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Wednesday, July 17, 2002
Remembering the pain of the Pittsburgh Drug Trials

By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com

"Go ahead and test me," some snap. Others joke about it blithely, one slender major leaguer yukking, "I must be taking the wrong stuff." Still more who sanctimoniously speak of privacy rights wouldn't recognize a civil liberty if it swung its arms and smacked them on the nose.

The specter of steroids is something all players should be ashamed to be a part of, either through their own use or the collective acquiescence that allowed it to develop. Getting them to realize this is difficult, but they have an Achilles' heel. To have them appreciate the danger of squandering the faith of fans, particularly children, ask them about the Pittsburgh Drug Trials.

They stop in their tracks.

They remember.

As a fan, you don't want to believe it. It's surreal. My hero was Keith Hernandez. If you had said anything bad about Keith I would call you a liar. It tarnished the purity of the game.
Alex Rodriguez on drug abuse in baseball during the mid-'80s

I tried this approach first with Don Fehr, whom I asked two weeks ago about his favorite player growing up in Kansas City, Vic Power. "You loved how his home runs would break windows in the left-field parking lot," I said. "What would you have thought -- back then -- if you found out he was on steroids?" Fehr had little response; a man prepared with excellent answers for almost every argument, you could see a glint of empathy as he assimilated the sour thought that depresses so many of us now.

Suitably encouraged, I approached current stars and asked those old enough to remember the mid-'80s, their own childhood, when baseball faced a similar crisis -- players peddling in illegal and nefarious drugs, primarily cocaine, with a jilted public left to wonder just who was and was not strung out on the field half the time. When Dave Parker, Vida Blue, Willie Mays Aikens and more went to jail and/or walked to court in sweat-soaked suits, and Tim Raines described how he kept a gram of cocaine in his uniform and snorted during games. When today's big leaguers were the ones watching and listening as 8- and 10-year-olds.

How did they feel?

John Smoltz: "It was a black mark on baseball, and it shed light on the reality of what was going on and how far we'd fallen from this pure idea that everything's good. It was a reminder to me that society can be your worst friend."

Trevor Hoffman: "I think we (players then) had a reputation, and it said there are things that kids were getting from what goes on with us."

Shawn Green: "I remember being disappointed as a fan, hearing that players were being charged with drug use. That was a pretty common reaction for fans around the country. Kids didn't understand what the issues are. They just see the negative connotations."

It's hard to sense through only words how the players responded to the question. They paused. They thought about it. They began to understand just what it is so many of us have been talking about this past month.

The similarities between steroids and cocaine should not be minimized. One, both are illegal under United States law; just because there are corresponding substances (andro and alcohol) that are not shouldn't cloud that issue, but clarify it. Two, as opposed to tax fraud, their use clearly alters the on-field performances of the players. (One could even argue that steroids are worse, in that they help performance rather than hamper it, corrupting the legitimacy of results and records.) It is a two-pronged crime, against the laws of both society and sport, equally contemptable; the presence of one should not dilute our offense at the other.

And three, players can't couch this one as some the-owners-made-us-do-it issue. They put it into baseball's bloodstream along with their own, all by themselves.

Like so many players today when faced with questions about steroids, Keith Hernandez in 1985 vigorously and indignantly denied "any involvement with cocaine, ever," and yet four months later took the stand and described playing high and waking up in shaking fits.

One of the kids who couldn't help but hear of it was a 10-year-old in Miami named Alex Rodriguez.

"As a fan, you don't want to believe it. It's surreal," Rodriguez recalls. "My hero was Keith Hernandez. If you had said anything bad about Keith I would call you a liar. It tarnished the purity of the game."

The tarnish is growing anew amid the growing realization that many players, particularly the celebrated sluggers, could be on steroids. Major league players have plenty of beefs with the owners, who have cheated and lied to them, and fans, who have harassed them. Yet the union has only its own membership to blame for the current mess. It is the players' responsibility -- not even Major League Baseball's -- to figure out a solution, enforce it, espouse why it's important, and make it a short-term blip in the game's history rather than an era-long travesty.

All they have to do is remember how they felt when they were kids. Even if we have to remind them.

"I don't remember that time per se -- I was too young," says Scott Rolen, "but I think an eight-year-old kid loves the game, he loves everything the game stands for, he loves the players, he loves to see homers and he loves to see pitchers strike guys out. You wish that was all there was to it.

"They don't understand the business, and that's good. I didn't understand the business either, and that was good.

"But there are realities, and that's a shame. Hopefully, an eight-year-old fan now ... will be able to sit where I am 20 years from now and when asked the same question, they can give you the same answer: I don't remember that."

Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.