Baseball's superstars should pressure union for change
Posted: Monday March 1, 2004 11:24AM; Updated: Monday March 1, 2004 5:24PM
Jason Giambi has had to field more questions about steroids than ground balls this spring.
It's March, the time of year when every columnist is required by law to wax unapologetically poetic about baseball, rebirth and the annual rites of spring, so here goes: Ah, the crack of the bat, the smell of the horsehide, the sight of the steroid-laced syringe ...
Wait, that last one is just the image that figuratively hangs over the sport this spring, as fans and media flock to major league training camps and try to figure out who's on the juice and who's off the juice, and we're not talking Kool-Aid.
Everyone in a uniform suddenly is suspect, now that baseball's dirty little secret isn't so secret anymore. When trainers and nutritionists who are close associates of some of baseball's biggest stars are implicated in a steroid probe, well, folks tend to talk. Does that DH look thinner to you? Doesn't that left fielder's chest seem broader than last year? Do you think this guy is using? Do you think that guy quit?
The ballplayers, predictably, are getting quite huffy about the whole thing. That goes for ex-players, as well, such as Cubs manager Dusty Baker, who compared the steroid suspicions to McCarthyism. Barry Bonds was irritated when Rockies reliever Turk Wendell openly said what any intelligent, unbiased person already knew -- that there is a mountain of admittedly circumstantial evidence suggesting that Bonds has used performance-enhancing drugs. (As we've said here before, the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" is for the court of law, not necessarily for the court of public opinion. There's nothing un-American about forming a theory based on the facts as we know them.) Yankees slugger Gary Sheffield was so insulted by the suspicions surrounding him that he told ESPN he would submit to a test if the cable network could set it up -- provided it was cleared by his union, the Major League Baseball Players Association.
But therein lies the problem. Sheffield's offer was just an empty gesture, because he knew that there was no way the players' union would allow it. The union has fought steadfastly against a testing program with real teeth, which is why baseball's system has been labeled a joke by experts in the field of steroid testing. Under baseball's program, players aren't tested year-round, only during spring training and the regular season. So a steroid-using player who wants to beat the system can time his cycles of use to avoid detection. Even if he's still dumb enough to get caught, the first-time offender is only given counseling, and a second offense carries a 15-day suspension or a $10,000 fine. It's only after the fifth positive test that a player is suspended for up to a year.
If players like Bonds or Sheffield or Jason Giambi really want to put an end to the steroid questions that are following them this spring, they should ask a few questions of their own and direct them to union leaders Don Fehr and Gene Orza. They should ask why the union isn't working with major league owners to come up with a fair, year-round, random-testing program with penalties that are real deterrents instead of slaps on the wrist. Every clean player in the league ought to be pressuring the union to push for such a system, if not to catch the offenders, then to remove the cloud of suspicion from the innocent. So far, Braves closer John Smoltz, who called recently for a better testing program, is one of the few players who has shown a willingness to speak out.
It's worth remembering that even if steroid use is rampant in Major League Baseball, there are still far more players who are clean than who aren't. Those players ought to be wondering if their union really is looking out for their personal welfare.
Fehr and Orza should be as interested in a legitimate testing program as they are in medical benefits for their players. Both issues go directly to the physical well-being of the members of their union. If players like Bonds, Giambi and Sheffield are telling the truth when they deny ever having used steroids, they are being done a tremendous disservice by the rumors and suspicions that surround them. But they'll get little sympathy here, not when they won't help themselves by leaning on their union leaders.
Baseball won't get a testing program with backbone until players who are steroid-free start showing some of their own.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Phil Taylor writes about a Hot Button topic every Monday on SI.com.