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One Hot Topic

Seemingly all anyone wants to talk about this spring is steroids, and players are eager to change the subject

March 05, 2004|Elliott Teaford and Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writers

MESA, Ariz. — In major league clubhouses, behind batting cages, on the diamonds and in the grandstands, even in Washington, it seems everyone is talking about baseball and steroids.

Everyone that is but Barry Bonds, one of six major league players reported to have received a new designer steroid from a Burlingame, Calif., supplement company, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO).

After playing in the San Francisco Giants' spring training opener Thursday against the Chicago Cubs at Mesa, Bonds declined to answer steroid-related questions, saying he would speak only to baseball-related issues.

"There's no need to address anything other than baseball," he said, as a crush of reporters six deep surrounded him at his locker stall. "That's what I do, play baseball."

The mood at HoHokam Park was dampened Thursday not by the specter of a growing steroid scandal but by unseasonable 46-degree temperatures with a 10-mph wind and light rain during the Giants' 9-3 victory.

Bonds was greeted by a mix of cheers and boos from the crowd of 10,797 who braved the elements. As he stepped to the plate with none out and runners on first and second in the first inning, a Giant fan said, "At least his bat's not corked," a not-so-subtle dig at Cub outfielder Sammy Sosa, who last year was caught with an illegal bat.

Bonds grounded out in his only at-bat. He played one inning before Manager Felipe Alou pulled him, fearful of an injury in the sloppy conditions.

A beer vendor further enlivened the day with a sales pitch that showed he was abreast of current events: "Old Style, five bucks, steroid-free."

Rick Fleming, 26, a student from Dubuque, Iowa, said fans would continue to fill ballparks because he believes they are savvy enough to identify steroid users.

"You can tell by the size of their physique," Fleming said.

Thomas Lemke, 25, a baggage handler for United Airlines, was less troubled by the steroid talk. "I think I'll be a fan regardless," he said. "I love the game."

Todd Grobstein, 22, a restaurant manager from Scottsdale, Ariz., placed some of the blame for the growing scandal on the media, suggesting it had been blown out of proportion. Grobstein said he would not stop rooting for his beloved Cubs, no matter how widespread steroid use might prove to be in baseball.

"I think it's a dark cloud, definitely, but I don't think it's ruining the game," he said. "It's a select few individuals that have taken advantage of select circumstances."

Last Friday, a lawyer for Greg Anderson, Bonds' personal trainer, said Bonds' name appeared on a document listing steroids and dosages that was seized by federal agents as part of the BALCO investigation. But attorney J. Tony Serra said the slugger never took the drugs. On Monday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that federal authorities had been told Bonds, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and three other players received steroids. Since those reports, the issue has come under intense scrutiny by lawmakers, reporters and Major League Baseball.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) announced the introduction of a bill to broaden the definition of illegal steroids and stiffen the penalties for their distribution. The White House, following President Bush's call for the eradication of steroid use in professional sports in the State of the Union address, is trying to organize a summit of major sports leagues and the U.S. Olympic Committee to discuss steroid use by athletes.

Back inside the Cub clubhouse Thursday, Chicago Manager Dusty Baker sought to distance himself from recent comments in which he compared the steroid probe to McCarthyism, suggesting his words were misconstrued.

"It's hard to end talk," said Baker, a former Giant manager. "There's always somebody going to come around with the same question everybody has already answered. There's going to be somebody here tomorrow. Somebody here the day after that.

"What ends it is me [refusing to discuss it further]."

The Giants' media relations department has monitored reporters' interviews with players this week. Henry Schulman, Giant beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, said the club was wary of players answering repeated questions about steroids. "They really don't want to answer them and they're told not to answer them," he said.

Commissioner Bud Selig on Wednesday sent a directive to all 30 clubs telling officials, managers and coaches not to comment on the BALCO case in particular and steroids in general.

Players, in other camps in Arizona and Florida, are not covered by the gag order and some have been forthcoming when asked about steroids.

On the day the Chronicle reported that federal investigators were told Bonds, Giambi, Sheffield and three others received a new designer steroid -- tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG -- from BALCO, reporters descended on spring training complexes.

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