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Purging Steroids Is About The Future, Not The Past

by Karl Kuehl and Casey Tefertiller
March 7, 2004

If the poohbahs of baseball believe that some combination of gag orders, misdirection and calculated falsehood can make the steroid scandal disappear, they are deluding only themselves.

There are no magic wands to remove this controversy, and after the two bombshells that dropped in quick succession, that should be apparent to even the most dedicated at avoiding issues.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on March 2 that a half-dozen players, including Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, were provided with steroids, though the report stated there was no evidence the steroids were actually used.

A night later, the television show "60 Minutes II" presented a moving portrayal of the sad ending of Taylor Hooton, the cousin of former major leaguer Burt Hooton, who committed suicide after using steroids to bulk up for his high school baseball team in Plano, Texas.

What baseball must come to realize is that the steroid scandal is not just about whether home run totals and fastball velocities have been inflated; it is about Taylor Hooton and the thousands of kids around the world who deem steroids a necessity to advance. Baseball players may not relish their position as role models, but like it or not, they are and will be. And the steroids issue is stark reminder of that reality.

When major leaguers believe they must use steroids to prosper or compete in the big leagues, it sets off a chain reaction. Minor leaguers then see it as a necessity. A farmhand who is struggling will view steroids as his means to hit the ball another 30 feet, or add a few miles an hour to his fastball. The trickle-down effect continues to college and high school, where players view steroids as not just a means to gain an advantage, but a necessity to remain competitive. It is a wicked chain destined to lead to serious damage to the sport, and to the lives of many of the participants. Fans may complain that steroids inflate statistics, but that is only a fraction of the damage.

"People worry about the numbers and the history of the game, but it's more about the kids that are coming up behind you and they feel they have to take that stuff to stay at a level," veteran major leaguer Robin Ventura told the New York Post. "I'm not worried about what somebody's numbers are; I'm worried more about somebody's kid feeling they have to do this to compete."

Major League Baseball and the Players Association now face an enormous decision, which will determine the future of the sport and change the lives of players on all levels. It is critical to strengthen the current steroids policy with an even more stringent testing system and severe penalties. Major leaguers are not stupid, and they will recognize that they will have more to lose than to gain from steroid use.

When prep and college athletes realize that steroid use is not a long-term alternative in professional baseball, it makes their use of the drugs far less appealing. Strict testing at the major and minor league levels is the only way to break the chain. During the offseason, minor league baseball quietly made changes to strengthen the penalties against steroid use. This is an important step toward diminishing the problem. Greater steps must be taken before there are more Taylor Hooton stories.

This is a difficult issue, both for management and labor. The union has a role in protecting the rights and privacy of its members. Management cannot relish the possibility of having players who are signed to long-term contracts see their performances diminish after abstaining from steroids. Some in baseball view steroid abolishment as a lose-lose situation, since both owners and the union have something to lose. This is simply not accurate. Both sides will, in the long run, benefit because the end of steroids will protect the future generations playing the game.

MLB and the union must join together to act quickly and decisively to institute a plan that will end steroid use. This can be done by instituting continual testing and suspensions for players who test positive. This would have to be done with safeguards against false positives and the like, but it can and must be done.

The records are already in the books, but again, that is really not what the steroid issue is all about. It is about the future of the game itself, and of the young players who play it on diamonds from Texas to San Francisco to Santo Domingo. It is about maintaining the health of players. It is about preserving the next generation by breaking the chain from the top. And that is a mighty calling.

Karl Kuehl is a special adviser in baseball operations for the Indians. He has served as director of minor league operations for the Athletics and Blue Jays and is a former manager of the Expos. Kuehl is the co-author of "The Mental Game of Baseball". Casey Tefertiller is Baseball America's longtime Athletics correspondent, the author of "Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend" and a former baseball beat writer for the San Francisco Examiner. Kuehl and Tefertiller are currently completing a book on mental toughness in baseball.

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