NOW THE FANS ARE PUMPED UP
MESA, Ariz. -- The most reliable fans in America migrate here every spring, supporters of a team celebrating a complete century of failure. They bask in the informality of training camp, savoring a conversation or two with the men wearing the uniform of the Chicago Cubs.
Derrek Lee, the Cubs’ All-Star first baseman, hears from the fans about last year’s playoff flop, this year’s chances, how to pronounce the last name of Japanese outfielder Kosuke Fukudome.
“Not one thing,” Lee said. “Not one word.”
The winter was a rocky one for baseball. Barry Bonds appeared in court and Roger Clemens in Congress, with perhaps the best hitter and best pitcher of this generation facing allegations of lying under oath by denying steroid use.
The Mitchell Report put faces on baseball’s steroid era, almost 100 faces, blaming players and owners alike for the widespread abuse of performance-enhancing substances.
As winter turned to spring, however, fans appeared to have left any cares behind. Cubs coach Alan Trammell, the former six-time All-Star shortstop for the Detroit Tigers, says fans who chat him up talk about everything but steroids.
“I hate to say it’s a nonissue,” Trammell said, “but at this point, to me, it is. I haven’t had one conversation with a fan about it.”
Is the steroid era finally over?
Commissioner Bud Selig would love nothing more than to answer with a definitive yes, but he declined to go that far.
“I’m proud of where baseball is,” Selig said. “We’ve got the toughest testing program in American sports. We’ve banned amphetamines. We’re funding [research into] an HGH test. We’re engaged in a lot of public relations stuff,” he said, citing partnerships with antidrug initiatives.
“We’ve made enormous progress,” he continued. “That’s what our fans think too. That’s why we’ve had the support we’ve had, and we’ll do even better this year. They know we’ve done something about it.”
The Mitchell Report cautioned that baseball’s drug testing program, entering its fifth season, “appears to have reduced the use of detectable steroids but by itself has not removed the cloud of suspicion over the game.”
The report noted that human growth hormone has become the drug of choice “precisely because it is not detectable.” The report also cited recent federal investigations into drug trafficking that linked players to use of performance-enhancing substances, including steroids and HGH.
“This problem continues, years after mandatory random testing began,” the report said.
Dr. Gary Wadler, an advisor to the World Anti-Doping Agency, said fans would have to have “tremendous naivete” to believe baseball’s steroid era is over.
“I don’t think the spigot has been shut down,” Wadler said. “I think it has been slowed down.”
Wadler said a new generation of steroids comes in creams, patches and gels, with detectable traces remaining in the body for days and weeks rather than months. With baseball’s drug policy calling for a total of 60 off-season tests among 1,200 players, Wadler said players might well take those odds, and the new drugs.
“You can play the calendar much more easily,” he said.
The sport administers drug tests via urine analysis. Dr. Don Catlin, the Los Angeles scientist funded by baseball to research a urine-based HGH test, says its development is years away, at best.
Selig and players union chief Donald Fehr have resisted blood testing, although prominent players such as Derek Jeter and Jeff Kent have supported it.
With blood tests for HGH expected to be commercially available later this year, and with the possibility that designer steroids yet to be invented might best be detected in blood rather than urine, Angels owner Arte Moreno hesitated to declare the steroid era over.
“I don’t know if you could say it’s completely over,” Moreno said. “We have to go through -- I don’t know if this is the right word -- a cleansing process. You don’t have blood testing, so it’s not 100%.”
Moreno said he believes the use of performance-enhancing substances has declined dramatically, because of lengthier suspensions for offenders -- even without a positive test, if a player is tripped up in a drug sting -- as well as the stigma attached to publicly identified users.
“I would think the players understand it’s not worth it,” Moreno said.
If fans wished to complain to anyone in baseball about the steroid era, Moreno might offer a particularly sympathetic ear. He essentially threatened to banish Gary Matthews Jr. from the team last year if the outfielder did not issue a statement addressing allegations he ordered HGH.
But Moreno, so accessible that he sits in the front row at the Angels’ spring home in Tempe, Ariz., said fans talk with him about anything but steroids.
“I don’t think it’s so much that they don’t care as that they recognize a few players abused it,” Moreno said. “They’re more interested in who’s playing and how they’re playing.”
Amid all the steroids headlines, baseball expects to set an attendance record this year, for the fifth consecutive year. Revenues topped $6 billion for the first time last year, near NFL levels.
“The fans aren’t revolting,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
“Yes, people care, but they’re not showing they care by walking away. They don’t care as much about the integrity of the sport as they do about going to the ballpark and being entertained.”
That dichotomy was reflected in a Gallup Poll released last month, in which 57% of fans said they believed Clemens lied when he denied using steroids and HGH -- and 62% said he should be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
On occasion, a fan does revolt. When the Dodgers last month solicited Rodney Henretta to buy a ticket package, the Murrieta technician said he was disgusted by the owners’ slow response to the steroid issue but also by players such as former Dodgers Paul Lo Duca and Eric Gagne, whose nonspecific apologies after their names were included in the Mitchell Report left him with the impression they were only sorry about getting caught.
“I feel I’m a guilty party to the whole steroids mess,” Henretta wrote back to the Dodgers, “because I purchased tickets and enabled everyone involved.”
Nonetheless, the Dodgers and Angels each reported no season-ticket cancellations because of the Mitchell Report.
In January, with Selig defending baseball’s drug policy before Congress, and with Clemens blasting the Mitchell Report so loudly that Congress would summon him too, the Dodgers invited some 40 corporate sponsors to a Newport Beach retreat.
“A lot of issues were discussed,” said Dennis Mannion, the Dodgers’ chief operating officer. “The issue of steroids was never even raised.”
That means that corporations were willing to spend six and seven figures apiece to associate with the Dodgers and with baseball this year, without any apparent concern they would be stained by association with steroids.
Mannion noted that the steroid era had been widely chronicled for several years before the Mitchell Report was released.
“When the findings came out, my guess is they weren’t overly surprising,” Mannion said.
Said Fehr, the union chief: “It’s clear to me that the game is resilient, it’s popular, and notwithstanding whatever difficulties we’ve had in this area, the game itself is so good that it attracts the interest and loyalty and the commitments of tens of millions of fans every year. I don’t see that changing.”
The men in uniform are ready to talk about anything besides steroids, many of them tired of questions about a subject they perceive as of more interest to the media than to fans. The incidents in the Mitchell Report took place from two to nine years ago, and the testing program has been tightened since then.
“The fact that we’re in 2008 talking about 2001 seems kind of redundant,” said former Yankees star Don Mattingly, in the Dodgers’ camp as a batting instructor. “OK, it was going on. Now it almost seems like Star magazine-type stuff. We keep following it and want to know every last thing.”
Said Angels outfielder Torii Hunter: “The fans that know the game, they don’t even talk about it. They’ve moved on. We’ve moved on because we have a steroid testing policy. How many people got caught last year? It works. We know that it works.”
Two major leaguers got caught in tests last year: Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Juan Salas and Colorado Rockies pitcher Dan Serafini. Wadler cautioned against the assumption that the players caught in tests were the only ones to use steroids, and in fact Cincinnati Reds catcher Ryan Jorgensen was suspended based on evidence that did not include a positive test.
Yet Hunter said he considers the steroid era over and is not concerned about the potential spread of performance-enhancing drugs that have yet to be detected or designed.
“I look at the bigger picture,” Hunter said. “There are drugs that come out every year on the street. They still can’t stop it. What makes you think Major League Baseball can stop everything?”
Dave Roberts played alongside Bonds in the San Francisco Giants’ outfield last year, so he heard more than his share of steroid-related comments from fans.
“They have a right to be upset,” Roberts said. “They want a clean game, and rightfully so. Hopefully, the worst is behind us.”
Lee, the Cubs’ star, said he considers the steroid era “99%, if not more” over.
“There’s always going to be guys that try and cheat,” Lee said. “One hundred percent, is it over? I don’t know if you can ever say that.”
That question will have to be answered someday, affirmatively and definitively, by curators at the Hall of Fame. There will be a historical exhibit on the steroid era in Cooperstown, once that era truly can be considered historical.
“We’re a museum that tells the history of baseball, for better or for worse,” said Jeff Idelson, acting president of the Hall of Fame. “The issue of performance-enhancing drugs, hopefully, is behind us.
“Do we know that for sure? No, we don’t. When we know that is behind us, there’s a story to tell, and we will.”
Times staff writers Dylan Hernandez and Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this report.