The Baltimore Sun

Tuesday, July 13, 2004


Baseball solidly in last place on drugs


By Robert Weiner and Sasha Varghese

Special To The Baltimore Sun

July 13, 2004

With the Olympic trials upon us and the Games rising on the horizon, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the Justice Department are cracking down on steroid and banned-substance users in track and field.

Stars Tim Montgomery, Michelle Collins, Chryste Gaines and Alvin Harrison have been told that unless they can disprove drug cheating, the gavel awaits them. World champion sprinter Kelli White already has accepted a two-year ban from the sport.

But the USADA, the Justice Department and Major League Baseball have yet to take action against big-time baseball players or trainers. The sport is being poisoned by illegal drug use for the sake of entertainment.

Where is the litigation when it comes to baseball? Where are the letters to ballplayers warning them about possible bans such as the ones that track and field abusers face?

Other sports and sports bodies - professional hockey, football, basketball, 30 Olympic sports, and the NCAA, for example - test for drugs and provide severe penalties for abusers.

Federal drug enforcement, MLB and we baseball fans alike all bear responsibility for allowing baseball to come to this. Baseball is the pariah of sports.

Despite nationwide exposure of steroid use in America's pastime and severe health dangers from using steroids in training regimens, we, the fans, apparently don't care what the players use to hit their long balls and make gymnastic throws to the plate for outs.

By sitting idly by, we, those paying the players' salaries, are as guilty as any other party.

Baseball's testing is a joke. The players union refuses to consent to strict prevention and enforcement, maintaining it is an infringement of the athletes' rights.

What exactly are the penalties of steroid use for ballplayers? The first positive test results in treatment. The second? Up to a $10,000 fine (the big guns make millions, so that's pennies to them) or a possible 15-day suspension.

No. 3 and No. 4? That's 25 to 50 days. The fifth? A $100,000 charge or maybe a one-year suspension without pay. Players have little to nothing to fear even if they do get caught red-handed.

Contrast that to a two-year ban in some other sports for first use, and a lifetime ban (with possible appeal for good behavior) in track and field. That kind of sentence at least makes athletes think twice.

The USADA is investigating sprinter Marion Jones on what appears to be feeble evidence, but fails to root out egregious violators on the baseball field.

Five to 7 percent of nearly 1,500 anonymous tests administered last year came back positive for banned substances - unlike other sports, baseball refuses to disclose violators and lets them keep playing with a few days off. The emerging designer drug tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) was not even one of the substances tested or prohibited.

Though the Olympics even bans users for substances "related" to banned ones, baseball's deterrence is laughable.

Using drugs to cheat is deplorable at any level in any sport. That's the message kids need: don't be drugged-up gorillas pounding home runs. It seems nonchalantly forgotten that Orioles pitching prospect Steve Bechler died from heatstroke related to ephedra use.

Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi have been implicated in the BALCO scandal (but not yet found guilty) and Mark McGwire admitted he took androstenedione.

After years of the obvious, andro is now banned as a steroid after substitutes have surpassed it, anyway. After publicly ending his andro use, McGwire's homer total dropped from 70 to 30, and now he is out of baseball, 80 pounds lighter.

We were among 48,442 fans at Camden Yards as we watched the Orioles take on Giambi, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and the New York Yankees last month.

We considered holding up a banner with "BALCO" on it and chanting in the direction of the dugouts. By chickening out, somehow even we were victimized by letting the mood of the game stay the same. We were as wrong as baseball.

Robert Weiner was spokesman for the White House National Drug Policy Office from 1995 to 2001. He directed World Anti-Doping Agency media outreach at the Salt Lake City Olympics and White House drug policy media at the Sydney Olympics. Sasha Varghese is a student at the University of Virginia's Lodge.