Keeping their distance
Major League Baseball, Giants staying away from steroids issue and Bonds trial
SAN FRANCISCO -- In the spring of 2004, as the BALCO steroids swirl began to stir squarely around Major League Baseball, a top executive suggested the players' union was praying Opening Day would bring relief from growing pressure to improve the sport's weak performance-enhancing drug policy.
The executive insisted commissioner Bud Selig and the owners were serious about confronting an issue their sport had avoided for at least a decade; it was the players, he said, who were impeding change. In truth, though, the executive seemed to be speaking for both the players and the owners when he said:
"If the furor over steroids died down on Opening Day and the only thing that gets written about is the glory of the game, they'll believe, 'We weathered the storm.'"
Seven years later, on Opening Day 2011, apparently the storm has passed; or at least baseball has willed its death. Another season began Thursday with the backdrop of a potentially dramatic steroids story -- the perjury trial of home run king Barry Bonds -- but it was more footnote than anything.
MLB did its part to ensure that.
"I've been pleasantly surprised that there doesn't seem to be a great amount of interest anywhere in it," Selig told ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" radio program on Opening Day. "But look, we've moved on "
No one seems to have moved on more swiftly than the San Francisco Giants, who seemingly have done everything possible to distance themselves from the guy who (A) basically built their glorious ballpark at the corner of 3rd and King streets, (B) set the single-season home run record as a Giant, (C) broke the career homer mark, again as a Giant, and (D) helped fill the seats of the debt-riddled ballpark.
For better or worse, he also became the central figure in the biggest doping scandal in sports history, an inescapable news story the Giants have worked tirelessly to evade. As the Bonds trial was set to kick off, an editor from MLB.com's New York offices sent an internal email stating the Giants had requested a blackout of any and all Bonds news on their team website, according to a source with direct knowledge of the email.
And so, while MLB.com has had a reporter covering the trial daily, visitors wouldn't know it from perusing the Giants' official website. There was no mention of Bonds' ex-girlfriend, Kimberly Bell, testifying that Bonds told her in 2000 he was using steroids; or that she said he threatened to "cut my head off and leave me in a ditch."
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Nor would Giants fans know from their team's website that former trainer Stan Conte testified in open court that at spring training 2000 he expressed concerns to general manager Brian Sabean about the clubhouse presence of Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson. Anderson stayed, and three years later the BALCO scandal exploded in the middle of the team's clubhouse.
Instead, on the Giants' website, a search of "Barry Bonds" brings up memorabilia for purchase, as well as a series of videos and stories celebrating Bonds' march past Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. There's nary a mention of the issue that has prompted speculation that Bonds -- the greatest hitter of his generation -- won't make the Hall of Fame.
MLB.com oversees all of the content and presentation of the team sites. Every story produced by the site ends with the disclaimer: "This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs."
Dinn Mann, MLB.com's executive vice president and editor-in-chief, said he knew of no request by the Giants and was surprised by the absence of stories related to the Bonds trial on the team's site.
"That hasn't happened in this case, to my knowledge," Mann said of a news blackout plea by the Giants. "Having heard what you just said, though, that sounds a little curious. That request has not crossed my desk. Somebody may have made an error in judgment. There are Giants fans who care about this topic."
Mann insisted that neither the league office nor individual teams dictate his site's coverage. In a later email to ESPN.com, Mann said he made some inquiries and learned an MLB.com assignment editor had made a judgment call that the Bonds coverage would not be passed along to the team sites, a decision Mann said he was comfortable with.
That would also explain why Rockies fans who might care that Jason Giambi testified in open court Tuesday about his extensive use of steroids and human growth hormone apparently wouldn't learn anything about it from the team's official website.
There's no sign of MLB.com's story recounting Giambi's testimony, in which he offered his first detailed, pubic admission of his extensive use of performance-enhancing drugs over a period of several years. And a search of Giambi on the Rockies' site brings up no mention of his day in court, though you will find references to places where Giambi's name appears in the Mitchell report.
The sight of Giambi (and three other ballplayers) testifying at the Bonds trial had to represent the moment baseball had dreaded for years: A current ballplayer -- and a one-time MVP, at that -- describing in vivid detail his longtime use of performance-enhancing drugs.
"The testimony by players in the current trial has largely been a repetition of the revelations contained in Senator [George] Mitchell's report which is now more than three years old," said MLB spokesman Pat Courtney. "Behavior such as that cannot take place in today's game, and we need to remain ever vigilant on the challenges of tomorrow."
Yes, to baseball, this was merely old news. It didn't matter that even today, while the commissioner insists the steroids era has ended, there is no viable urine test to detect HGH, the drug that Giambi and three other players described using regularly. Or that, according to many experts, beating the system remains more an IQ test than a steroids test.
To be fair, MLB.com is covering the trial daily with a veteran reporter, making it one of only a handful of national media outlets providing regular coverage.
"It does not come at the best time of the year, but we certainly weren't going to ignore it," said Mann, a newsroom veteran before joining MLB.com for its launch in 2001. "It's too important to set aside and pretend it's not happening. We can't do that and not have any credibility."
Stories that detailed Giambi's testimony or that of Bonds' ex-girlfriend were typically displayed among a series of other stories on the site's home page before cycling off over time.
"I don't think we've gone out of our way to leave it in a prominent spot, but frankly that has nothing to do with the sensitivity of the topic but more to do with the level of interest. If it resonated more broadly, it would probably get a little more time in the sun," Mann said.
Still, MLB.com hasn't exactly made it easy to track down stories about this trial or other steroids-related issues. There is a page within the site's Special Reports section titled, "Drug Policy in Baseball." It's a four-click process to get there, and you'd have to know where you're going.
As of Friday, the page did have information about the Bonds trial -- but it was nearly a week old. The page also didn't include the story from two days ago when MLB announced five minor leaguers were suspended 50 games for violating the drug policy.
Steroids-related stories also remain elusive when searching MLB.com. A search of "Bonds steroids" takes the reader to the Drug Policy page and a series of stories from 2006. A search of simply "steroids" calls up primarily video related to Mark McGwire's 2009 admission to Bob Costas that he had used the stuff; and the first written story that pops up is a 2005 piece in which Juan Gonzalez denies allegations made by Jose Canseco.
Mann acknowledged that his site's search mechanism is "sub-optimal. It's on the list [of areas for improvement]." But he noted that most people don't come to MLB.com to search; rather, they explore the site for what's happening at the moment.
"And what is happening is being covered, and covered in a way that's on the mark," Mann said.
Meanwhile, during his Opening Day interview with "Mike & Mike," Selig said what he has said for years now: That baseball has the best drug testing policy in professional sports, that the players are happy and that the so-called steroids era is over.
He even quoted two trainers telling him this year at spring training: "We're stunned how different it's been in the last four or five years. No amphetamines. No steroids."
When read Selig's comments, one team trainer, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, told ESPN.com: "First, I resent the fact that trainers who were there before would say anything's better now because they didn't have the [courage] to stand up and say anything before. If everything is better now, that's a relative term, which means they all knew how bad it was and didn't come forward."
The trainer did say he believed testing was having a deterrent effect, though he also recognized that players likely could be adapting.
"I think if anything it's the case that the players are smarter now, not being as cavalier," he said.
As he concluded discussing the issue in his radio interview, Selig noted that MLB is now doing random blood testing of minor leaguers for HGH.
Finally, he finished up by saying: "But the Bonds saga is playing out, and I'll frankly be glad when it's over."
Mark Fainaru-Wada is a reporter for ESPN's Enterprise/Investigations unit. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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Barry Bonds is on trial for perjury and obstruction of justice, charged with lying when he told a federal grand jury that he did not knowingly use performance-enhancing drugs.
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