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Assigned Reading for Susan Moyer í s Students Title: Baseball Takes A Hit , By:
Assigned Reading for Susan Moyer í s Students Title: Baseball Takes A Hit , By:

Assigned Reading for Susan Moyerís Students

Title: Baseball Takes A Hit , By: Corliss, Richard, Bjerklie, David, Locke, Laura A., Malloy, Wendy, Schwartz, David, Thigpen, David, Time, 0040781X, 3/15/2004, Vol. 163, Issue 11 Database: Academic Search Premier Section: Sport

Baseball Takes A Hit

A steroid probe involving top players threatens to blight the game, anger fans and alter record books

When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home-run record in 1961, commissioner Ford Frick ruled that because Maris' season was eight games longer than Ruth's had been, the new record deserved an asterisk. Today fans wonder whether the slugging records of recent years will require similar caveats because of charges that top players have used anabolic steroids to help them turn fly balls into moon shots.

A steroid asterisk? Call it an asteroid.

And it could soon strike Earth, ruining what should be baseball's blithest month. Spring training is a time for hope, not dread; every team is tied for first, and each nonroster player can dream of starring in the majors. But in February, three weeks after President Bush made the war on steroids a priority in his State of the Union address, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the indictments of four men--two executives of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), track coach Remy Korchemny and Greg Anderson, a personal weight trainer whose clients include San Francisco Giants home- run king Barry Bonds--charging that they distributed steroids to top athletes.

Last week the San Francisco Chronicle cited unnamed sources who alleged that Bonds and New York Yankees stars Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, among others, had received illegal performance-enhancing drugs from BALCO. The four indictees proclaim their innocence, and all three players deny having taken steroids.

Reporters, smelling doped blood, bombarded players and managers with questions and accusations. "There's no need to address anything other than baseball," Bonds said at the Giants' Scottsdale, Ariz., training camp. Commissioner Bud Selig slapped a gag order on all major-league personnel. And Gene Orza, chief operating officer of the players' union,

said it would continue to fight any expansion of testing procedures because steroids "are not worse than cigarettes." To which some major leaguers must have thought, Show me a cigarette that can help me hit 73 homers a season, and I'll buy a carton.

Powerful forces are marshaled on both sides of the debate (and in the middle). The union is fighting to limit the number of players whose steroid tests the government can subpoena. The owners--grateful for the home-run explosion that helped put fans back in the seats after the bitter 1994 strike but worried that fans will cry foul over steroid use-- have assumed their familiar duck-and-cover stance. And Bush, a former co-owner of the Texas Rangers, is reportedly trying to organize a steroids summit. Tony Serra, Anderson's lawyer, argues Bonds is a "trophy martyr." Says Serra: "It's part of the Bush- Ashcroft platform. Knock off the celebrities, get total obedience to a federal mandate at the cost of the reputation of people." A pall has been draped over the Grapefruit League, as if Florida were Mordor.

So far, the primary evidence that stars are taking steroids is ocular. "I look around the league, and I see guys a lot bigger," notes Andy Van Slyke, who in the 1980s roamed the Pittsburgh outfield with Bonds and who last week said he believed Bonds took steroids. "When I played, I worked out with weights, I ate right, and I could never gain 25 lbs. in the off-season. I just couldn't do it." Of course, with steroidophobia in the air, bulking up is suddenly not so chic. Giambi, who claims he lost only 4 lbs. over the winter, looks as if he's shrunk a few shirt, shorts and shoe sizes. "Spring training used to be an annual game of who got bigger," says Josh Suchon, an Oakland Tribune sportswriter who wrote a book on Bonds. "This year it's the game of who got smaller."

But it's in the nature of competition for baseball athletes to scrounge for an advantage. "Historically, they'll scuff a ball, cork a bat, steal signs," says NBC sportscaster Bob Costas. "If everyone is looking for any edge, it's foolish to think that some won't go the chemical route."

Chemistry and history intersect in this steroid story. "Most of the drugs of abuse came to the marketplace as great advances in medicine," says Dr. Gary Wadler, a New York University professor of medicine and member of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Jocks may even have been among the first users of the hormone EPO, which some athletes have been taking to improve endurance.

The newest performance enhancer to emerge is the designer drug THG, a previously undetectable steroid for which five track athletes and four Oakland Raiders football players tested positive last year. "It's clear that THG was made for no medical purpose," says Charles Yesalis, professor of health policy at Penn State. "It was clearly made to circumvent the testing process. And to create something like this, you don't have to possess the Nobel Prize in chemistry."

And history? Baseball is all history: comparing today's players with yesteryear's is among the great pleasures of the sport. That makes baseball fans more fervent lovers of tradition than Tevye. They can cite, as Scripture, the career home-run totals of Ruth (714) and

Hank Aaron (755). And they're not always eager to see records broken. So old-time fans are skeptical of modern-era players, who have had as many 50-homer seasons in the past decade as occurred in the previous century. Bonds, 39, set the all-time season home-run record in 2001 and, at 658 homers, is aiming to wrest the all-time career title.

Fans should consider this possibility: some players are great. In 1927, when Ruth became the first player to wallop 60 home runs, only one other major leaguer, Ruth's Yankee teammate Lou Gehrig, hit more than 30. Indeed, the Babe connected more times that year than 11 of the 15 other teams. (And what illegal substance was he on? Prohibition-era booze.) Bonds could be playing at that level. When he walks to the plate, he's not really facing the pitcher on the mound; he's facing down the legends of the game. That quest is motivation enough for him to pamper and punish his body legally. Or perhaps illegally.

Costas believes it's time for players to clean their own locker rooms. He imagines this revisionist pep talk: "We've got to have some comprehensive drug testing for three reasons. 1) It's an unlevel playing field; 2) you're forcing some of us to make the decision to either fall behind competitively or place our own health at risk; and 3) many of us have achieved great things legitimately--why should these cheating bums cast doubts on our achievements?"

There's a fourth reason: steroids can kill. Athletes in any sport might consider football's Lyle Alzado, an all-pro defensive lineman who took anabolic steroids throughout his career and later believed they were linked to the brain cancer that killed him. "Now I'm sick, and I'm scared," he said just before his death, at 43, in 1992. "Look at me. My hair's gone, I wobble when I walk and have to hold on to someone for support, and I have trouble remembering things. My last wish? That no one else ever dies this way."

Don't ask a ballplayer whether steroids are good for sports. Ask Lyle Alzado's widow.


By Richard Corliss

Reported by David Bjerklie, New York; Laura A. Locke, San Francisco; Wendy Malloy, Tampa; David Schwartz, Mesa and David Thigpen, Chicago

Copyright © Time Inc., 2004. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be duplicated or redisseminated without permission.

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