Big league players began arriving at spring training camps this week, but they may have another important reporting date to reckon with soon. Sometime this year a pair of Harvard scientists are expected to issue a report on androstenedione that could muscle the 1999 home run chase out of the headlines. Mark McGwire and dozens of other big leaguers use the controversial muscle builder, which is found in several over-the-counter diet supplements, but no one seems to know much about its long-term effects. "I've heard guys who said they were doctors explain the dangers of androstenedione, and they couldn't pronounce the word," says Harvard endocrinologist Joel Finkelstein, an expert on the effects of androgens—male sex hormones, of which androstenedione is one—on organ systems. A passionate baseball fan, Finkelstein recalls driving home from his lab last summer and hearing his specialty debated on sports-talk radio. "That andro stuff will kill you," Lennie from Southie would say. "It'll turn your liver into a sun-dried tomato!" The next caller would shoot back, "No way, man! It's nothin'. It's like throwing a bone steak in a blender!"
In a show of bipartisanship that would be the envy of the NBA or the U.S. Congress, Major League Baseball and the players' association have jointly commissioned a study by Finkelstein and a fellow Harvard researcher, Benjamin Leder, on McGwire's supplement or choice, There's a chance they will publish their findings during the season, perhaps dropping a bomb on the game that would hang a cloud over Big Mac's 1998 heroics. "We will take no position on what baseball should do," says Finkelstein. "We're biologists. I don't care what the answer is. I just want the right answer."
The players have always lined up against drug testing, but Gene Orza, associate general counsel for the players' union, says this case is different. "If the players were to be convinced that androstenedione provides an unfair advantage to one player over another," says Orza, "the union would not philosophically oppose a ban enforced through random testing."
Andro is already banned by the NFL, the NCAA and the Olympics because it may act like a steroid. One IOC official recently called McGwire a "soupedup" hero. Orza dismisses such remarks as uninformed and warns against drawing premature conclusions. Fans can only do as the lords of baseball have decided to do: Let the scientists have their say, wait for the facts and hope two Ivy League eggheads won't help pin a deadly new asterisk on the home run record.