From Vero Beach, Fla., to Surprise, Ariz., from Tampa to Tucson, a common thread wove its way in clubhouse chatter from one baseball spring training complex to the next.
“It’s funny because you see a lot of talk this spring all over baseball about big guys who have lost weight, big guys who have trimmed down for some reason,” Atlanta Brave left fielder Chipper Jones said recently. “It’s everywhere, in every clubhouse, and ... “
Jones hesitated, then smirked before adding, “I wonder why that is?”
The five-time National League All-Star has a clue. For the first time, major league baseball players underwent testing for anabolic steroids before the season, which starts Sunday.
“Maybe guys are realizing where their bread is buttered and that this could have serious repercussions to their careers and lives, and hopefully they are trimming down for all the right reasons,” Jones continued.
“You have your suspicions beforehand. You can look around at how big guys were four or five years ago and where they are now, and then all of a sudden you have this steroid testing come around, and guys have lost 20 pounds and aren’t the physical specimens they were before. It’s not a coincidence.”
Nor will it be a coincidence, Jones and other players say, if baseball’s muscled masses return in the very near future. Many believe the game’s drug-testing policy lacks the teeth required to take a considerable bite out of steroid use or to act as a long-term deterrent.
That criticism, coupled with the growing controversy over the nutritional supplement ephedra in the wake of Baltimore Oriole pitcher Steve Bechler’s Feb. 17 death, has left baseball struggling with the perception that it has a drug and performance-enhancing substance-abuse problem and can do little about it.
“Guys will compete, guys will do whatever it takes to be successful, to get an edge, and it is a problem,” Dodger left fielder Brian Jordan said. “My concern is based on young kids feeling like they have to use steroids to get an edge over the next athlete to make it to the big leagues. What’s the solution? I think we should be tested like other sports. I think it’s time for a change.”
But why change when players are hitting 60, even 70, home runs a year, throwing 100-mph fastballs and producing the kind of high-scoring games Major League Baseball loves to market and fans prefer to watch?
Few seemed to object when former St. Louis Cardinal slugger Mark McGwire admitted using androstenedione, a legal steroid sold in over-the-counter supplements, during the great 1998 home run chase, when McGwire pounded a then-record 70 homers to edge out Chicago Cub outfielder Sammy Sosa’s 66.
Though some speculated San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds, who bears little resemblance to the lithe outfielder who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1986 to ’92, received some pharmaceutical assistance to bulk up before his 73-homer season in 2001, that did nothing to smear baseball’s celebration of Bonds’ home run record.
Do owners really care what players are putting into their bodies as long as the sport continues to generate such excitement and draw such interest?
“No,” Jones said. “Because this a business, and they expect you to go out there and perform at a very high level every day. If they’re paying you that much money and you need to take something to help you perform top notch and put butts in the seats and make them money, then more times than not, they’re going to look the other way.”
Rob Manfred, baseball’s lead labor lawyer during the arduous 2002 negotiations that yielded a new collective bargaining agreement, averted a work stoppage and produced the game’s first steroid testing policy, bristles at such a suggestion.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and the position of owners has been consistent -- they want more testing, and they want more testing now,” said Manfred, an MLB executive vice president. “That argument -- that we shouldn’t test because guys may not hit as many home runs -- makes me crazy.
“Bring [a proposal for more substantive drug testing] to us now, and I guarantee all 30 clubs would be on board. We wanted as much testing as we could, and the union resisted it. The union represents players, so don’t try to blame it on us.”
Rumors of steroid use circulated through baseball for much of the 1990s, but not until 2002, when former National League most valuable player Ken Caminiti claimed up to 50% of players used steroids, and former American League MVP Jose Canseco pegged the number closer to 85%, did it become a front-burner issue.
Though Caminiti later recanted, and Canseco’s claims were passed off as ludicrous, baseball deemed there to be enough of a problem to push hard for drug testing to be included in last summer’s labor agreement.
The Major League Baseball Players Assn., long considered one of the strongest unions in the country, fought management’s proposals, but in the interest of avoiding a potentially industry-crippling work stoppage, the players, under the direction of union chief Don Fehr, eventually capitulated.
The owners wanted more extensive testing to cover androstenedione and some nutritional supplements, but they compromised too.
The result: a drug testing program that addresses the steroid issue but does little to attack it.
Under the plan, every player on major league 40-man rosters -- roughly 1,200 players -- was tested for steroids this spring, and up to 240 players were chosen randomly for a second test seven days after the first.
But the first year of the program is a survey to determine the extent of use -- names were not attached to tests, the results of which MLB is expected to announce early in the season.
If more than 5%, about 60 players or more, test positive this spring, a disciplinary component will be added to the program in 2004 and will remain in effect for at least two seasons.
Players receive treatment if they test positive again but will avoid discipline unless they fail another test, triggering a 15- to 25-day suspension without pay. Further positive tests would prompt harsher discipline.
However, if fewer than 5% of players test positive this season, testing resumes each season without the possibility of suspensions as long as testing produces 5% or fewer positives. The program ends with the expiration of the basic agreement in 2006.
If the disciplinary component is added, the commissioner’s office, union and a club official will be notified of a positive first test, and if a player tests positive more than once, the commissioner’s office will issue a statement that the player has been suspended for violating the drug policy.
Some 30 or so anabolic steroids that the federal government deems illegal unless prescribed by a physician are banned by baseball. But baseball does not test for androstenedione or human growth hormone, a substance that adds muscle mass and has been used to promote healing for players recovering from surgery or major injury.
Another criticism of the program: Because players knew what month they were being tested, those who were using steroids had plenty of time to cycle off the drugs to avoid being detected.
“I think it’s clear that the testing was designed to detect but not necessarily to prevent [use],” said Dr. Michael Mellman, Dodger team physician. “Everyone knew it would hit this spring, so the presumption is it will underestimate actual use. When you have announced testing, clearly, it allows people to alter their behavior.”
There is a sense around baseball this spring that players suspected of using steroids “took one for the team,” ridding their systems of the drugs to ensure the 5% threshold is not surpassed. That way, if they want to resume steroid use they can do so without fear of disciplinary action for another two seasons. Traces of most steroids are undetectable within weeks after use; others take months. “To me, you’re going to see a difference -- there may be a drop-off in home runs this year,” said Jordan, a former NFL defensive back. “And if there is, I’m quite sure talk [of steroids] will rise again.”
Jordan, who lost 20 pounds this winter to ease the strain on a surgically repaired knee, believes players will resume steroid use if fewer than 5% test positive this spring.
“Definitely,” Jordan said. “You’ll see guys get huge again.”
Baseball’s response: You have to start somewhere.
“There is no question that in the first year, the program was put in place to give people an opportunity to correct behavior without suffering adverse consequences,” Manfred said. “If more than 5% test positive, the program will have a lot of teeth. I think it’s as good a program as there is in any pro sport.
“Whenever you have a union situation, when you make a dramatic change like this, there’s going to be a transition period, so [criticism of the testing program] is not shocking.... We think we got a pretty good deal. Would we have liked more? Yeah, but I appreciate the strength of the argument the union is making.”
That argument has traditionally been based on the union’s assertion that any form of drug testing is an invasion of a player’s privacy.
“We have the strongest union in the world, we’ve worked very hard to achieve that, and we’re not about to give that up,” New York Met first baseman Mo Vaughn said. “We’re going to work within our system to improve the image of the game, but we’re not going to give up our strength. That may seem like we’re hiding something, but we’re lucky to have that kind of veto power.”
Some players aren’t as gung-ho about the union as Vaughn. Earlier this month, 16 Chicago White Sox players initially declined to submit to drug tests. How come?
“Put it this way,” pitcher Kelly Wunsch, the player representative, told reporters in Tucson, “it wasn’t because they were on steroids.”
To the contrary, the players wanted to be counted as positive tests, which would have increased the chance for baseball to hit the 5% threshold required to kick in a stronger testing system, one with penalties, in 2004.
But after receiving what one source described as a “threatening” phone call from union lawyer Gene Orza, the players decided to take the test, because not doing so “wouldn’t have been right for 29 other teams,” Wunsch said.
Manfred found the uprising to be “kind of interesting, reflective of the fact there’s clearly a difference of opinion among players as to how far they want to go on this issue. A lot of players don’t want to be at a competitive disadvantage [to those using steroids].”
Said Fehr: “There was some confusion, which is what happens when a new program kicks in. Once they got things sorted out, it was resolved.”
Baseball’s steroid problem seems a long way from being resolved. Steroids can be purchased on the Internet, bought in border towns in Mexico, and “rare is the health club environment where you can’t find someone to help you get this stuff,” Mellman said.
Until baseball implements mandatory or random, year-round testing for steroids, it will be difficult, almost impossible, to police their use. And as long as players are willing to accept the potentially dangerous side effects, steroid use will continue, and the statistics put up by pumped-up players will, for some, be cheapened.
“There’s so much competition in the game, the money is so big, and guys want to get it while they can,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, more times than not, you see guys take the wrong route to get there. I just don’t see the worth in it, because so much can go wrong, and your body is so fragile that any little drug or supplement can really affect the rest of your life.”