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New Steroid Revelations Cast Fresh Scrutiny on Baseball

February 10, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Yankees star Alex Rodriguez recently admitted to using steroids early in his career and Miguel Tejada of the Houston Astros is now charged with lying to Congress about steroid use in professional baseball. Sports writers discuss the "steroids era" of baseball.
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JEFFREY BROWN: New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez will arrive at spring training next week with his vaunted career and the integrity of his sport under a cloud of controversy. The perennial all-star and the game’s highest-paid player admitted yesterday to using steroids while playing shortstop for the Texas Rangers from 2001 to 2003.

ALEX RODRIGUEZ, New York Yankees third baseman: I was young. I was stupid. I was naive.

JEFFREY BROWN: In an interview with ESPN, Rodriguez — who had previously denied using illegal substances — confirmed a story first reported over the weekend by Sports Illustrated that he was one of 104 players to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. Rodriguez said the pressure of signing a $250 million contract with the Rangers drove him to seek an edge.

ALEX RODRIGUEZ: I wanted to prove to everyone that, you know, I was worth, you know, being one of the greatest players of all time. And I did take a banned substance. And, you know, for that, I’m very sorry and deeply regretful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rodriguez was vague about some details. He said, for example, that he didn’t know which substances he had used. He also insisted that his five seasons as a Yankee have been played clean.

Rodriguez is in the second year of a 10-year, $275 million deal with the team.

A-Rod, as he’s known, is the latest in a series of high-profile players to be caught up in a controversy that has hung over baseball.

BARRY BONDS, former San Francisco Giants left fielder: This record is not tainted at all, at all, period. You guys can say whatever you want.

JEFFREY BROWN: Former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds set baseball’s all-time homerun record two years ago but is now under federal indictment for allegedly lying to a grand jury about his use of drugs.

ROGER CLEMENS, former New York Yankees pitcher: Let me be clear. I have never taken steroids or HGH.

JEFFREY BROWN: Roger Clemens, former star pitcher for the Yankees and other teams, is under investigation for possible perjury after he denied using steroids last year before a congressional committee. Clemens’ testimony followed the December 2007 release of a report by former Sen. George Mitchell that laid out the scale of substance abuse in Major League Baseball.

GEORGE MITCHELL, Major League Baseball Report chairman: The evidence we uncovered indicates that this has not been an isolated problem involving just a few players or a few clubs. Many players were involved. Each of the 30 clubs has had players who have been involved with such substances at some time in their careers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last night, the New York Yankees organization issued a statement that said, in part, “Although we are disappointed in the mistake he spoke to, we realize that Alex, like all of us, is a human being not immune to fault. Alex took a big step by admitting his mistake.”

The owner of his former team was not so forgiving.

TOM HICKS, owner, Texas Rangers: I felt a real strong sense of personal betrayal. I felt like I was deceived. Alex and I had many conversations over the years about baseball. I asked him once if he would ever use steroids, because, again, we signed him for a 10-year contract based on the fact that he had shown a trajectory to be the best player in the game. And he said, “Mr. Hicks, I care way too much about my body to do something like that.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Asked for his rejection at last night’s press conference, President Obama had this to say.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It’s unfortunate, because I think there are a lot of ballplayers who played it straight. And, you know, the thing I’m probably most concerned about is the message that it sends to our kids. What I’m pleased about is Major League Baseball seems to finally be taking this seriously to recognize how big of a problem this is for the sport.

JEFFREY BROWN: And with spring training now around the corner, baseball’s fans will soon decide how big a problem all this is for them.

Another player ensnared in scandal

David Epstein
Sports Illustrated
The tests were supposed to be destroyed eventually, but federal investigators subpoenaed 10 of them for players who were linked to the BALCO scandal. And when they went to collect, they collected all of them, so they're still around.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was one other development in the baseball steroid story this afternoon. Miguel Tejada, a five-time all-star shortstop, was charged with lying to Congress. Tejada was accused of lying to staff members in 2005 when he said he did not know of any other player using steroids.

And we look at all of this now with Thomas Boswell, long-time sports columnist for the Washington Post, and David Epstein of Sports Illustrated magazine. He's one of the reporters who broke the Rodriguez story over the weekend.

David Epstein, let me start with you. Remind us a little bit about those 2003 tests. They were originally meant to remain anonymous, I understand. So why are we learning about this now?

DAVID EPSTEIN, Sports Illustrated: Well, those tests hung around. You know, in 2002, Major League Baseball and the players union agreed in 2003 to do survey testing, not to punish players, but just in order to find out if steroids were enough of a problem that they should do mandatory testing with penalties the following season.

So the idea was just to gauge the extent of the problem. And if more than 5 percent of players tested positive, they would institute mandatory testing with penalties the next year.

But, you know, the tests were supposed to be destroyed eventually, but federal investigators subpoenaed 10 of them for players who were linked to the BALCO scandal. And when they went to collect, they collected all of them, so they're still around.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Alex Rodriguez, as we heard, says he can't remember what substances he used. What is known about the particular substances, the level of his use, the duration of his use?

DAVID EPSTEIN: Well, you know, right now, I guess, you know, he said that he used it during his time with the Rangers, so, so far, that's what we know.

In terms of the substances, he said he doesn't know. You know, we reported that he tested positive for testosterone, which, obviously, the male sex hormone, and Primobolan, which is a steroid that became popular around 2003 when testing started, because it's detectable for a shorter period than some of the other steroids that can linger in the system.

It doesn't cause a big bulking effect, you know, for bodybuilders, like the way that -- because the players don't want to look like bodybuilders and things like that, so it's quite expensive, which I think makes it a little more rare in some gym circles.

Culmination of a 20-year scandal

Thomas Boswell
The Washington Post
He really does mirror what happened with Barry Bonds. His home run totals in Texas in those three years went up 33 percent. He went from averaging 36 homeruns a year before that; he averaged 54 homeruns his first two years in Texas, 52 overall.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thomas Boswell, stay with Rodriguez first. You've watched him for a long time, very gifted athlete, but troubled. Are you surprised by this?

THOMAS BOSWELL, Washington Post: He has always wanted to be the perfect -- be seen as the perfect player and the perfect person. He has always had great difficulty in coping with pressure. And it actually seems conceivable to me that he might only have cheated for three years.

He's just the kind of person who, after signing a $252 million contract to play in Texas, might feel that he had to play even better to justify it. That's when he said he started cheating. And I think he is also so insecure in some ways -- not athletically, but personally -- that, when a test came back positive, I think he would have been so shocked that he might have actually stopped juicing.

And it may do him some good some day, when people actually -- if they come to view him as someone who only cheated for three years.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in those three years, what do we know about his performance compared to before and after?

THOMAS BOSWELL: He really does mirror what happened with Barry Bonds. His home run totals in Texas in those three years went up 33 percent. He went from averaging 36 homeruns a year before that; he averaged 54 homeruns his first two years in Texas, 52 overall.

So that really is a giveaway. He just shot up. And then, when he went back to New York, he calmed back down to more normal levels. So it really does look like those were his three years of cheating.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you wrote in your column yesterday after this broke, it feels -- quote, "It feels like the beginning of a final act, the culmination of more than 20 years of baseball dirt." Explain. What do you mean?

THOMAS BOSWELL: Well, we first had this come out into the public view in 1988, when fans in Fenway Park chanted, "Steroids, steroids, steroids," at Jose Canseco. So people in baseball cannot claim that they didn't know about this 21 years ago, because they did.

Unfortunately, it was pushed under the rug. The original sin in baseball is always the battle between labor and management. Whenever there's any issue that can be used as a bargaining tool, they always take opposite sides. When the owners wanted to look more into steroids, the union just naturally on instinct pulled back and said, "No, no. That's an invasion of privacy," and they really messed up a basic safety-in-the-workplace issue.

And that simply led to a period, after the strike in '94 when people came back, that nobody wanted to look at what was going on in the game. And you had a real 10- to 12-year period where guys could just do anything they wanted.

The one thing that I think is really harmful to Rodriguez here is the BALCO scandal in which 10 different players were...

JEFFREY BROWN: This is the San Francisco company.

THOMAS BOSWELL: Yes, the San Francisco raid, happened in 2002. So by 2003, everybody in this country who followed sports was up in arms. These tests had finally been pushed past the union. And everybody said, "This isn't really a steroid test the players are taking. It's an I.Q. test, because you'd have to be an idiot to fail it. You know when it's coming."

And Rodriguez failed it despite that, and really at a time when doing this meant you didn't care about baseball.

Baseball has 'come a long way'

David Epstein
Sports Illustrated
You know, baseball is still policing itself, which, you know, is something that like on the Olympic level doesn't fly, but there are harsh penalties now. You know, people are named, so certainly they've come a long way.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Epstein, what is your sense of that history and where we are now? Do the people that you talk to in baseball itself and the people who watch it carefully feel like the game has learned to deal with it, has taken strong steps?

DAVID EPSTEIN: I think certainty people feel like they've come a long way. I mean, obviously, we reported on a test from 2003, and there's no doubt that things are better now.

You know, baseball is still policing itself, which, you know, is something that like on the Olympic level doesn't fly, but there are harsh penalties now. You know, people are named, so certainly they've come a long way.

I think the process could have been less embarrassing if they'd taken a longer view earlier on, but I think they've definitely have come a long way and they do see it as a serious problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about -- staying with you -- do you have any sense of how players see this? We heard Alex Rodriguez talk about this particular period where sort of he seemed to be suggesting that this was part of the culture. What about players now? What do they tell you?

DAVID EPSTEIN: It depends. You know, I think certainly, from the guys I talk to that, that it's less prevalent now, but certainly I assume it would be more secretive now, also, because of the testing.

And when you talk to guys about that period, there are guys who say it was the culture and other guys who -- you know, there are plenty of guys who didn't do it, too. So I think there was a culture of doing it and a culture of not doing it at the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: You're nodding your head.

THOMAS BOSWELL: The greatest deterrent now is not the improved testing system. It's better, but it's not as good as Olympic testing. The greatest deterrent is this program and other ones like it.

You have now seen a seven-time Most Valuable Player, a seven-time Cy Young Award-winner, and the player who was going to hit 800 homeruns and break every homerun record, all of those people completely brought low.

Barry Bonds is facing possible jail time. His trial starts in three weeks. A federal grand jury is investigating Roger Clemens. And now we're talking about Alex Rodriguez and practically a witch trial atmosphere. If you are taking steroids now, you're nuts, and players know that. And they get it.

Fans disappointed by revelations

Thomas Boswell
The Washington Post
I think Alex Rodriguez, unfortunately, was not a popular player. I think this will cause a huge fuss for days and weeks, but not for years. I think that this is more likely to be the beginning of a final chapter.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what about the rest of us? I mean, as you just said, this is a man who is going to hit -- who's going to break the record some day. How do we look at his accomplishment now?

THOMAS BOSWELL: I think that there will be individual people who are outraged, but we have to realize that the bulk of the scandal really brought this to a head seven years ago. That's a long time. People who decided that they were going to hate baseball forever have already made that decision.

I think Alex Rodriguez, unfortunately, was not a popular player. I think this will cause a huge fuss for days and weeks, but not for years. I think that this is more likely to be the beginning of a final chapter, maybe not of resolution, but simply of never forgetting, but getting enough distance that we become forgetful, to the point where it's almost a kind of forgiveness, but it's going to take time.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see, David Epstein? For example, what's been the reaction to your articles?

DAVID EPSTEIN: Oh, I think people kind of initially divided into two camps. There were people who kind of through the BALCO scandal and everything they've learned have become kind of cynical and assume that everyone who's hitting homeruns is using some sort of banned substance.

And there are other people who I think are genuinely upset because they felt like, because of the BALCO scandal, they saw Bonds' approach to the record as kind of a bittersweet journey and they were hoping that Alex Rodriguez's approach to the record could be just kind of a collective celebration. And they're probably disappointed, but certainly, you know, post-Mitchell Report I think everyone sees that this was a major part of the era.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me ask you, Thomas Boswell, briefly here. These -- Barry Bonds, we're talking about Hall of Fame players. Do they go to the Hall of Fame?

THOMAS BOSWELL: I don't think they do. As of right now, only 25 percent of the people who vote for the Hall of Fame -- and that means baseball writers -- have voted for Mark McGwire. I think that Alex Rodriguez has the best chance because he's come clean. Other people are still under a cloud of denial.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Thomas Boswell, David Epstein, thank you both very much.

DAVID EPSTEIN: Thank you.