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Sports World Reacts to Allegations of Widespread Steroid Use

December 6, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPORTSCASTER: And this ball has hit deep to left center… back, back, back. Gone!

JEFFREY BROWN: San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds has made the incredible look almost routine — another monstrous shot into the San Francisco Bay, another record broken, including seven “most valuable player” awards and 73 home runs in a single season.

And he’s now approaching one of the crown jewels in all of sports: The all-time home run mark. Only Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth are ahead of him. But now Bonds and several other marquee athletes are embroiled in a scandal over the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs, stemming from a federal investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, or BALCO, an Oakland, Calif., sports medicine facility.

And the story is shaking both baseball and the wider sports world. On Friday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Bonds admitted in court to using two substances given him by his personal trainer and friend, Greg Anderson. In the court documents, prosecutors said the two substances had been identified as steroids. But Friday, Bonds’ lawyer said his client didn’t know what he was taking.

MICHAEL RAINS: He doesn’t know they were steroids. My client is hardly a chemist. My client was told to take flaxseed oil. This is a clear substance. And he had no reason to disbelieve his best friend. So, no, I don’t acknowledge my client took steroids. I won’t, he won’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: The day before the Bonds report, the Chronicle revealed that New York Yankees first baseman, Jason Giambi, admitted in grand jury testimony to using steroids over at least three seasons. And a teammate of Giambi’s, outfielder Gary Sheffield, is also involved in the investigation. Both have said Bonds referred them to his trainer, Anderson.

Major League Baseball only began steroid testing in 2003, after negotiations with the powerful players union. Penalties for violations range from treatment programs to a one-year suspension after repeated offense. On Thursday, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig promised a tougher regime.

BUD SELIG: This is no longer an issue that we are going to debate about anymore. I mean, this is something for everybody’s sake — the sport, the players, the clubs, the fans, everybody — and so we will do something. We will do something.

JEFFREY BROWN: Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said he would make sure Selig follows his words with deeds.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: They need to fix the problem. They know they need to fix it, we know they need to fix it. It’s time to do it. So I’ll introduce legislation in January, but I hope I don’t have to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: For its part, the baseball players union was discussing the issue at its annual meeting beginning today in Phoenix.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now to the views of three sports writers, Mike Wise of the Washington Post, Chuck Johnson of USA Today and Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle. Welcome to you all. Mike Wise, you wrote in your column yesterday that this is the most important story in sports in the last decade. Tell us especially those who don’t follow sports so much. Tell us why you say that.

MIKE WISE: I think, Jeff, that this is not only one of the most sacred records in baseball, the home run record which Barry Bonds is attempting to break, I also think that if you look back over history, nothing has affected our sports more radically.

You look at the records in the Olympics. They’re calling this the steroid generation. I don’t know if that’s fair or not. And whether it casts aspersions on too many athletes but it casts aspersions on enough to make us think twice about these records we’re seeing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ray Ratto, you’re in the epicenter of all this. So it’s got to be a big story out there. But what is it like when the man at the center is also a local hero? There must be some ambivalence.

RAY RATTO: There is a great deal of ambivalence. It’s almost a red state/blue state situation where on the one hand you’ve got people who support Barry Bonds unquestionably no matter what revelations come out, and those who had already made up their minds to dislike him and distrust his records going back to 2000.

So there’s almost a gridlock here because Giant fans want to believe that what they saw was real and still troubled by the fact that what they saw might not have been.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit more, Mr. Ratto, about Barry Bonds as a public figure, as a sports figure.

RAY RATTO: He’s a lightning rod. You don’t get to have no opinion about him, certainly not here. You either admire him for his skills to the point of idolatry or you dislike him for his personality quirks and with the steroid issue thrown in, you distrust what you’ve seen since 2001.

So there’s no real middle of the road. You don’t get to have no opinion about him at least not out here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Johnson we’re focusing on some big names being thrown about. The larger context here: Do we have a sense of how widespread steroid use really is at this point and when it all began in baseball?

CHUCK JOHNSON: I don’t know if we have an exact pulse on it. But just from the random survey that they took last year when they had survey testing for the first time in baseball, 5 to 7 percent of baseball players tested positive for steroids so you’re talking about a pool of 750 major league players.

And even though they knew testing was coming and the date when they had to take the test, 5-7 percent of baseball players still tested positive under those circumstances. So no doubt about it, the problem is a lot larger than maybe people care to think.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Johnson, the culture of sports, of course, is to go faster, to be stronger, to be the toughest guy out there, to do all that it takes. So some people might look at this and say, well, this is doing all that it takes.

CHUCK JOHNSON: Well that’s the thing about baseball. I mean until last year they didn’t have any policy whatsoever against steroids, even though the performance-enhancing drugs were illegal as far as the legal circumstance, baseball had no rules against it.

So that’s why it was allowed to proliferate to the point that it is right now. It’s become a big problem. It’s actually really put the integrity of baseball under scrutiny right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mike Wise, do you see this as a question of the integrity of baseball or some larger question about the involvement of how we as fans look at baseball heroes?

MIKE WISE: I think it goes way beyond how we feel about baseball heroes. I think there is a part of us that wants to see Barry Bonds hit that ball out of the park. We don’t care how he does it. But there’s also a part of us that identifies with somebody who bends the rules a little bit, goes a little farther than they’re supposed to.

We all try to gain in a competitive edge. I think in the case it’s so over the top that we’re bothered by it. We’re bothered by it on a very extreme level.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Ratto, how do you see that? Barry Bonds hitting home runs brings a lot of fans out to that beautiful park that you have there in San Francisco.

RAY RATTO: Oh, yeah. I mean, believe me, the Giants have cashed in plenty on this. Major league baseball as a whole has cashed in plenty on this because Barry Bonds was not the only one to hit a ton of home runs in the last five years.

Sammy Sosa in Chicago, Mark McGwire; there’s been a home run explosion. And at least a bit of that, you know, it’s hard to quantify how much, but at least a bit of that I think is going to be pinned back down to the performance-enhancing scandal. And baseball has done very well by it. So it’s a little disingenuous at times to hear baseball say we’ve got to clean this up because they enjoyed the benefits of it as much as anybody else did.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see happening next, Mr. Ratto, in terms of testing, enforcement, punishment, I mean, do you see the commissioner acting as strongly as he says he will?

RAY RATTO: Historically what happens in baseball is that there’s a lot of talk early and then the ultimate result is much less than what everybody thought it was going to be.

The problem that baseball has is that ultimately there’s only been one BALCO found so far. And given the statistics that Chuck mentioned that 5-7 percent of players tested positive for a performance-enhancer of one kind or another, there are a lot more players out there who haven’t been named yet and baseball’s stuck trying to make these three or four or five or six players that have been mentioned, make examples of them and not really attack the wider problem, which is that there’s a lot more of this going on than even we know about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Johnson, what do you see happening next? Does the publicity force the hand of the commissioner, of the owners, of the union?

CHUCK JOHNSON: I think it’s reached that point right now. I mean the players’ union executive board is meeting as we speak in Phoenix, Ariz.

And I think both sides as far as management as well as the union they’re on the hot seat right now. Sen. John McCain has stated he’s going to introduce legislation if baseball doesn’t clear its own house.

I really think both sides are on call right now. The broader issue is not just the competitive edge but what about these players, their livelihood and their health? The health issue as far as steroid usage, that’s the major thing. Ten to 15 years down the road we’re really going to see the effect of what this steroid era is doing to these athletes as far as being able to live long, healthy lives. I think it’s going to come to roost ten to fifteen years from now as far as the damages that are being done.

MIKE WISE: Chuck raises a great point. I think that everybody is talking about this story because the current home run record holder has been confronted with grand jury testimony and Jason Giambi.

Nobody is looking at the underbelly of this. There’s a kid in Plano Texas, his name was Tyler Futon, and he was 17 years old and was taking the same steroid as Jason Giambi. Deca Durabolin. After suffering some acute depression, he killed himself. He hung himself. I spoke to his father on the phone the other day. Nobody is talking about that guy.

And I think that if we’re going to really get to the crux of this issue, we have to look at how many kids are looking at these records and saying, hey, this is the way for me to break it. If I’m going to go sit on my weight bench this is a way I can get bigger. That’s the frightening part about all this.

JEFFREY BROWN: All three of you have been covering this for a long time. I mean sports in general and story like this. Does it have a deeper impact? Does it reach into the kids in high school?

MIKE WISE: Oh, you can go into any gym, any upscale gym in any big city and find somebody there to procure these kinds of — find somebody that you can procure these drugs from.

It’s sad. I mean, I looked on Google the other night — just calling up that steroid — Deca Durabolin. Before you even get to the health risks, Jeff, five of the first references on Google involve where to buy it. To me that’s just, you know, that’s tragedy itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Ratto, I just want to ask you a brief question about the achievement of Barry Bonds. Baseball, of course, loves its statistics, its records. What happens to those if it is conclusively shown that some of what he did was done with the use of steroids?

RAY RATTO: Well, I would be shocked if they tried to put an asterisk on the number only because the last time they did that with Roger Maris it turned out to be a public relations disaster.

As Chuck pointed out, through 2002 steroid use wasn’t against the rules in baseball so they would be putting an asterisk on a number that they had said when it was going on wasn’t illegal.

I think what baseball is probably going to do is not put the asterisk on anybody’s records and let the public sort it out the way the public wants to sort it out and just leave it to every individual fan to determine what they think of the records Barry Bonds and the rest of contemporary baseball players are performing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ray Ratto, Chuck Johnson and Mike Wise, thanks.