Baseball's Lie Comes Home to Roost

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, December 16, 2007

This past week, the Orioles traded Miguel Tejada for a fistful of players you never heard of. The Nationals signed free agent catcher Paul Lo Duca, an all-star four times, for the curiously low price of $5 million for one year. Throughout baseball, teams and players suddenly made up their minds about where to play next season and at what price. Andy Pettitte re-signed with the Yankees; the Brewers gave Eric Gagne a one-year deal for $10 million. On Thursday, simultaneous with the release of the Mitchell report, Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees, after weeks of negotiations, suddenly finalized the biggest contract ever.

As soon as the report was released, these coincidences became clearer. Lo Duca, Pettitte and Gagne were all asked by Mitchell to respond to steroid allegations against them. All declined. But they knew they'd be in the report. They took the money on the table, even if it was only for one year, before their names hit the front page.

Because 18 current or former Orioles were among the 92 names mentioned by Mitchell, did Baltimore take what it could get for the fading Tejada before the smoke of rumors around him actually turned into fire? As for the Yanks, up to their pinstripes in syringes, did they wait to sign A-Rod, the biggest still-clean name in the sport, until the day he could provide the most PR cover for their ex-stars, including Roger Clemens, who were named by their former trainer Brian McNamee?

If all this makes baseball sound like a cynical world where "the juice" is an everyday part of life as well as a factor in every trade or signing, then you're absolutely right. If you conclude that the whole sport, from the union, commissioner and owners through GMs and managers, has been deeply aware of its steroid epidemic for many years, but didn't have the guts to confront it, then you're correct again. Baseball has lived a lie since the late '80s, then stonewalled throughout the '90s, as a corrupting "code of silence," as the Mitchell report calls it, dragged the game to the bottom rung of the moral-authority ladder in American sports. What we've read is a 400-plus-page portrait of a sport that knew the depth of its problems at least 15 years ago. But, for the sake of union strength, crowd-pleasing home runs, record attendance and a "comeback" from its own self-inflicted strike, the entire sport turned its eyes away.

Away from what? That is the basest of all baseball's infractions. What the sport ignored, and still will not acknowledge adequately, is the true price of its moral weakness. Mitchell fingered it right up front, starting on page 5 with "Health Risks." Scientists debate the degree of danger posed by anabolic steroids and human growth hormones for mania, severe depression, heart attacks, liver damage, infertility, tendon tears, gigantism, cancer and arthritis. Yet science doesn't really know because no one would allow steroid or HGH tests on humans with the astronomical dosage levels used by pro athletes.

"The doses typically used by athletes are much higher than those prescribed for any legitimate therapeutic use," said the report, "between five and 30 times greater than the level of testosterone naturally produced by the body."

Over the next few decades, we will be left to wonder how many players' lives, even their sanity, will be damaged or destroyed by past use of steroids, HGH and amphetamines in a complicit baseball culture that winked and kept cashing checks.

When we watched Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fight three times, we knew that one or both might end up punch drunk or die early because that is the nature of their sport. But when we cheered as Barry Bonds faced Clemens, did we think we might be witnessing a comparable devil's bargain? We had our fun. But what about the price our gladiators may someday have to pay?

Perhaps what is most chilling in the Mitchell report is the casual business-as-usual comments of general managers and scouts as they discuss what they assume is the steroid use of players such as Lo Duca and Gagne. No problem, just factor it into the price of the deal, like a bad knee or a problem hitting the change-up. The report also gives us new characters to disrespect, such as Giants General Manager Brian Sabean who, when his trainer brings him information about drug use, says, in effect, you take care of it. Or Cards Manager Tony La Russa, who once told "60 Minutes" how much he knew about steroids in his Oakland clubhouse long ago yet, when quizzed for details by Mitchell, suddenly says he "exaggerated" for TV.

There's shame to spare. But the union, which has done much good in other respects, deserves special disgrace. Instead of defending the workplace safety of its members, its leaders protected the interests of stars and their agents who were more concerned with blocking drug tests so that they could inflate their salaries rather than, as Don Fehr claimed, protect their privacy.

"I don't think that's what Samuel Gompers had in mind," Selig told me last week. However, the Mitchell report also incriminates Selig. "We didn't know the magnitude of the problem as long ago as you think we did," Selig said.

Selig, who incredibly said Thursday that he hadn't read the report, should read it some cold Milwaukee night. The metastasizing problem was clear before the strike of '94, not several years after it, as the commissioner likes to rewrite history. The media couldn't prove it. Many fans were indifferent to it. But that doesn't excuse baseball for conveniently ignoring it.

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