Commentary

Steroids and baseball's code of silence

Originally Published: February 29, 2008
By T.J. Quinn | ESPN

Editor's note: This story originally was published on Feb. 29, 2008.

JUPITER, Fla. -- According to the Cardinals roster on the first day of spring training workouts, there is a coach on the staff named Mark McGwire.

It's a mistake, St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa says.

"It should have been taken off. I invite him every year," he explains. "He hasn't said 'no' yet. He hasn't said 'yes,' either."

LaRussa leaves a little light in the window because he believes McGwire has nothing to hide from. But since the slugger's image as a steroid user was cemented in 2005, McGwire has retreated to the life of a recluse.

Despite Jose Canseco's declaration that he injected McGwire with steroids, despite a New York Daily News article that showed a list of steroids given to McGwire by a convicted drug dealer, and despite McGwire's legendary testimony before Congress in which he refused "to talk about the past," LaRussa says he believes McGwire's bulk came strictly from the weight room, not from a needle.

"He still says McGwire worked himself into that shape," says a veteran baseball executive who has been friends with LaRussa for 30 years. "It's incredible."

[+] EnlargeTony LaRussa
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesTony LaRussa still isn't pointing fingers at any alleged steroid users.
In the wake of George Mitchell's report on doping in baseball, LaRussa's professed ignorance about what went on around him in Oakland and St. Louis has marked him as one of the steroid era's enablers. The 311-page report is filled with tales of missed opportunities for nearly everyone in the major league universe to have intervened in baseball's problem with performance-enhancing drugs. LaRussa might well be emblematic of the enabling that went on, but he was far from alone.

Former Yankees manager Joe Torre, starting life afresh with the Dodgers this spring, managed 20 of the 86 players named in the Mitchell report, more than any other major league skipper. Many of those players, such as Canseco, played only briefly for Torre and did all or most of their alleged doping while with other teams.

But as ESPN spoke to Torre and LaRussa, along with current and former players, trainers, strength coaches, front office officials and owners, a picture emerged of a culture in which loyalty and secrecy trumped integrity -- and winning trumped everything. Baseball was practically an incubator for performance-enhancing drugs because almost everyone in a position to speak up chose not to.

Even when physicians and trainers began to raise the issue of performance-enhancing drugs in the late 1980s, baseball's sentinels were either unwilling to tackle the problem or unable to find an approach they could agree on, baseball insiders said.

"At one of those [offseason] meetings, a team physician stood up and said, 'We have a problem, and the problem has to do with possible drugs that are being used by athletes and players, and the only way we can deal with this problem is through testing,'" says Larry Starr, a team athletic trainer for 30 years with the Cincinnati Reds and Florida Marlins. "The basic feedback from that meeting and subsequent meetings for a number of years after that was, from the owner's group, 'We agree: We need to do testing. But the Players Association won't let us.' Players Association would say, 'We agree: Most of my members would say testing would be fine, but we don't trust the owners.'"

Under labor law, Major League Baseball is required to negotiate its drug policies with the union. Until Congress stepped in and held hearings in 2005, MLB commissioner Bud Selig and union executive director Donald Fehr minimized the extent of steroid use in the game, as well as their own responsibility for its spread.

LaRussa seems to feel one side was responsible for preventing a testing program.

"There was a pretty significant road block from the union, claiming -- as they have a right to -- collective bargaining and privacy," LaRussa says.

But Jim Duquette, the former general manager for the New York Mets and VP of baseball operations for the Baltimore Orioles, says it was clear that even when MLB raised steroids as a concern, the priority in collective bargaining was to get a favorable economic deal. The union was determined to block testing, and MLB was not willing to fight for it at the expense of revenues.

"I think the feeling was, 'Let's not rock the boat. Let's get [the game's finances] straight, and then we can address some of the other'" issues, he says.

Union officials declined comment for this story, but Tom Glavine, the 21-year veteran who just returned to the Atlanta Braves, says it's unfair to put the entire blame on Fehr and Gene Orza, the union's chief operating officer.

"It's easy for everybody to blame Don and Gene and say those guys didn't want to do anything and they turned a blind eye and it's all about their players making more money," says Glavine, a longtime union stalwart who was the National League's player representative. "I have a ton of respect for those guys, and I would be hard-pressed to say those guys knew what was going on and they just didn't care. Did they know the scope of what was going on? I honestly don't think so. I don't think anybody did."

[+] EnlargeMark McGwire
AP Photo/Mary ButkusShould more people have wondered how Mark McGwire got his terrific 1998 shape?
But there were pieces to put together if anyone had cared to assemble them.

Besides the swelled physiques and increased power numbers, the Mitchell report lists a series of incidents that investigators found notable:

• In 1998, two physicians, MLB medical director Robert Millman and MLBPA medical director Joel Solomon, made a presentation at baseball's winter meeting touting the possible benefits of testosterone, shocking some of the attendees.

• In 2000, a clubhouse attendant for the Florida Marlins found a paper bag filled with steroids and syringes in the locker of pitcher Ricky Bones and brought it to the team trainer, who wasn't identified in the report. MLB security was informed, but the team gave the bag back to Bones. Starr says he was the trainer and that because there was no testing then, Bones was simply asked by the union to meet with two physicians to discuss the dangers of steroids.

• In 2001, when the Cleveland Indians traveled to Toronto for a series, Canadian Border Service officials seized a bag from the team flight that contained steroids and hypodermics, but had no name tag. Officials left the bag with the rest of the team equipment, and when a member of Juan Gonzalez' entourage, Angel "Nao" Presinal, claimed the bag, he was detained. Presinal said the drugs were for Gonzalez, but Gonzalez denied they were his. Because ownership couldn't be determined, neither man was arrested. According to the Mitchell report, MLB asked the union for permission to randomly test Gonzalez for steroids, but was refused. The report also said that MLB security promised to follow up, but did not.

• In August 2002, Giants team trainer Stan Conte warned GM Brian Sabean that Greg Anderson, Barry Bonds' personal trainer, was dealing steroids from the clubhouse. But the Giants took no action against Anderson and kept two members of Bonds' entourage on the payroll after Anderson was indicted for trafficking.

[+] EnlargeTom Glavine
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesTom Glavine says the game's culture didn't allow for open discussions about steroids.
• Mitchell also lists 85 newspaper and magazine articles published between 1987 and 1998 that discussed suspicions of increasing steroid use in baseball, right up until an Associated Press reporter noticed a bottle of androstenedione in McGwire's locker and MLB was forced to address the issue.

Through those years, however, it was nearly impossible to find someone to say baseball was facing a problem. Some trainers and strength coaches said they saw signs of abuse, but felt constrained by their jobs.

Starr says the first player he ever saw who he believed was using steroids was a light-hitting Reds prospect in 1984. Even though the player had added 25 pounds of muscle while reducing his body fat -- something people shouldn't be able to do through normal means -- Starr says he couldn't confront the player.

"If I asked him that, he's going to think I'm accusing him. And what if it isn't true? Then what happens to our relationship?" he says. "And I got to work with this guy every day. That's where we always felt so uncomfortable and so frustrated."

Torre says he, like most managers, was torn by his desire to see the game remain clean while needing to support his players.

"You've got to manage these players and you want to earn their trust, so you've got to allow them responsibility to take care of themselves," he says. "I'm not saying you don't talk about it. You're always cautioning them that you don't want to be embarrassed by this or that. [But] you don't follow players around or peek around the corner or whatever."

Or, as LaRussa puts it, "This is America, you know. It's not a police state."

LaRussa's longtime first-base coach, Dave McKay, has never been accused of directly aiding and abetting steroid users, but he was certainly in their proximity. LaRussa made McKay his first strength coach in Oakland; McKay says he never thought that the change in player physiques had anything to do with drugs.

[+] EnlargeLarry Starr
AP Photo/Erik S. LesserLarry Starr was the Marlins' trainer in 2000. He said he was never comfortable talking to players about steroids.
"I thought guys were just figuring out it was a good idea to start strength training," he says.

The subject of McGwire is a difficult one for McKay. When LaRussa ran to McGwire's defense in 2005, saying McGwire worked so hard he didn't need performance enhancers, he was repeating what McKay had told him.

Even when McGwire appeared before Congress a month later, McKay still had a hard time understanding why McGwire didn't simply deny Canseco's accusations.

"I was disappointed, and I said to Mark, 'I wish you would have said more and explained some things.' Mark's not good with crowds," he says.

Asked whether he's still confident McGwire never used performance-enhancing drugs, McKay says, "I don't feel confident about a lot of things in the game, because I thought I had my head in the hole. I thought there would be a real small percentage of guys [named in the Mitchell report]. There seemed to be more than I expected."

McKay says he was also shocked in November to hear his son Cody, a career minor leaguer with the A's and Cardinals who made only brief appearances in the majors, tell him he would be named in the Mitchell report. According to the report, Cody McKay purchased steroids in 2002 and 2003 from former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, who pleaded guilty to steroid trafficking last year.

[+] EnlargeJoe Torre
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesA manager, says Joe Torre, needs to let his players take responsibility for taking care of themselves.
But McKay says he never suspected any player of juicing besides the flamboyant Canseco, and LaRussa still adamantly defends the program McKay ran for him.

"There was never, ever the first mistake or illegality in the Oakland A's program or here in St. Louis. Not with Dave McKay running it. Absolutely zero," LaRussa says.

Glavine, a longtime ranking member of the union and likely Hall of Famer, says any major league player or coach who might have suspected steroid abuse was unlikely to speak up, simply because of the game's culture.

"Everybody, from the minute they get to the clubhouse, it's, 'What goes on in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse,'" Glavine says, sitting on a dugout bench at the Braves' spring training complex in Orlando. "And that's team fights, or team arguments or team meetings. All that stuff is supposed to remain in-house. That's the culture of the game and it doesn't matter if a guy has a drinking problem, or a guy is doing drugs or a guy is doing things in their marriages they shouldn't be doing. You just don't discuss that."

All that has ever mattered, he says, is performance.

"When guys start crossing the lines, [if] their actions or things they are doing become a detriment to the team or become a safety issue to the rest of the teammates, then it becomes a different issue," he says.

[+] EnlargeDave McKay
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireDave McKay, the Cardinals' first base coach, just figured the players were into strength training.
In the case of steroids, however, the line they crossed often helped the team.

"And therein lies the problem," Glavine says. "If they are going out there on the field and performing, then there is reason for everybody in the whole chain of command to not worry so much about what is going on. The end result is the guy is performing; and when guys are performing, everybody wants to leave him alone and let him do [his] thing."

Glavine says in his case, he just didn't want to believe what was happening.

"I just think it was my being na´ve to the situation," he says. "I guess just wanting to think guys weren't going to do that stuff not only to themselves personally, but to cross that line of doing something illegal; I guess I just trusted that guys wouldn't do it.

"But obviously, I was wrong."

T. J. Quinn is a reporter for ESPN. He can be reached at tjquinn31@yahoo.com. ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Kurkjian, "Outside The Lines" producer Arty Berko and researcher Mark Simon contributed to this report.

T.J. Quinn joined ESPN in November 2007 as an investigative reporter for ESPN's Enterprise Unit, which is charged with developing long-form, investigative features to be presented across multiple platforms.