In June of 2000, I wanted to write about steroids in baseball. I had nothing to go on but gossip and a gut feeling.
As a Chicago Tribune columnist, I couldn't very well accuse superstars of using illegal drugs without considerable on-the-record confirmation from baseball executives or other players, along with responses from the superstars themselves.
I had no Jose Canseco book. I didn't even yet have the 2002 "Sports Illustrated" interview in which Ken Caminiti said 50 percent of baseball players were juicing.
Several Cubs and White Sox insiders admitted they had suspicions -- but no proof. I didn't have so much as one anonymous-source anecdote about how a player had been seen injecting himself or another player. The five or six players I asked about steroid use looked at me as though I were speaking Sanskrit.
Same for the Cubs and White Sox trainers and fitness coaches.
Finally, on a Saturday afternoon, I caught commissioner Bud Selig as he passed through the Comiskey Park press box. Because I had no hard evidence, I asked Selig off the record if he thought baseball had a steroid problem.
Now, in order to defend Selig, I'll print the essence of what he said: "I'm extremely concerned but we're up against the most powerful union in the world."
One day, that should be Selig's baseball epitaph: Did the best he could against an invincible foe.
Trust me, I'm no Bud apologist. I've occasionally grown as frustrated with Selig's shrinking, sputtering, shrugging do-nothingness as the next fan. I've referred to him as Bud Lite. In print, I've thrown some rotten fruit at him.
But I've always reminded myself that, in reality, Selig isn't spineless. He's just powerless. He inherited a game he couldn't win -- a game run by those who play it. He could sooner hit one out off of Roger Clemens than run baseball the way Paul Tagliabue rules the NFL or David Stern dictates in the NBA.
I had a better chance of blowing the lid off baseball's steroid scandal in 2000 than Selig does of punishing steroid cheaters and Kenny Rogers the way he longs to.
If only you could have seen the pained wince on Selig's face as he said "most powerful union in the world."
No doubt the owners Selig represents benefited greatly from a juice-fueled Great Home Run Race in 1998. Surely, many owners heard the same whispers many media members did, and maybe they chose to hear and see no evil.
But at that point, what good would it have done owners to begin campaigning publicly for steroid testing? Obviously, they would have sabotaged their own product -- perhaps with no more proof than I was able to dig up. For years, the Players Association steadfastly refused during collective bargaining to accept any drug testing.
So what exactly was Selig supposed to do?
He had no chance.
The only reason the players finally agreed to testing was because a majority of their union wanted to remove some of the pressure to keep out-dosing each other. No doubt, some players still beat the tests with masking agents or human growth hormone. But you can also believe the potential for image-ruining public humiliation has reduced steroid abuse in baseball.