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It's up to the fans

Unless you like cheaters setting examples, demand drug testing and enforcement to clean up baseball.

December 15, 2007

In his scathing report on performance-enhancing drug use in baseball, former Sen. George Mitchell spread blame across the sport for tolerating, and even promoting, a medicine-cabinet approach to America's pastime. In addition to the players -- both those damned by evidence and those who said nothing about the syringes in their teammates' lockers -- he faulted a players union that fought drug testing, clubhouse employees who doubled as drug runners, and team executives, owners and a commissioner's office more concerned about revenue than reputation.

The one group Mitchell left out was fans, who trooped to stadiums in ever-increasing numbers over the course of the "steroid era." Until this week, they could dismiss the drug problem as the aberrant behavior of a few home-run hitters with physiques as unnatural as their accomplishments. Mitchell's investigation, however, found evidence of performance-enhancing drug use by players on all 30 Major League Baseball teams, including pitchers and catchers, infielders and outfielders, stars and bench warmers. More troubling was the suggestion that much of the drug use has become undetectable now that human growth hormone is the juice of choice.

So now it's the fans' turn to weigh in, with their dollars and their voices, on how the game should be played. Unless fans reject the status quo, owners and players are likely to keep up the charade that is the current drug-testing regime. Whatever they might say about the sanctity of the game, most team officials won't try to clean up their squads unilaterally for fear of putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage. They put a premium on winning because that's what fans seem to want them to do. Similarly, players have an incentive to keep using drugs as long as their competitors do, particularly when their employers seem to prefer their drug-enhanced statistics.

The Dodgers offer perhaps the most disturbing example of how teams tacitly reinforced the players' drug ethic. Mitchell's report reveals how the Dodgers' front office talked in 2003 about then-catcher Paul Lo Duca's alleged steroid use and its effect on his trade value. According to notes from a conversation by unidentified team officials, Lo Duca had stopped taking steroids, but that "took away a lot of hard line drives" from his bat. If he were traded, the notes say with a hint of admiration, he'd "get back on the stuff and try to show you he can have a good year." That's appalling.

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig pledged to put into effect as many of Mitchell's recommendations as he has the authority to do. But he can't take the most important step -- toughening the testing program by adding year-round random evaluations for a broad range of substances -- until 2011 unless the players union agrees to modify the current contract. The prospects for that appear grim, given the union's (and individual players') brushoff of Mitchell's investigation.

That's why fans must demand a testing and enforcement regime that will drive drugs out of baseball. It may be hard for fans to make a difference, but here's a suggestion: Threaten to stay home on opening day, or boycott the companies that advertise at stadiums and on telecasts. There's more at stake than a team's playoff chances, the players' long-term health and the game's hallowed records. The drug culture in professional sports is contagious. It infects younger players, many of whom follow big-leaguers' habits like a blueprint. By Mitchell's estimate, "hundreds of thousands of children" are using performance-enhancing drugs, with occasionally tragic results. That's enough reason for fans to tell major league players and owners that it's time to clean up.

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