Commentary

Steroids, Angels and a dirty doctor

Originally Published: April 20, 2009
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

The cornering of Alex Rodriguez and his subsequent admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs represented, for all intents and purposes, the nadir of the steroid era with few, if any, remaining ambiguities: The A-list, Hall of Fame's best used drugs; and so did the mediocre; and so did the worst. The general managers demurred, the leaders shrank and the men who signed the checks, like everyone else, made a fortune. The shock is gone. Little else can surprise our calloused sensibilities.

That said, the intricate details of just how this confidence game was carried out still carry immense value, for they cement a discredited time with facts instead of speculation. Understanding the foundations of the steroid era also reveals that this industrywide failure stretched far beyond the players connected to Brian McNamee, Kirk Radomski or the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative. It provides even more evidence that so much of what we've seen on the field during the past decade and a half needs to be recast.

Recently, The New York Times obtained transcripts of interviews by federal agents with four major league players conducted as part of the ongoing criminal investigation of Ramon Scruggs, a physician under indictment for illegally distributing steroids to big leaguers, police officers and corporate executives, among others.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonRevelations won't get any bigger than the one involving Alex Rodriguez, but that doesn't mean baseball's steroids mess is over.

For baseball, the Scruggs case by itself is not seismic. After the Rodriguez revelation, "seismic" has a new meaning. Three of the four players involved -- Arizona relief pitcher Scott Schoeneweis, St. Louis third baseman Troy Glaus and former pitcher Ismael Valdez -- already were named in the Mitchell report. (Former catcher Todd Greene was the fourth.) But the investigators' interviews with the players provide clarity to the chain of command and a look into how steroid distribution was protected through legitimate means. Although some players received steroids from contacts at local gyms, others turned to their agents, who put them in touch with men such as Scruggs, who used their professional legitimacy to provide cover for their illegal activity. A fifth player who was one of Scruggs' clients, outfielder Jorge Piedra, was suspended by baseball in 2005 for a violation of its drug policy.

Scruggs represents what has been the most elusive link in the 15-year conspiracy to juice the game: the dirty doctor. In 2005, federal authorities caught James Shortt, an alternative-medicine practitioner who provided steroids to football players Todd Steussie, Todd Sauerbrun and Jeff Mitchell of the Carolina Panthers. In July 2006, Shortt was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

In baseball, discovering similar links -- no different, in a sense, than money laundering -- has been more difficult. But the investigating source is still the same: the federal government.

The role of the player agent represents another, less-scrutinized link. Leagues, owners and players -- not to mention journalists and television networks -- have all benefited from the steroid-fueled popularity of the game. But so, too, have agents, who earn more as their client's performance improves.

Meanwhile, dirty doctors such as Scruggs have applied the same cheap excuses for their behavior that we've heard for years from the players. Glaus told investigators he used steroids to recover from a shoulder injury that was not healing. According to the Times, Schoeneweis told federal agents he felt run-down. Greene said he was fearful of losing his spot on a major league roster and so would not be able to support his family. Valdez said shoulder and knee injuries were not healing. Suggs mailed him steroids and syringes.

Each player used an old rationalization -- I wasn't trying to cheat; I was trying to stay on the field -- to soften the appearance of his actions, but the domino effect remains the same. At this late date, the excuses grow thin, the lies nothing more than a self-created noose.

And here is Scruggs, displaying little professional integrity, following the line.

[+] EnlargeTroy Glaus
AP Photo/Reed SaxonDoes the recent news about Troy Glaus and steroids taint the 2002 World Series and his role as its MVP?

"These players benefited from restoration, not performance enhancement," Scruggs told the Times. "Steroids don't make someone a good athlete or a bad athlete; they may make you stronger, but they don't make you a better athlete."

That's why it's called "getting an edge." That edge can be 5 more miles an hour on a fastball, better bat speed or staying on the roster by being healthy while another guy gets cut.

And so when it comes time for Cooperstown to call or to evaluate another of the great teams of the era, such information must be taken into account. Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Barry Bonds and Rodriguez are all tainted MVPs.

The 2002 Angels, for example, are the legitimate champions of an illegitimate time, just as Bonds is the legitimate home run champion of a discredited era. Despite Angels manager Mike Scioscia's adamant public stand against drugs, people around the game point privately to that club as one of the premier steroid-fueled teams thanks in part to a bullpen rife with career minor leaguers who suddenly began throwing in the mid-90s after their 30th birthdays.

Glaus was the MVP of that 2002 World Series, which is looking more and more like the definitive Steroid Series. Glaus, Brendan Donnelly and Schoeneweis, all of whom have been implicated, played for the Angels that season. On the Giants, there were Bonds, Benito Santiago, Marvin Benard, David Bell and Rich Aurilia. And that doesn't include the players who were suspect.

So it goes. As the federal government finds more dirty doctors doing dirty Internet business -- the delivery system of choice in many cases, as the Signature Pharmacy story suggests -- it is only a matter of time before more players get caught in the net and their teams and accomplishments become exposed. In a 10-year career, Glaus has earned an estimated $65 million. He is a World Series MVP and has a championship ring. He has never been fined a day's pay or suspended for his steroid use. In perhaps a fitting epitaph, the Times reported Glaus told federal agents that he was "willing to take the risk" with steroids, a sentiment that truly speaks for itself.

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