story appeared, Selig sought the advice of his pharmacist in Milwaukee and also called George Steinbrenner, who'd served on the U.S. Olympic Committee. Steinbrenner put him in touch with Don Catlin, head of the Olympic drug-testing lab at UCLA. Catlin told Selig about andro's anabolic properties, then said there was only one way to rid the sport of drugs -- random testing, the kind the NFL did.
As commissioner, Selig was facing two realities. First of all, baseball's power jolt had lit up attendance and revenues. But he also knew the players union opposed stricter regulation of which substances its members could take. The union, chief negotiator Gene Orza said, would not discuss andro "at a time when Mark McGwire's chase of the home run record might be compromised."
So on the Monday after Wilstein's story ran, Selig publicly ignored the effects of andro: "I think what Mark McGwire has accomplished is so remarkable, and he has handled it all so beautifully, we want to do everything we can to enjoy a great moment in baseball history."
But he also realized he needed to learn more. On Wednesday, Aug. 26, he and Donald Fehr announced a jointly launched study of supplements, while leaving the details vague.
That was enough to satisfy the nation's sportswriters and talking heads. When Sports Illustrated named McGwire and Sosa its 1998 Sportsmen of the Year, the story didn't mention androstenedione. ESPN the Magazine, which had launched that spring, put McGwire on its cover twice in its first 13 issues. This was the magazine's take on McGwire and Sosa on Oct. 5, 1998: "All the downsides -- the andro revelation ... had less to do with them than with us. Besides, what they gave us will far outlast the controversies ... Everywhere men were laughing. Everywhere children shouted ... Thanks to them, we escaped."
By the end of the 1998 season, many team doctors were warning players to stay away from andro because of its potential to damage the liver and sex organs. But MLB would not take that step unilaterally. In October, as supplement sales were skyrocketing -- andro sales increased 1,000%, to $50 million the year following McGwire's admission -- Selig was asked about a rumor that had baseball outlawing andro. "It's not only premature, but very unfair," he replied. "None of this should ever diminish from Mark McGwire's extraordinary season."
In December, Wilstein, still working the lonely andro beat, wrote that Robert Millman, Selig's chief medical adviser, believed he had a dual agenda: as physician and as defender of the game. Asked about the effects of what McGwire was taking, Millman, a professor of psychiatry at Cornell, said, "There is no evidence andro does anything bad or good."
"I want to protect McGwire and get the truth," the MLB's doctor told Wilstein. "That would serve everybody. It wouldn't hurt baseball, either."
When [Steve Wilstein] came to the name on the bottle in his notes, he called a doctor friend. "What's androstenedione?" he asked.