Commentary

Steroid past brings down future king

Originally Published: February 7, 2009
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

The house of cards, once and for all, has collapsed on Major League Baseball and its steroids era. On Saturday, the past took down the future king.

Take a real good look across the devastated terrain that commissioner Bud Selig once commonly referred to as a renaissance.

• Barry Bonds, 762 home runs, seven-time MVP, goes on trial for perjury beginning March 2.

• Roger Clemens, 354 wins, seven-time Cy Young winner, is being investigated for perjury by the FBI, which is also investigating former MVP Miguel Tejada.

• Rafael Palmeiro, 569 home runs, 3,000 hits, has already been investigated by a House of Representatives subcommittee.

• Mark McGwire, 583 home runs, undid his every act of goodwill with a dishonorable performance in front of the same subcommittee that will not be forgotten.

And now, three-time MVP Alex Rodriguez, purported by fans and baseball -- and, most especially, its commissioner -- to be the clean savior who would soon restore honor to baseball's dirty home run record by eventually surpassing Bonds, reportedly tested positive for the steroid Primobolan and testosterone in 2003, according to a Sports Illustrated report Saturday.

All of those greats have fallen during the same era, for the same reason.

Some fans, writers, government officials -- maybe even some players -- might feel a certain satisfaction, or vindication, now that the truth behind the mask of baseball's hypocrisy is finally being revealed. But this is hardly a day for glee.

The reason is this: Even the truth can come at too high a price, and whatever victory is to be found in Rodriguez's exposure in the short term may turn out to be Pyrrhic. The 104 positive tests for steroids in 2003 were the result of a negotiated confidential testing program agreed upon by baseball and the players' association in the summer of 2002. The names of the players who tested positive were never supposed to be revealed, a condition meant both to build trust between baseball and the players' union and to lay a foundation for an honorable drug-testing program.

Now there's a leak in the levee. If it breaks, the 2009 season will take on the characteristics of a man walking across a field littered with cobras -- a slow, devastating rollout of names every day, every game. Every morning, the threat of a new name exists.

And worse, the opportunity for these two suspicious sides to trust one another enough to take even more meaningful steps toward greater vigilance has been diminished. Even the truth needs to be produced by following certain procedures; and now the union, players and even baseball management can use this lack of confidentiality to resist greater transparency.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
AP Photo/Bill JanschaAlex Rodriguez was supposed to be the player who would carry baseball beyond its steroids era.

Both the union and baseball released statements on Saturday, essentially speaking to the release of the confidential documents, which is both their right and appropriate.

But to the public, that issue is secondary to the reality that the information now lies in the public domain -- information that, as of yet, is not being disputed. As such, it must be confronted.

There will be, over the next few days, the expected spin and manipulation focusing on the leak instead of the information itself -- dismissing the test result as deep in the past before punitive testing took place -- or fixating on the blame-the-media fail-safe. But we know some things, and they should be kept in mind.

We know that he hasn't played a game since Sept. 26, 2007, yet the specter of Barry Bonds continues to loom over the entire sport. We know that without Bonds' perjury indictment, federal agents likely would not have raided the Long Beach, Calif., laboratory that contained the samples from the 2003 survey testing. We know that without Bonds, there would have been less likelihood that Selig would have authorized former Sen. George Mitchell to investigate anabolic substance use in baseball.

We know prosecutors are arguing that Bonds tested positive for steroids in 2001, when he hit 73 home runs and won the National League MVP, whether or not Judge Susan Illston allows the evidence of that test into court next month.

We know that Bonds, like Rodriguez, tested positive under the confidential 2003 survey testing, another year in which he won the NL MVP.

We know that a total of 104 players tested positive under the 2003 survey testing.

We know that if your name happens to be William Roger Clemens, you'd better hope you weren't one of those 104 players. If you were, and your name comes out, you could be wearing pinstripes all over again, this time without the interlocked "NY" on the breast.

We know that at least four primary entities have had access to the 2003 survey testing data: the Major League Baseball Players Association, the commissioner's office, the federal investigators who conducted the raid on the California lab in conjunction with the Bonds perjury investigation, and the 104 players themselves who tested positive.

We know that the players' union had an opportunity to destroy the 2003 survey testing, but inexplicably, did not. The union could have negotiated with the federal government to have investigators subpoena only the 2003 test samples for BALCO-involved players such as Bonds and Jason Giambi. But because the union appears to have overplayed its hand, the government succeeded in acquiring all of the 2003 samples.

What is unclear is whether the commissioner was specifically aware of the results of the anonymous testing. If Bud Selig did know the individual results, he knew that Bonds' 73 home runs were steroid-tainted, and that in touting Rodriguez to be the player to pass Bonds and restore glory to the home run record, he was willing to replace one steroid-fueled slugger with another, albeit one with a better reputation and nicer smile.

The debate over the next few days undoubtedly will shift to the leak, to who spoke to Sports Illustrated and why. And why, if the anonymous source had access to the entire list, was Rodriguez the only person named? The legality of the leak should not be underestimated. Someone has compromised the confidentiality of an agreement. But these questions are important, although they aren't as important as this fact: The full scope of the steroids era is coming into even clearer focus.

Don't forget that the most important informant in American history -- W. Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat -- took down a president in part because he didn't receive the promotion he wanted. Nobody complained then, because the information he leaked was legitimate.

For the same reasons, nobody should complain now.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball," and "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.