2004-12-09 / This Week's Attitude

Steroid Scandal May Be Baseball’s Darkest Hour

All of a sudden everyone’s got ‘roid rage, especially those who cover sports and fans. They’re outraged — but not terribly shocked — about the revelations of steroid use in the world of professional athletes. The scandal began to snowball a year ago when the names of several prominent athletes were linked to an ongoing investigation and San Francisco grand jury testimony.

As the 2004 baseball season progressed, there was scant fallout or additional details made public. The one possible link was the diminished physical appearance of Yankee first baseman Jason Giambi, who was one of the prominent athletes named, though he kept denying he used steroids. While his health deteriorated as the season wore on, steroid-use was suspected to be the culprit, but Giambi refused to acknowledge the fact even after he admitted having pituitary cancer, a known side effect of steroid abuse.

If the average sports fan didn’t know something unnatural was going on when a few players gradually began sprouting muscles upon muscles the last few years, they were probably only keeping up with the sport on the radio.

Suspicions of steroid or performance-enhancing supplement use in sports has been going on for a long time, but probably hadn’t been as rampant as it has been more recently. It was quite obvious decades ago when female Olympic athletes, mostly from Iron Curtain nations, looked more masculine than their male counterparts.

Lyle Alzado, a former star in the National Football League, admitted two days before he died of brain cancer at age 42 in 1992 to using anabolic steroids for years. Alzado, whose body was racked with pain in his final days, made his public confession so that “no one else dies this way.”

No one will ever know how many athletes heeded that dire warning, but a few deaths, including that of former major leaguer Ken Caminiti, an admitted steroid user, who claimed 50 percent of his peers used some sort of performance enhancement potion.

Who’s guilty? Everyone! From the founder of BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative), Victor Conte Jr., who’s nothing more than a drug pusher, to the not-so-naïve athletes who used substances delivered by trainers to boost their personal statistics, to the baseball players’ union, players, owners and individuals who ignored the Incredible Hulks in their midst, to the fans, who no doubt don’t mind watching soaring home run production from likely steroid users.

Conte was interviewed on the ABC’s newsmagazine “20/20” last Friday and acted like a martyr doing a public service by exposing the steroid abuse. Actually, the SOB and his San Francisco-based company are facing 42-count federal indictment for supplying illegal performance-enhancing drugs to a number of elite athletes, including San Francisco Giants’ slugger Barry Bonds, New York Yankees’ Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, and gold medal-winning Olympic sprinter Marion Jones.

Conte should go to prison, like any other dealer caught distributing unlawful drugs, despite cooperating with investigators. His televised confessions seemed more like an attempt to drag down his clients rather than relieve a guilty conscience or an act of contrition.

Bonds, who is expected to break Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record next season — now minus the planned pre-scandal hullabaloo — has denied he knowingly used ‘roids. The slugger’s attorney last week pleaded ignorance on the ballplayers’ behalf when he told the media — with a straight face mind you — that his client accepted drugs from his personal trainer without question because Bonds “is hardly a chemist.”

Puh-leeze! Was Bonds stupid enough not to ask what side effects the substance might have or if it was even legal? Or was he smart enough not to ask any questions so he could maintain ignorance like he’s now doing?

The New York Yankees, especially principal owner George “I’ll Pay Anything To Try And Win A World Series” Steinbrenner, certainly suspected Giambi’s spectacular physical transformation was tied to the use of unlawful performance-enhancing drugs when the team signed him to a multimillion-dollar contract in 2001. Now, the Yankees are denying they knew Giambi lied about steroid ingesting and attempting to void or get out of the deal as fast as they can. It’s doubtful they’ll be able to settle for anything less than some kind of outlandish contractual buyout.

What is most infuriating is the Major League Baseball players union, which, until this week, refused to allow a strict drug-testing program for its members. However, in the wake of the mounting BALCO scandal, baseball union chief Donald Fehr agreed to renegotiate the steroid testing provisions of the players’ contract with the league. The change in attitude is belated and weaker than it should be, but it is the first small step to correct an archaic, irresponsible policy that basically gave a free pass for players to use synthetic concoctions for performance improvement, which is, in effect, cheating and equivalent to doping horses.

When athletes resort to using artificial supplements to play better, it can only mean they aren’t good enough to get by on their natural talent like the majority of their peers.

Seems puzzling that if steroids are illegal, which led to the BALCO indictments, how can steroid users not be guilty, too? An illegal drug is an illegal drug, right, whether it’s performance enhancing or mind numbing?

Before the steroid scandal is over, it will indeed leave a permanent stain on America’s favorite national pastime, in addition to surpassing the 1919 Black Sox disgrace, when several ball players admitted to accepting cash to throw the World Series, as the darkest chapter in baseball history.

This Week’s

Attitude

By Neil S. Friedman

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