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Steriod Hysteria Runs Wild

by Jerry Crasnick
March 26, 2004

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.--This baseball steroid story keeps leading us down paths we never thought we'd take. In March, Barry Bonds arrived at Giants camp and talked for 20 minutes about his state of mind. When the press conference broke up, I actually heard two writers discuss the shape of Barry's head.

A couple of summers ago Mike Piazza confronted bizarre tabloid gossip with the declaration, "I'm not gay." Now everyone wonders why Piazza's upper body has looked smaller for the past year or so, and he points out that he's into yoga, and we all nod in assent and think, "OK, if you say so." A man's sexual preference is grounds for public debate, but what takes place between him and his local GNC outlet is strictly his business.

This week the steroid issue might be taking a rest or dominating your local sports section, depending on the latest BALCO revelation, the U.S. Senate's agenda and the San Francisco Chronicle's ability to unearth another bombshell. Like steroid use, steroid use media coverage comes in cycles.

Hey, no one can dispute that steroid allegations are a blow to baseball's credibility. Artificial enhancement through chemistry undermines records that took years to break the old-fashioned way, on a supposedly level playing field. It undermines every notion we have of fair play in a sport that values tradition above all else.

Steroids probably aren't real good for your health, either, even in the absence of long-term studies to gauge the consequences.

But maybe it's time for a deep breath. After several weeks of hysteria, this is what we know for sure about baseball and 'roids:

1. It's all Donald Fehr and Gene Orza's fault.
2. With the possible exception of Bill Romanowski, no football player ever ingests anything stronger than Bayer children's aspirin.

Or maybe baseball is just held to a higher standard than any other sport.

As Royals pitcher Brian Anderson recently told me, "People get pretty anal about baseball. They really do."

Baseball Not Alone

Hey, far be it from me to act as an apologist for Fehr and Orza. They're generally disdainful of public opinion--at least beyond the coverage area of the New York Times--but in this case they misread the impact of perception in making the lives of their constituents miserable. The union dallied on steroids, and now players are paying the price in ridicule and suspicion.

But ever since the BALCO story blew up, the grandstanding has been surpassed only by the bandwagon-jumping. One of the most absurd displays took place on Capitol Hill, when Sen. John McCain and others flogged Fehr while holding up the NFL's Gene Upshaw and Paul Tagliabue as a paragon of player-commissioner cooperation.

It's yet another example of the NFL getting a pass on everything. Think about it: Barry Bonds might look imposing, but dozens of NFL players are capable of giving him a wedgie and stuffing him in their lockers. Is the chiseled defensive end who stands 6-foot-6 and 280 pounds and runs a 4.5 40-yard dash automatically clean as a whistle just because his sport has a stricter testing procedure? Or do we take the cynical view and surmise that he's adept at beating the testers?

Sorry, but I'm opting for cynical. Let's acknowledge that baseball has a problem. But let's not be hypocritical and pretend the problem doesn't exist in football or cycling or track and field or any number of other sports.

The lack of discussion about the contents of Bill Romanowski's medicine cabinet should make one thing clear: In the eyes of the press and the public, this is less a health issue than an affront-to-tradition issue. The average fan really doesn't care what health risks Barry Bonds incurs if he's taking human growth hormone. That's Bonds' decision to make after he does his own risk-benefit analysis.

People are worked up because they don't want to see Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron overtaken by a player on the juice. If it's two chemically-enhanced linemen beating the snot out of each other in the trenches, let's just ignore it.

Privacy Issues

There's also a lot of scoffing at the notion that players are concerned with "privacy issues," particularly if they have nothing to hide. But this is what union leaders get paid to do--protect the 1 percent of their constituents who object to testing on general principle. Fehr and Orza just do it better than other sports union leaders, and that's part of the reason they're so disliked.

"As athletes in the public eye, we're probably under a little more scrutiny than most people, but that doesn't mean you have to forgo your civil rights," Mariners lefthander Terry Mulholland said. "The union's stance has been, 'Hey, these guys are citizens first, and we don't live in a police state. They're entitled to their rights just like any other citizens.' "

Just a hunch, but I think your average big leaguer is more concerned that testing might lead to a crackdown on his ability to pop a few greenies or smoke a joint to unwind after a game. This leads to the question of how far sports leagues have a right to go. I want to make sure my airline pilot is clean because I put my life in his hands every time I board a plane. Do I really care if my fantasy league right fielder is taking something stronger than coffee to jazz himself up for a game?

Players' Decision

Ultimately, the players have the power to make a difference. In 2002, when the union leadership was taking a hard-line approach in labor talks, the players helped avoid a strike by pushing for compromise on a luxury tax, increased revenue sharing and other provisions that were considered anti-free market.

Now the hot button issue is drug testing. I talked to several players in spring training who'd like to see how baseball's new steroid policy works before passing judgment on it. But with the BALCO investigation unfolding, good luck.

"I heard somebody say that the steroid testing idea is like a giant pool of cold water, and we're starting to dip our toe in," Anderson said. "No one wants to jump right in for fear that when you hit the water, you might freeze up or drown. But with the media pressure now, it's like somebody is behind you ready to push you in. So we'll see."

It ultimately comes down to this: If players think the steroid stance is too soft, they have a responsibility to follow the lead of John Smoltz, Kenny Rogers and others and speak up for change. Fehr and Orza work for them. It's not the other way around.

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