By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
As Major League Baseball teams prepare to assemble in Florida and Arizona this weekend for another spring training, the sport once again is confronted with a full-blown steroids eruption, complete with renewed congressional scrutiny, judicial action and a new face to a scandal that is now into its second decade.
New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez this week became the latest baseball megastar to have his legacy tainted by revelations of steroids use. On Monday, Rodriguez, the highest-paid and arguably most talented player of his generation, confirmed a Sports Illustrated report that he had tested positive for steroids in 2003.
"Being honest is absolutely the only thing for me to do right now," Rodriguez told ESPN. "I hope soon enough we can put it in a vault and move forward."
That is a wishful sentiment baseball has expressed for years now, only to find the vault will not close.
Nearly 11 years since a bottle of the steroids precursor androstenedione was spotted in the locker of St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire, six years since baseball began testing players for drugs, four years since the high-profile congressional hearing in which McGwire refused to "talk about the past" and 14 months since the Mitchell report on steroids use in the game sought to provide "closure," the sport remains unable to escape the taint of performance-enhancing drugs.
"It tarnishes an entire era to some degree," President Obama said at a White House news conference Monday night, responding to a question about Rodriguez. "And it's unfortunate, because I think there were a lot of ballplayers who played it straight."
Yesterday, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), a longtime member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, suggested the panel invite Rodriguez to be interviewed by its staff in order to gauge the need for further action.
"I don't necessarily see the need for another hearing, unless there is something in that interview to lead us . . . to conclude it would be appropriate," Cummings said. "But when the top player in baseball is found to have used steroids, it seems to me he would be an appropriate person to talk to. Right now, we just want to see if we can bring some closure to this thing."
But how? Even as baseball sorts through the fallout from the revelations regarding Rodriguez, a three-time American League most valuable player, the sport is facing the twin embarrassment of seeing the greatest slugger and greatest pitcher of the past quarter-century, both now retired, pursued by the Justice Department for allegedly lying under oath about steroids use.
In San Francisco, former Giants left fielder Barry Bonds, the game's all-time home run king, is set to go on trial March 2 for statements he made to a grand jury in 2003. In Washington, a grand jury has begun hearing evidence in a perjury investigation into seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens for statements he made before Congress last year.
Meantime, yesterday, one day after Rodriguez confirmed his steroids use, former Baltimore Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada was charged with misrepresenting facts regarding his knowledge of drug use in baseball in a 2005 interview with congressional investigators. He is expected to plead guilty this morning in U.S. District Court.
Steroids, human growth hormone and other performance-enhancing drugs -- most of which are illegal without a prescription -- are known to help athletes build lean muscle mass, heal more quickly from injuries and withstand the grind of a long season.
The ongoing plotlines surrounding Rodriguez, Tejada, Bonds and Clemens all involve actions taken six or more years ago. For baseball, the scariest part is the future, and that which remains as yet undisclosed.
The test results that led to the Rodriguez disclosure were urine samples from baseball's survey testing in 2003 -- intended to be anonymous and confidential -- for the purposes of determining whether there was a need to institute a full, penal drug-testing program for the sport.
One hundred four players tested positive that year -- above the 5 percent threshold that triggered the stricter testing program -- and 103 of them remain secret. But if Rodriguez's name was leaked, it is possible the others will be as well. Some within the game have even lobbied for a swift, complete disclosure in the interest of -- yes, gaining closure.
"The problem with this whole, sordid mess [is] now everybody" is questioned, Houston Astros first baseman Lance Berkman told the Houston Chronicle. " . . . Those of us who have never taken anything [illegal] -- I'd like to know who has."
Commissioner Bud Selig declined to comment through a spokesman yesterday. Former senator George J. Mitchell, who led the 2007 report on steroids use in baseball, also declined to comment through a spokesman.
The disclosure regarding Rodriguez was particularly damaging because baseball had begun to think the end of the steroids saga was in sight. Most of the major figures from the scandal -- Clemens, Bonds, McGwire, Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro -- are retired, and, thanks to several tweaks, the sport can claim the toughest testing program of any major U.S. sport.
Until this week, Rodriguez also represented the best hope to restore legitimacy to the sport's most hallowed record: most career home runs, which Bonds usurped from Hank Aaron in 2007. As the record chase wore on that summer, many observers decried the fact Aaron's milestone was being overtaken by a suspected steroids cheat and relished in the possibility of the presumably clean Rodriguez -- who has more homers before his 34th birthday than anyone in history -- taking it back in the first half of the next decade.
"What's particularly disappointing about Rodriguez is that he was held up by everyone as someone who was playing it straight," former commissioner Fay Vincent said. "And he clearly wasn't."
With the first of the steroids-tainted superstars now reaching Hall of Fame eligibility -- which requires a player to have been retired for five years -- the task of evaluating their legacies, and by extension defining the morality of steroids use, resides with the 10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America who vote in the annual elections.
McGwire, the first test case, has been shot down emphatically by voters in his first two years of eligibility, garnering less than 25 percent of votes each time -- well below the 75 percent threshold necessary for election. In the coming years, Palmeiro, Clemens, Bonds and others will become eligible, each candidacy bringing another round of steroids angst.
"Baseball has come a long way in the last 14 months since the Mitchell report, and you would expect there is still going to be some fallout from what's happened with performance-enhancing drugs in the last few years," said Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. "But the more of this that comes out and the more light is shed upon it, the faster baseball will be to being behind it."
As for Rodriguez, his record-setting $275 million Yankees contract runs through 2017, which means, if he fulfills it to the end and then retires, he would become eligible for Cooperstown in 2022. By that measure, there is at least another 13 years left to the steroids story, a long time to go without closure.