Game hardly on 'roid to ruin

The widespread anger over baseball's steroid controversy shows the national pastime is held to a higher standard.

Originally Published: November 18, 2003
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Baseball is held to a higher standard than other sports.

Ken Caminiti
Ken Caminiti's estimates of 50 percent steroid use in baseball was clearly pumped up.

For instance, newspapers only print All-Star teams showing the highest paid baseball player at each position even though NBA players make as much money. Columnists only complain about baseball postseason games starting too late and ending past midnight even though the NFL's marquee game, Monday Night Football, starts later and ends later every week. People regularly complain about baseball games lasting too long even though pro and college football games all last longer.

And the latest example is the steroid controversy.

Between 5 and 7 percent of steroid tests among major-leaguers were positive last year and based on the international outrage you would have thought 50 to 70 percent had tested positive for heroin.

Among the many "concerned'' citizens was former Olympics vice-president Dick Pound, who called baseball's steroid policy a "complete joke'' and an "insult.'' Gee thanks, Dick. That means so much coming from the person who has so clearly and completely removed steroids from the Olympics.

Pound's associate with the World Anti-Doping Agency, Dr. Gary Wadler, called baseball's announcement "probably the blackest day in the history of sports.'' Wow. I guess that leaves the '72 Munich Olympics, the old color barriers in virtually every sport and Dave Bliss' little act at Baylor this summer in a dogfight for the silver medal.

Are steroids (and other performance enhancers) a problem in baseball? Yes, of course they are (though I don't think they are used nearly as much as Ken Caminiti speculated last year). But why is the full outrage reserved for baseball when so many other sports haven't been able to solve the problem, either?

Let me ask you this. Look at the players on a baseball team. Then look at the players on a football team. Then tell me, which sport do you suspect has more players taking performance enhancers that are stronger than Wheaties? Yes, yes. I know, I know. The NFL tests for steroids. It suspended six players this season and reportedly just caught four Raiders using THG. But if you think the NFL catches everyone and has cleaned everything up, you probably think Howie Long deserved an Oscar nod for "Firestorm,'' too.

Not to sound like a flack for Bud Selig, but last week's testing result actually was welcome news. Because it met the minimum requirement in the latest union contact, from now on, at least some players will be punished for cheating. In fact, some players even considered not taking the test last spring, knowing that would count the same as testing positive. That's because they wanted their fellow competitors to be tested.

And now they will.

If a player tests positive twice, it can mean a 15-game suspension, and while that doesn't meet Dick Pound's tough standards (I think he wants them shot, or at least forced to watch ballroom dancing at the Olympics) it is a stiffer punishment than it seems. Any player who is outed for steroid use will be in for a season of hell from the fans when he returns, an intimidating aspect that doesn't really apply to players in other sports, where they are rarely alone in the spotlight.

I'm not burying my head in the sand on this issue. I would prefer baseball's steroid policy be stronger than it is. I have no illusions that the current policy can remove steroids and other performance enhancers from baseball. I know it won't even come close. It may discourage their use but it won't eliminate them by any stretch.

But I'm also realistic. As long as there are $5 million, $10 million, $25 million and $150 million contracts at stake, athletes will seek an edge in their performance regardless of the health risks. And no matter how many tests you create to catch them, some will find ways to outsmart you. It will happen in baseball just like it happens in track and football and cycling and whatever other sports where strength and endurance can help you compete.

Baseball is held to a higher standard than other sports. That can be both good and bad, flattering and infuriating. But before singling out baseball and blasting it for dragging its feet on this issue, just look at the athletes in other sports and ask if those sports have really done all that much better.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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