NEW YORK — The BALCO steroid scandal intruded on the start of baseball playoffs Tuesday when New York Yankee slugger Gary Sheffield said he had unknowingly used an illegal testosterone-based cream.
In a Sports Illustrated story, Sheffield said he was introduced to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, a nutritional supplement distributor, by San Francisco Giant star Barry Bonds in the spring of 2002.
He said BALCO provided him with vitamins and a substance known as "the cream," which he thought was cortisone for surgical scars. He said he used it that season while playing for the Atlanta Braves.
Prosecutors now allege "the cream" was among several illegal steroids that BALCO distributed to professional baseball and football players and Olympic athletes.
"Unfortunately everything has come out at a special moment for me and my teammates," Sheffield said before Tuesday's game against the Minnesota Twins. "I'm looking forward to putting it behind me and moving forward."
His comments mark the first time in the BALCO case that a top ballplayer has acknowledged using steroids.
"Gary Sheffield is a major, major name," said Steven Ungerleider, a doping expert whose book "Faust's Gold" chronicled steroid use by East German athletes a generation ago. "I think this really ups the ante."
Rob Manfred, executive vice president of labor relations for Major League Baseball, called Sheffield's comments "a concern" but said the player faces no repercussions because the purported steroid use occurred before baseball started its testing program.
"The more important issue is what are people doing today," Manfred said. "That's why we have testing."
The BALCO case reverberated through the Olympic realm last summer when anti-doping officials investigated numerous top U.S. athletes, including sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, for their links to the Northern California company.
Anti-doping officials say BALCO was the source of THG, a designer steroid that was allegedly created to evade drug testing. BALCO founder Victor Conte and three other men -- including Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson -- have been indicted on charges of conspiracy to distribute steroids. The defendants have pleaded not guilty.
Asked about Sheffield's comments, Conte's lawyer, Robert Holley, said: "Victor did not supply Gary Sheffield with any illegal substances."
Sheffield told Sports Illustrated that he had no knowledge of Bonds using performance-enhancing drugs.
Neither Bonds nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
Sheffield said he was casual friends with Bonds and trained with him before the 2002 season. Bonds was using BALCO products and would later help promote one of them, ZMA, a legal nutritional supplement.
"He said, 'I got guys here, they can get your urine and blood and prescribe a vitamin specifically for your blood type and what your body needs,' " Sheffield told Sports Illustrated. "And that's what I did."
Of the cream, he said, "I put it on my legs and thought nothing of it. I kept it in my locker. The trainer saw my cream."
Sheffield also said that after an initial meeting with Conte, he received all BALCO products through Anderson. The trainer said through his attorney that he believed the products he gave to Bonds and Sheffield were legal.
Initially, BALCO provided these products free. But after Sheffield and Bonds had a falling out over unrelated matters, Sheffield was told he had to pay.
His check to BALCO reportedly was among the evidence that federal agents recovered during a raid on the lab's headquarters last year.
"The money that Gary Sheffield paid to Victor Conte was for legal nutritional supplements and for advice," Holley said.
In 2002, Sheffield hit .307 but had only 25 home runs and 84 runs batted in, which he characterized as his worst season ever.