Baseball Needs to Admit It Has a Drug Problem

By John Feinstein
Monday, August 10, 2009

Every time another baseball player is unmasked as a steroid user, three things are guaranteed to happen:

  • the player will say he is shocked -- shocked -- to learn he has ingested a banned substance;
  • the players' union will get in a snit about the test results being leaked;
  • most people in baseball, fans and media and officials alike, will roll their eyes and say, "Please make this story go away."

Here's the deal: They're all guilty, including David Ortiz, who went with the "I was careless" defense this past Saturday. The union -- and the owners and Major League Baseball -- need to quit whining about leaks. And the rest of us need to understand that this story will continue for years. Why? Because some players in all sports surely are using human growth hormone (HGH) and other performance-enhancers that can't be tested for in urinalysis. That makes it just like steroids a generation ago: It's against the rules, but there is no way to enforce the rules.

Let's clear up a popular misconception: Performance-enhancing steroids were both illegal and against the rules of baseball in the 1990s. After steroids were declared illegal for performance-enhancing purposes by the government in 1991, then-commissioner Fay Vincent banned them from baseball. There was one small problem: The owners and players took 12 years to agree to any form of testing. This is the equivalent of setting a speed limit but not having any police equipped with radar on the road.

The problem with the 2003 tests isn't that they're being leaked -- although to any lawyer leaking is breaking the law. The problem is that, after years of letting the issue of testing wallow beneath the surface, the owners and players came up with this ridiculous plan allowing anonymity to those who tested positive. The owners never should have made such a deal. They should have said, "Look we all know what's going on here. We need a real deterrent now. Tell the players if they test positive, they'll be outed."

Since test results became public in 2004, positive tests haven't gone away, but they've been rare, Manny Ramírez notwithstanding.

But the owners, no doubt thinking about the game's image and cowed (as always) by the union, agreed to the anonymous tests. Now, everyone is stuck because it isn't fair that a handful of players have been outed and the rest have not. Now, everyone wants to shoot the messenger rather than look in the mirror and understand there's an epidemic here -- one that did not end in 2004 and one that won't end until the next collective bargaining agreement includes blood testing.

Football needs the same thing, but the players and owners are so obsessed with the economic issues and so happy that baseball is catching the brunt of all this, it won't be on the table. Does anyone think that HGH use isn't rampant at all levels of football?

The Ortiz case is simply more folly. His story is that he was a "little bit careless" in 2003. So let's understand this: The union tells the player prior to the '03 season that for the first time there will be drug testing and if a certain percentage of positives come back there will be more drug testing in 2004 and it will not be anonymous.

That's the year you get careless?

Unlike Ramírez and Alex Rodriguez and Bary Bonds, Ortiz is a beloved figure, a guy who really has no negatives anywhere except for his struggles at the plate this year. Certainly everyone in Boston is going to be willing to believe him and so will a lot of folks around the country after his role in ending the suffering of Red Sox fans in 2004.

But let's be straight here: Elite athletes do not put anything in their bodies without knowing what it is and what it does. They do not get "careless," especially when they know they are being drug-tested.

Prior to 2003, Tom Glavine used creatine. It is an over-the-counter supplement that helps someone recover more quickly after exercise. It was legal and Glavine was told if it was in his system at the time of a drug test he would not test positive. When drug-testing began, Glavine stopped taking it.

"Even if the risk was one in 100, it wasn't worth it, even though it helped me," Glavine said. "I didn't want to be the one guy taking a legal supplement who somehow got a bad batch or tested positive because I knew people wouldn't believe me if it happened. And I wouldn't blame them for not believing me."

If you are making millions of dollars, if you have Hall of Fame aspirations, if you care about your public image (which Ortiz clearly does) you do not get "careless."

This is a sad time for baseball, even if the fans will still come out and cheer their heroes no matter what they put in their bodies as long as the produce. Giddy Yankee fans will forgive A-Rod for everything he's ever done if he produces this October. Red Sox fans have already forgiven Ortiz, and Dodger fans couldn't care less if Ramírez gives birth to a child because of the drugs he was taking as long as he hits home runs from here to late October.

Right now, the sport is hopelessly tainted and -- based on the reaction every time someone is unmasked as a cheater -- it will remain that way for a long, long time.

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