With Indictments Swirling, Baseball Becomes Big Loser

Published: February 13, 2004

HE scandal is in the clubhouse now, like dirty uniforms the ballplayers drop at their feet. Greg Anderson, Barry Bonds's personal trainer, who had the freedom of the San Francisco locker room, has been indicted along with three other men on 42 charges involving anabolic steroids and financial abuses.

After some of his milestone home runs, Bonds publicly praised Anderson for telling him to eat his broccoli or increase his zinc intake. Now the attorney general of the United States, John Ashcroft, has linked Anderson to the chain of body-building abusers in baseball and other sports.

Baseball looked the other way too long, even when sluggers with recently enlarged physiques like Bonds of the Giants and Jason Giambi of the Yankees were pampered by allowing their trainers in the team clubhouse. Bonds and Giambi were among the athletes who appeared before the grand jury that brought yesterday's indictments, and both were customers of a suspicious laboratory near San Francisco.

Baseball was divided in a labor-management impasse while muscles bulged extravagantly and home runs flew over the fences. This newfound power was a great way to sell tickets and get on the 11 o'clock sports highlights, so baseball looked the other way.

Now the government has alleged fiscal irregularities and distribution of illegal muscle-building drugs by four men Victor Conte Jr., the head of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, or Balco; James J. Valente, the Balco vice president; Remi Korchemny, a prominent track coach; and Anderson, Bonds's childhood friend and for the last five years his personal trainer.

The supply chain may have branched out into other sports, including track and field and professional football, but baseball, the industry that could not regulate itself, is the biggest loser in this indictment.

By finding reason to indict Anderson, the Justice Department is putting a huge cloud over Bonds's record of 73 home runs in 2001. The previous record of 70 was set in 1998 by Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals, who acknowledged using a body-building supplement, androstenedione, that was illegal in many sports but not in baseball.

Baseball used to hope it would all go away, that sentimental and sappy fans (and news media members) would get caught up in a new pennant race and leave the dreary subject of drugs to the Olympics and other periodic phenomena. But now the spotlight is on baseball.

President Bush, a knowledgeable sports fan and once the head of the Texas Rangers, spoke out against performance-enhancing drugs during his State of the Union address. The Justice Department has moved against people who allegedly supplied illegal drugs to prominent athletes.

"They're moving up the chain, away from the athletes," said Richard Pound of Canada, the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency and a frequent critic of baseball's policies toward drugs. Now, Pound said, the United States government is saying, "If you sell it, they'll go after you."

Pound said, "This is a pretty strong message."

He added, "I don't think they've got the Queen Mary turned around, but even a few degrees is important."

The indictments suggest that athletes may not be charged unless testimony in some future trial implicates them.

The balance of sports changed last year when an unidentified track official turned in a vial of THG, a new body-building substance that had not previously been detected by drug laboratories.

Testers will be looking for THG in the Summer Games in Athens in August. And baseball's new but rudimentary drug-testing program will go into force this season because more than 5 percent of players failed random tests last season.

"That is more than the entire Mets and Yankees rosters put together," said Dr. Gary I. Wadler of Manhasset, N.Y., an adviser to the World Anti-Doping Agency, who added, "This is our Ben Johnson moment."

This was a reference to the Canadian sprinter who forfeited his gold medal after testing positive during the 1988 Summer Games, forcing Canada to upgrade its vigilance. Now the United States has a national drug scandal in its athletic supply system.

"These athletes are not off the hook; they will be outed by testing," said Robert Weiner, who worked for six years with Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the so-called drug czar during the Clinton administration.

The widest danger is to teenagers who try to emulate the huge muscles of professional athletes. They are overlooking the permanent damage done to generations of Soviet-bloc athletes who were urged to take powerful body-building substances.

In the Communist system, drugs were distributed by the state. In the so-called free world, body-building substances are part of the free-enterprise chain.

There are good reasons these substances are illegal. One is because they deny an equal chance to all athletes. Another is because many of them are dangerous.

Baseball sluggers and track athletes and swimmers may think they are beating the system. They are cheating and possibly ruining their bodies. Now the government is going after potential cheating. The trail goes right into major league clubhouses.