Steroid issue requires more vigilance

Baseball can say what it wants about the results, but nobody really knows how rampant steroid use is.

Originally Published: November 14, 2003
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

The results from baseball's first testing for steroids came in, and what we are to understand is both that the Commissioner of Baseball is pleased the use is not more widespread and the union feels vindicated.

Yes, it's true, there were enough players testing positively to fill two to four 25-man rosters. And, yes, it's also true that pathetic methodology probably masked higher numbers. But hey, this was a good thing, right?

"A positive rate of 5 percent is hardly the sign that you have rampant use of anything," said Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president for labor relations, as quoted in The New York Times. "From our perspective, it's still a problem."

You look around and see the bodies, and it's the same. 'Roids are still all the rage.
An American League veteran

The standards of fear Selig used in indicating relief might have been those set by the likes of Jose Canseco (who estimated that 85 percent of players use steroids) and Ken Caminiti (at least half). The test results didn't approach those estimates -- and this is a good thing, right?

Gene Orza, the union's No. 2 official, released a statement, saying that the test results showed the estimates were "grossly uninformed."

The problem is that all opinions, including Orza's, are grossly uninformed. Nobody truly knows how many players are taking the supplements, or what they are taking. And no one -- certainly not the union -- seems dedicated to resolving a serious concern that may literally be taking years of life away from a huge pool of players.

All we have learned, after the test results came in, is that at least 5 to 7 percent of the tests came back positive. But there is every reason to believe the results are only part of the iceberg, and until there is a vigilant program -- and vigilant attitudes from the union and the owners -- nobody will know what lies below the surface. The circumstantial evidence, seen daily by players and on-field staff, continues to be horrifying, and there was no reason to expect that the testing done in 2003 would have any serious effect.

A player could have stood in the middle of the clubhouse last spring, surrounded by media and executives, and stabbed hypodermic needles full of steroids into his body, and nothing would have happened. No suspension, no fine, not even a pamphlet on the dangers of steroids. Any player could have done this twice, and nothing would have happened.

There were no penalties in 2003. And the players knew in advance, generally, when they would be tested. They had the option of delaying steroid cycles, and then resuming them after the tests. That anyone flunked could be attributed to only two possible factors: the flunkees were too numb to understand how they could maneuver around the testing. Or the flunkees were smart enough to understand there were no immediate consequences for a positive test.

From the outset of spring training, many players, executives and scouts in the game chortled over the radical shrinkage in body types of some players -- suspected steroid users in the past. The theory was that those players simply waited until after the testing to go into a steroid cycle. One former All-Star appeared to have lost 25 to 30 pounds.

"He looks like a high school kid," said one broadcaster.

Another player experienced a serious injury, and club executives estimated that during his rehabilitation he lost about 20 to 30 pounds. The player's explanation was that he had gone through an extensive workout program -- although the player's injury would have prevented him from rigorous exercise.

If the prospect of steroid testing discouraged some possible users early in the year, it did not seem to have any lasting effect.

"You look around and see the bodies, and it's the same," said an American League veteran. "'Roids are still all the rage."

The newly revealed designer drug THG was not on the lists of substances subject to testing in the spring, and it figures there could be other designer drugs in use that are not on baseball's list of banned substances.

The owners pushed for a testing program in the last labor negotiation -- but before we raise them to sainthood, remember that they have never made this a make-or-break issue. There has long been circumstantial evidence pointing toward steroid use involving some of the game's greatest stars, and it wasn't until Caminiti's steroid revelations in a 2002 Sports Illustrated piece that the owners brought this concern to the bargaining table. They were party to the toothless testing of 2003 -- a first step, baseball executives say. At least there is that.

The attitude of the union leadership toward testing has been stunning. It doesn't take long, after conversations with players, to ascertain that players -- it's a safe bet there's a silent majority -- would prefer a strong testing program.

They want the violators rooted out, partly because of the small matter of integrity, but also because steroid use creates a competitive imbalance that can only be matched with more steroid use; there is great pressure on players to use the stuff to keep up. Players on at least two major-league teams considered boycotting the tests last spring to skew the statistical results and force a more stringent system of testing.

The union has long been philosophically opposed to testing. But an alternative -- an idea of a players' agent -- is that the union could establish its own system of testing, set up its own stringent standards, and police the results in-house. A repeat offender might be dealt with, perhaps booted out of the union and exposed. This way, the clean ballplayers and the privacy rights of players would be protected.

But as it stands, the union has a vastly more aggressive stance against replacement players (from 1995) than it does a legion of steroid users who have created an implicit threat to the entire brethren. If the silent majority is not speaking up in meetings, then maybe it's up to the leadership to understand why. And there is this question: If the past estimates are grossly exaggerated, as Orza maintains, and there is only a small percentage of users, why in the world would the majority -- the non-users -- want to protect the users? How could that possibly serve them?

The testing that will go into effect for 2004 will be stronger, but the most important results are to come in the years ahead, as the harmful effects of steroids start to show with users themselves. Then we'll see if 5 to 7 percent -- or greater -- is reason for relief or vindication.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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