Players union, some agents failed to protect players from themselves
Chad Curtis: "[Union boss Donald Fehr] was out of the loop on steroids"
Agent Scott Boras adopted a dismissive attitude toward performance-enhancers
Gene Orza in '04: "I have no doubt that [steroids] are not worse than cigarettes"
Every year during spring training, Donald Fehr, the executive director of Major League Baseball's Players Association, travels across the country. He starts in Arizona and ends in Florida, stopping along the way to brief every team on the key issues for the year.
It was before such a meeting at the end of Fehr's cross-country trip in 2001 when two Rangers veterans, Chad Curtis and Kenny Rogers, an outfielder and a pitcher with 21 years experience between them, got to talking. According to Curtis, Rogers was lamenting the fact that he used to be able to throw a sinker down and away and at least know it would stay in the park. But by '01, Curtis recalls Rogers telling him "guys are using 36-ounce bats and flipping it out to the opposite field."
Curtis agreed, and felt it was time for the union to start protecting the players from themselves by removing the need for a player to take steroids to feel like he was keeping up with the Joneses, or the Caminitis.
Curtis says he told Fehr that year that "if we don't address [steroids] I think it will be addressed by a means that will be much more detrimental." One BALCO scandal and a few Congressional hearings later, the remark looks prophetic. Could the "loosey-goosey era" of the early 2000s that Alex Rodriguez referred to in his steroid confession Monday, in which he admitted that performance-enhancers were "prevalent," been headed off years before?
"Donald [Fehr] does tremendous things for the union," Curtis said, "but he was out of the loop on steroids." Curtis recalls that when he approached Fehr in '01, the union leader "kind of looked over at [union chief operating officer] Gene Orza and said, 'Is there a problem? Steroids aren't illegal are they?'" But, says Curtis, "players knew they weren't supposed to be taking them ... had the union addressed it internally it would have been better for the players." (A call to the union seeking comment from Fehr on Wednesday afternoon was not immediately returned.)
According to other players, "out of the loop" is a generous assessment. The Yankee Years, by Joe Torre and SI senior writer Tom Verducci, recounts the time when Rick Helling, a former Rangers player rep, stood up before the union and pronounced steroids a problem in 1998.
"The union knew about it for quite some time, there's no question in my mind," said Tim Crabtree, the Rangers player rep in 2000 and '01. "And because of the numbers people were putting up, putting more people in the seats, better for the game overall, better for bargaining, and all that, I mean, it was just kind of, 'look the other way.'"
Super agent Scott Boras, Rodriguez's rep and a critical ally of the union because of his ability to drive up salaries, adopted a dismissive attitude toward performance-enhancing drugs. Despite the fact that George Mitchell's 2007 report on steroids in baseball is loaded with copies of checks from players to convicted steroid dealer Kirk Radomski, Boras said at the time that the report was "based largely on hearsay evidence." A call to Boras' office on Wednesday was not immediately returned.
Also in the wake of the Mitchell Report, in which four of his then current plus several former clients were named, Boras, who got his PharmD in 1997, told The New York Times that "Prior to 2005 a doctor had the ability to prescribe HGH for recovery from injury," and that "medical practitioners widely used HGH to assist many athletes in recovery from injury and would escalate athletes' ability to recover."
If medical practitioners did as Boras claims, they were breaking the law, according to Thomas Perls, a doctor and associate professor at Boston University, and an expert on the legalities of human growth hormone. According to Perls, who co-authored an article on the subject for the Journal of the American Medical Association, as of at least 1994, human growth hormone was legally prescribed for essentially only three uses in adults: AIDS wasting syndrome, short bowel syndrome and Adult Growth Hormone Deficiency Syndrome, a very rare problem involving the pituitary gland.
According to SI sources and the Mitchell Report, Orza took a more active approach to stifling a crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs. Three players told SI that Orza tipped Rodriguez to an upcoming drug test in September 2004, and another player told SI that Orza informed him of the exact day when he would be tested in 2004: Sept. 24. Orza would not discuss those charges in person with an SI reporter last week, but he has since said that they are untrue.
For at least a decade, according to the Mitchell Report, Orza has slowed the move toward effective drug testing and punishment. In 1998 Indians team doctor William Wilder, concerned about androstenedione -- Mark McGwire's steroid precursor of choice -- suggested that players be given information packets explaining the knowns and unknowns of PEDs. According to the Mitchell Report, Orza told Wilder that more data was needed before any educational effort could take place. MLB and the players association subsequently funded a study that, in 2000, reported an increase in testosterone in men who took androstenedione. The supplement was then banned in the minor leagues, but the Players Association resisted a ban in the bigs because Congress had not yet classified andro as a controlled substance. That technicality protected Angels pitcher Derrick Turnbow, the first major leaguer to fail a steroid test, when he tested positive for andro at a U.S. Olympic team training camp in October 2003. Turnbow was banned from international competition for two years but received no punishment from MLB. Turnbow, Orza said, "tested positive for what the [International Olympic Committee] and others regard as a steroid, but the U.S. government does not."
In March 2004, with the BALCO scandal threatening the integrity of the game, Congress amended the legal definition of anabolic steroids to include androstenedione. And yet Orza remained blithely defiant to the call for more stringent testing. "I have no doubt that [steroids] are not worse than cigarettes," he said in March of '04, disregarding the fact that steroids, unlike cigarettes, are both illegal without a prescription and banned by MLB rules.
Baseball has clearly moved forward in the six years since Rodriguez tested positive, adopting for the first time in 2004 a steroid testing program with penalties, and then commissioning the Mitchell Report, with which the union did not cooperate. But to truly root out performance-enhancing drugs from the game, multiple baseball executives told SI, will require the union and baseball agents to cooperate even as they seek to serve their clients.
"The union confused privacy with what was right for their players," says Tom Hicks, the Rangers owner who signed Rodriguez to his $252 million contract. "I think in hindsight the union thought they were protecting their players, but they were actually hurting their players. We should have been testing long before I even got in the game."