It's time for all to come clean

In an attempt to help cleanse the game from the steroids mess, those involved need to open up and speak freely.

Originally Published: February 21, 2005
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

Give everybody steroid immunity. Give everybody a chance to come out from hiding, and emerge from beneath their half-truths and the BALCO and Jose Canseco clouds. Let them talk freely, without lawyers and agents planted next to them, without the parsed lawyerly answers. Let them explain why, when, how, what, so that we have the full context of the steroid issue, a full understanding -- because until we have that, and until the bunker mentality ends, no true leadership is possible.

Imagine what they might say.

Commissioner Bud Selig

I asserted that I really didn't have a strong sense of the steroid problem until 1999. Well, let's face it: I sounded like J. Edgar Hoover did when he said the Mob doesn't exist.

Jason Giambi
Jason Giambi needs to open up and speak freely about his alleged use of steroids.

Sure, I heard the speculation before that -- scouts joking with their eyebrows arched about an aging slugger's sudden weight gain, a club executive chortling about how there seems to be an epidemic of jawline and forehead growth. Stick-figured outfielders suddenly extra-large and hitting one-handed home runs.

But you know what? We didn't have any hard proof. We didn't have any empirical evidence. We didn't have any rules against steroid use, and the only way we could get rules was with the approval of the players' union -- and if we had pressed the steroid issue as far back as 1996 or 1997, we would have had no chance for success.

Our nasty labor negotiations of 1994-95 damaged the already poor relationship between the owners and union. The Democrats would've had a better chance of getting the Republicans to agree on abortion than we had in getting the union to give us any concessions on steroids.

By 1998, the game was on the mend. New ballparks were popping up all over the place; attendance was climbing; and sluggers were hitting home runs with record-setting binges. You looked at the huge bodies and, sure, you wondered. But what were we supposed to do -- shut down the game because of suspected steroid use? The game was, and is, booming. Were we supposed to use our capital in order to save the players from their own intransigent union policy? Isn't a union supposed to protect its own brethren?

So we looked the other way for more than a decade, mostly. But we eventually instituted a steroid-testing policy in the minor leagues, and in recent years, we pushed the issue -- spurred on by scandal and congressional threats, undoubtedly -- and got steroid testing in place.

Have we ever put our full conviction -- i.e., our money -- on the line in pursuit of a sport of zero steroid tolerance? No, we haven't. But we're moving in the right direction, and let's face it: The union leadership has to be invested. Otherwise, we'll all be back here in 10 years, lamenting our failure to clean up the game.

Jason Giambi

You know why I answered the questions the way I did at my news conference? Money.

The notion that I was somehow forbidden to talk because of my grand jury testimony, well, that's a sham. I can't talk about what happened in front of the grand jury, of course, but those proceedings don't preclude me from discussing steroid use in general. The real reason is that I know the Yankees would absorb and analyze every word I said, and if I admitted steroid use in that setting, their chances of voiding the rest of my contract might have gone up from zero to five percent. Might've lost some endorsement dollars, as well.

So I saved some money -- even though, let's face it, I've already made tens of millions, anyway. As a person, as someone trying to move beyond a personal crisis, I would've been better off being dead honest, as I am today.

I wanted to be great. I was a good player coming up through the minor leagues, but I wanted to be great, and I had friends in the game who used the steroids and swore by them. You wake up in the middle of a long road trip and instead of being sore and aching all over, you can hit the weights, get stronger, still feel fresh for the games.

There were no rules against taking steroids at that time, and you looked around at the way the game was changing and the trend was clear. It was as if you had a group of players -- the users -- wielding aluminum bats, while the other guys were stuck with wood.

I had lifted weights in the past, trained, done everything I could to be great -- and if taking steroids was part of the bargain, I was ready to make the sacrifice. This was my shot. So I took steroids.

I didn't mean to hurt anybody. I wasn't trying to cause problems for anybody else.

Last summer, when I started feeling bad, I began to worry about the steroids I took. Maybe they were part of the problem, part of the reason for the tumor; nobody can tell me for sure. But I'm 33 now and I've got a long life ahead of me.

I'm sorry -- I'm sorry for lying, for deceiving. And while you know about the possible rewards of steroids, I'm ready to warn you and anybody who's thinking about steroids, about the possible risks -- about how it made me feel on a day-to-day basis, about how it might have contributed to my patellar tendinitis. I'm ready to be the first star baseball player to explain why he was a user. I want to help in any way I can.

Hugo Owthormone, slugger; never tested positive

I saw Jason Giambi's tortured press conference, and you know what? I felt ashamed. Not because of the steroids I took -- but because we've let Jason take the hit for all of us. He's become Mr. Steroids, the guy who's going to take a lot of abuse, but we all know the problem involved hundreds of us over two decades.

So here I am today, being honest, showing leadership, making sure that Jason does not stand alone. I took steroids, for all the reasons Jason mentioned here today -- a desire to be great, the need to keep up with the steroid users, the need to cash in before my baseball career was over. I was a fringe major-leaguer and with help from the juice, I hit 30 homers, made an All-Star team. I thought I had a shot to excel in my job, and I took it.

String Bean, All-Star pitcher who never took steroids

Of course I saw what was happening. One suspected steroid user walked shirtless through the clubhouse before the '97 All-Star Game and his entire back was covered with acne. Somebody threw a T-shirt at him and said, "Hey, stop being so obvious about it." Another thirtysomething pitcher showed up to our camp with huge biceps and cut off his sleeves to show them off. How pathetic.

It was a problem, undoubtedly. But you know what I and the other clean players did about it? Almost nothing. We griped privately, complained. But when we had team meetings, I stayed silent. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Kind of sad, really.

The union leaders advised us against testing because of privacy concerns, but I knew it was much more complicated than that. The users were putting us all in a bind, forcing us to consider using steroids, taking jobs away from non-users. I know a few pitchers who got injured on balls hit back through the middle from suspected users, and for almost two decades, what did I say about it? Nothing.

Now anybody who played in the steroid era of 1987-2003 is stained, and I'm furious about that. Some writer asked me the other day how I managed to pitch into my late 30s injury-free, and I thought he smirked when I told him about my workout regimen. That's ridiculous; I never took anything. I blame the users, I blame the owners, I blame everybody -- including myself.

Don Fehr
Don Fehr ignored the issue of steroid use by players for far too long.

Union head Don Fehr

Looking back on it, I made major mistakes. I stubbornly stuck to the principle of privacy rights, when, in retrospect, that principle really didn't apply to the situation at hand. It was as if I was fighting for a horse-and-buggy lane on interstate highways.

We have worked hard to protect the players, but in time, we wound up protecting the cheaters -- at the expense of players who wanted to be clean. There's no telling how many players started taking the stuff because they felt compelled to protect their livelihood, because they had to keep up with the competition.

Through the 1994-95 labor strife, we fought the owners' effort to break apart the union -- that whole replacement player debacle -- and I admit, we were in no mood to give in to anything they wanted, especially something that might cause strife in the ranks of players.

In retrospect, we should've been more proactive. We should have become aware, much sooner, of the strong sentiment for steroid testing within the ranks of our members. There were signs of discontent all over the place, and for three years, we did not educate ourselves.

Maybe we could've adopted our own rigid testing policy within the union, refused to give the results to the owners, and booted the cheaters out of the players' association; that, in itself, would have been a very strong deterrent. Then we could've protected the clean players and their privacy, as well.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner

Did we think Giambi might be taking steroids in 2001? Sure; everybody thought that.

But we had no way of knowing, no way of finding out. There were no rules against taking steroids. Yes, the word "steroids" was in our proposed contract language to Giambi, and yes, it was taken out.

But guess what? The word "steroids" was proposed as a standard part of the contract language in every player negotiation the Yankees had for years before the Giambi talks, and it was almost always struck out unless we were negotiating with an inexperienced agent. It was just part of the process; this wasn't unique to the Giambi deal.

We thought there was a chance Giambi might break down before his seven-year contract expired, and we wondered if it would be because of steroids. But he was the best offensive player in the American League at that time, and our offense had been in decline. Plus, we were about to start a new network, and Giambi was going to be our headliner, the way Reggie Jackson had once been. We needed him.

And even though we suspected he took steroids, were we supposed to ignore every player thought to be taking steroids? We could've eliminated a third of the talent pool in the majors if we had done that, and some players on our own roster were suspected steroid users. What were we supposed to do -- wage a one-team fight against steroid users, at a time when steroids weren't against the rules?

The Giambi deal is a disaster for us, and steroids have hurt everyone in the game. As George Patton -- my favorite figure from history -- would know instinctively, baseball needs leaders right now to get through this mess. We need leaders -- among the players, the union, the owners.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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