- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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We know that the average baseball salary has climbed almost one-hundred fold in the last four decades, to about $2.5 million. We know that the players won every labor war before dueling the owners to a draw in 2002. We are supposed to believe the union is the strongest in any country, in any business.
So why the heck haven't the leaders of the all-powerful Players Association done more to protect its own members from steroids and the players who abuse them?
This seems to be a question that more and more players are addressing, in different ways. Last week, Colorado pitcher Turk Wendell asserted that of course Barry Bonds used steroids, and his observations of absurdly large biceps around baseball were seconded by teammate Denny Neagle. Todd Zeile of the Mets mused about wanting a better system, and a couple of days ago, veteran pitcher John Smoltz called for more stringent testing.
"The more this becomes a monster, the more it plays into everybody's mind," he said. "There's a way they should do tests. Do them the way they should be done -- not a platform that's just a smoke screen."
These public observations are hardly shocking; players have been privately saying stuff like this for years, whispering off-the-record complaints about the skinny utility infielder who can suddenly drive opposite-field homers. The stunning part is that it's taken this long for the silent majority in the union to begin asserting its will. Many players have realized for years what a threat the steroid-abusers are to the non-users -- competitively, and physically.
The union's traditional stance has been to fight steroid testing on privacy grounds. Nice idea -- if it were the 1960s. That position became antiquated by the 1990s, when more and more players were arriving in spring training and explaining with straight faces how they gained 30 pounds of muscle by eating more spinach.
And the other players understood what was happening. When fringe major-league outfielders suddenly beefed up and started whacking 35 homers a year, the others realized that he was cheating. They realized that as the number of users appeared to grow, they might have to consider the option just to keep up.
The guess here is that about one-third of the players were users a couple of years ago, and it's a reasonable to assume that a large percentage of the users did so only to keep up.
In a spring training during the last few years, this reporter bumped into a player he'd known for many seasons, and the player -- a good guy, nice person -- suddenly looked as though his upper body was filled with helium.
As he talked sheepishly about a weight-lifting program, he sounded embarrassed. The guess is that he was taking something for the first time, and because he was a player right on the edge -- barely hanging onto his standing as an upper-level player because he wasn't hitting for as much power as some of his peers. I seriously doubt he would have thought about taking anything a few years before.
But he sees his competition; they all do. They can see the bodies are bigger, stronger, more powerful.
Think what pitchers must wonder when they get hit by batted balls. In 1999, the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers' Society compiled statistics on balls hit up the middle in professional baseball. Thirteen hundred eighteen pitchers in the majors and minor leagues were hit by balls hit to the mound.
Of those, 19 were hit in the head or face, 121 got nailed in the torso or chest, 390 in the hand or arm, 788 in the foot or leg. In 155 of the 1,318 instances, the pitcher was taken out of the game. Twenty-nine missed their next start or relief appearance, and 10 went on the disabled list. In the majors alone in 1999, there were 315 instances when a pitcher was hit by a batted ball, and 44 were taken out of the game.
There are no numbers available for subsequent seasons, but the pitchers must wonder. They've seen the players getting stronger, the balls being hit further -- and faster. Those who are hit and injured must wonder if the batter had a little extra in his veins, and if that was the difference between the pitcher getting his glove up in time, or catching the liner with his forehead.
This is the most direct physical threat created by steroid-abusers, but there are many more indirect threats.
A player could take the stuff to keep up competitively and could face serious health consequences. A player could decide not to juice up, and then he might be out of a job, pushed aside by someone who is juicing.
If the leadership of the union, including the highest-ranking players, had been vocal about this, the steroid problem wouldn't have come so far. They could have dealt with it internally. They could have created a no-tolerance culture for the union, told the owners to bug off and simply developed their own stringent in-house testing. You flunk the steroid tests, you're out of the union. It could still be that easy. No player would cross them without having serious reservations; this is the real power of the union, exercised effectively.
But so far, the union has been more aggressive in dealing with former replacement players from 1995 than with their own serious steroid-abusers.
The players do not like to speak out against each other; Robin Ventura, the Dodgers' third baseman, told The New York Times last year that players are reluctant to talk while in meetings, in the same way students are afraid to speak out in class. For the most part players have gone along like sheep on the issue of steroids, even while the union policy protects cheaters. Perhaps the players have been afraid to talk about steroids and implicate a friend or a teammate.
When some players tried to step out and effect change to the weak testing procedure last spring, with the Chicago White Sox and at least one other team, they were effectively told to shut up. Get in there and do your duty, one veteran told other White Sox.
Their duty, as members of the union, is to protect each other. And the best way to do that is to trash the pathetic testing system and develop another which has the best chance of keeping them all protected from the competitive and physical dangers of steroids.
For the first time, there are indications the players are ready to fight each other, for each other.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
With leaders like John Smoltz calling for tougher policies, it's time for the union to get serious about steroids.