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BASEBALL'S MASS APPEAL FACING A TEST

Mass Appeal Facing a Test

Steroids and supplements might be a problem in baseball, but can system address it?

March 29, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

From Vero Beach, Fla., to Surprise, Ariz., from Tampa to Tucson, a common thread wove its way in clubhouse chatter from one baseball spring training complex to the next.

"It's funny because you see a lot of talk this spring all over baseball about big guys who have lost weight, big guys who have trimmed down for some reason," Atlanta Brave left fielder Chipper Jones said recently. "It's everywhere, in every clubhouse, and ... "

Jones hesitated, then smirked before adding, "I wonder why that is?"

The five-time National League All-Star has a clue. For the first time, major league baseball players underwent testing for anabolic steroids before the season, which starts Sunday.

"Maybe guys are realizing where their bread is buttered and that this could have serious repercussions to their careers and lives, and hopefully they are trimming down for all the right reasons," Jones continued.

"You have your suspicions beforehand. You can look around at how big guys were four or five years ago and where they are now, and then all of a sudden you have this steroid testing come around, and guys have lost 20 pounds and aren't the physical specimens they were before. It's not a coincidence."

Nor will it be a coincidence, Jones and other players say, if baseball's muscled masses return in the very near future. Many believe the game's drug-testing policy lacks the teeth required to take a considerable bite out of steroid use or to act as a long-term deterrent.

That criticism, coupled with the growing controversy over the nutritional supplement ephedra in the wake of Baltimore Oriole pitcher Steve Bechler's Feb. 17 death, has left baseball struggling with the perception that it has a drug and performance-enhancing substance-abuse problem and can do little about it.

"Guys will compete, guys will do whatever it takes to be successful, to get an edge, and it is a problem," Dodger left fielder Brian Jordan said. "My concern is based on young kids feeling like they have to use steroids to get an edge over the next athlete to make it to the big leagues. What's the solution? I think we should be tested like other sports. I think it's time for a change."

But why change when players are hitting 60, even 70, home runs a year, throwing 100-mph fastballs and producing the kind of high-scoring games Major League Baseball loves to market and fans prefer to watch?

Few seemed to object when former St. Louis Cardinal slugger Mark McGwire admitted using androstenedione, a legal steroid sold in over-the-counter supplements, during the great 1998 home run chase, when McGwire pounded a then-record 70 homers to edge out Chicago Cub outfielder Sammy Sosa's 66.

Though some speculated San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds, who bears little resemblance to the lithe outfielder who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1986 to '92, received some pharmaceutical assistance to bulk up before his 73-homer season in 2001, that did nothing to smear baseball's celebration of Bonds' home run record.

Do owners really care what players are putting into their bodies as long as the sport continues to generate such excitement and draw such interest?

"No," Jones said. "Because this a business, and they expect you to go out there and perform at a very high level every day. If they're paying you that much money and you need to take something to help you perform top notch and put butts in the seats and make them money, then more times than not, they're going to look the other way."

Rob Manfred, baseball's lead labor lawyer during the arduous 2002 negotiations that yielded a new collective bargaining agreement, averted a work stoppage and produced the game's first steroid testing policy, bristles at such a suggestion.

"I've been doing this for 15 years, and the position of owners has been consistent -- they want more testing, and they want more testing now," said Manfred, an MLB executive vice president. "That argument -- that we shouldn't test because guys may not hit as many home runs -- makes me crazy.

"Bring [a proposal for more substantive drug testing] to us now, and I guarantee all 30 clubs would be on board. We wanted as much testing as we could, and the union resisted it. The union represents players, so don't try to blame it on us."

Rumors of steroid use circulated through baseball for much of the 1990s, but not until 2002, when former National League most valuable player Ken Caminiti claimed up to 50% of players used steroids, and former American League MVP Jose Canseco pegged the number closer to 85%, did it become a front-burner issue.

Though Caminiti later recanted, and Canseco's claims were passed off as ludicrous, baseball deemed there to be enough of a problem to push hard for drug testing to be included in last summer's labor agreement.

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