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Former ‘Home Run King’ Admits Steroid Use, Reignites Scandal in Pro Sports

January 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Mark McGwire admitted Monday to using steroids when he broke Major League Baseball's home run record in 1998. Kwame Holman updates the story on drug use among athletes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Down the left field line! Is it enough? Gone!

KWAME HOLMAN: After more than a decade of denials, Mark McGwire has come clean about using steroids when he broke the single-season home run record.

MARK MCGWIRE: I apologize to everybody in Major League Baseball, my family, the Marises, Bud Selig. Today was the hardest day of my life.

KWAME HOLMAN: McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998 with the Saint Louis Cardinals, eclipsing the record of 61 set by Roger Maris in 1961. On Monday, he told Bob Costas on the Major League Baseball Network that he used the drugs solely to maintain his health.

BOB COSTAS, Sportscaster: Could you have hit 70 home runs, could you have had a home run ratio greater than anything Babe Ruth did in his time without using steroids?

MARK MCGWIRE: Absolutely.

BOB COSTAS: You think so?

MARK MCGWIRE: I truly believe so. I was given this gift by the man upstairs.

KWAME HOLMAN: The rumors of steroid use that swirled around McGwire during his playing days followed him into retirement, including at a congressional hearing in 2005.

MARK MCGWIRE: I’m not here to discuss the past. I’m here to be positive.

KWAME HOLMAN: But, last fall, McGwire was named hitting coach for the Cardinals. And he said he knew he finally had to answer the question.

But all-time home run leader Barry Bonds, who hit 73 homers in 2001, has denied he knowingly took enhancing drugs. He faces federal perjury charges over the issue. Retired slugger Sammy Sosa, who is sixth on the career home run list, also denies using steroids. And so does retired pitcher Roger Clemens, who won the Cy Young Award seven times.

In other sports, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong repeatedly has denied doping, but several other leading cyclists have been banned from the sport. And former U.S. track star Marion Jones served six months in prison in 2008 for lying to investigators about her steroid use.

JIM LEHRER: David Epstein has been covering many of these steroids stories for “Sports Illustrated” magazine. He’s a staff writer there. And he helped break the Alex Rodriguez story last year.

David Epstein, welcome.

So, it’s pretty much already well-known and believed that Mark McGwire used steroids to hit — when he was hitting his home runs, right?

DAVID EPSTEIN: That’s right.

I think, when you go in front of Congress and you tell them — when they ask you if you used performance-enhancing drugs, you say you’re not there to talk about the past, I think that’s — pretty much ends that story in terms of whether he used or didn’t. So, that’s been kind of a foregone conclusion for a while.

JIM LEHRER: Why did he finally come clean today — or yesterday?

DAVID EPSTEIN: Well, going in — you know, he will be going into the season as the Cardinals’ hitting coach. And, if he hadn’t, this just would have been kind of a protracted game of media speculation and criticism.

So, I think he kind of opted to have this story burn brightly and briefly, rather than just drag out and distract from what was going on, on the field and with the team that he will be working for.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of McGwire’s claim to Bob Costas that there’s no connection between his steroid use and the fact that he hit all these home runs?

DAVID EPSTEIN: I mean, it doesn’t — it doesn’t make any sense, basically. I have talked to experts on steroid use and abuse very frequently.

And I know McGwire said that he used it only for recovery, not for performance enhancement. But, frankly, even if he just wanted to use it because he thinks needles are fun, it doesn’t matter why he wanted to use it. The fact is, steroids do enhance your performance. They enhance your performance in baseball and in hitting the ball farther in many, many different ways.

And there are actually now some preliminary studies that show, even years after habitual steroid users stop using steroids, their muscle enhancements remain even after they have stopped using.

JIM LEHRER: Now, is Mark McGwire going to pay any price or penalty for having admitted he did this?

DAVID EPSTEIN: It doesn’t look like it. I think he will be greeted in Saint Louis with open arms.

And it would be a precedent if baseball were to strip him of any of his statistics or records, because there are other sluggers, prolific sluggers, who have either tested positive or admitted to drug use or been caught up in investigations, and they haven’t been stripped of records, because then you get into kind of the dirty business of how to parse out justice, basically.

So, it certainly doesn’t look that way at the moment.

JIM LEHRER: Now, from the legal standpoint, as we — as we said in the setup piece, as Kwame did, Marion Jones went to — went to jail for lying, and Barry Bonds faces that similar charge. But it wasn’t for — it’s not for the drug use. It’s for having lied to investigators or to a grand jury or something like that; is that correct?

DAVID EPSTEIN: That’s — that’s absolutely correct.

And Mark McGwire, as you saw, in front of Congress didn’t lie. He just refused to talk about the issue. So, Barry Bonds — you know, Marion Jones never tested positive. It was just the investigation that got her. And, so, you’re absolutely correct.

JIM LEHRER: What about the comparison between Mark McGwire and the Alex Rodriguez case? This is, of course, the story of the star of the — of course, of the star of the New York Yankees. You covered that story, helped break that story.

And, of course, since then, there’s been Manny — Manny Ramirez of the Dodgers. Both of them are still going to be playing baseball come spring, right?

DAVID EPSTEIN: That’s right. And, so, they have chances — I mean, as we have seen with Alex Rodriguez this year, is, he has a chance to keep hitting homers, and people love you when you do that, and the same thing with Manny Ramirez. He’s maybe a little less so, but he’s still known as this kind of happy-go-lucky guy. And you get back to the field and you perform well.

You know, Manny was taking up a particularly kind of problematic drug for sports, because it’s undetectable. And they — they’re active. They can rehabilitate their images, in a way that Mark McGwire can’t really do anymore.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your — based on your reporting and your colleagues at “Sports Illustrated”‘s reporting, what is the state of drug use in major sports right now? Is there any way to measure that?

DAVID EPSTEIN: There really isn’t.

And, actually, what I found while I was reporting that Alex Rodriguez story is that even the players themselves really don’t know. So, I know we have this image of sometimes a clubhouse with — and some of this has been perpetuated by Jose Canseco’s books. And he’s been right about a lot of things, but…

DAVID EPSTEIN: … perpetuated this image…

JIM LEHRER: Jose Canseco is — excuse me — was a ball player who first raised this publicly, or confessed, and kind of those hearings that we had the clip of that — where McGwire went to was the result of his going public, correct? I just wanted to make sure that was in the record, yes.

Yes, but go ahead. I’m sorry, yes.


And, so, some of his books kind of perpetuated this image of like a barrel where you could just go grab a syringe in the clubhouse. And everything that I have found suggests that steroid use is still pretty relatively secretive behavior when it comes to professional clubhouses and locker rooms.

So, even the players themselves really have no idea who else is using. But you will find uniformly that the players who did use estimate that all the guys around them are using, and the guys who don’t use tend to estimate that very few guys around them are using. And, really, they don’t even know.

JIM LEHRER: And there’s no testing regime in any of these major sports that can turn it up?

DAVID EPSTEIN: Well, there are testing regimes. But there are certain things you can’t test for.

So, I recently spoke with, for example, the National Football League, with two retired strength coaches who worked a long time in the league for teams. And they said human growth hormone has become the drug of choice there. That’s just their opinion. They only worked with specific teams.

But you can’t test for that without blood testing that — football, basketball and baseball are not doing blood testing. And even the blood testing that occurs at the Olympics for growth hormone is of limited effectiveness at the moment.

And you look at Marion Jones, never tested positive because she taking a designer steroid. You can take a lot of designer steroids now and pass any tests they’re going to throw at you. There are a lot of ways to get by the tests.

The drug that Manny Ramirez took, he didn’t fail a test. Major League Baseball, to their credit, caught him in an investigation. So, there are a lot of things you can do and not test positive.

JIM LEHRER: And still do it as we speak?

DAVID EPSTEIN: You can still do it as — the drug that Manny Ramirez was taking is a female fertility drug that raises — in men, it raises your own level of your testosterone. So, they don’t detect foreign testosterone that you took.

So, there are a lot of things that you can do, potentially with only urine testing. And the testing in the different leagues is very different. But there’s been some criticism of the out-of-competition testing in some of the leagues. So, your testing has to be incredibly rigorous. And there’s still loopholes even then at the moment, just because of the technology.


David Epstein, thank you very much.