TOPICS > Nation

Steroid Report Puts New Focus on Baseball’s Future

December 14, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT
Loading the player...
A report released Thursday exposing widespread steroid use in baseball's highest ranks caused a massive media storm. The NewsHour discusses the recent revelations with two baseball experts.

JIM LEHRER: And staying on that subject, the baseball scandal, day two and beyond, Margaret Warner has our coverage.

MARGARET WARNER: A day after former Senator George Mitchell released that explosive report on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, questions remain about the report’s impact on the sport and how the so-called “steroids era” it describes will be viewed in the years ahead.

Here to discuss those issues and more are Richard Justice, sports columnist for the Houston Chronicle, and sportswriter and author John Feinstein. He’s working on a book about a year in the life of two veteran Major League pitchers.

Welcome to you both.

Richard Justice, how significant a blow is this to professional baseball?

RICHARD JUSTICE, The Houston Chronicle: Well, you know, in financial terms, the history shows that people keep buying tickets, that they liked homeruns, they enjoyed the steroid era as fans, but it’s an embarrassment.

And even more than that, you know, if you think sports is supposed to reflect a certain value and a social responsibility, you are sending a terrible message to high school boys and girls. And surveys show that steroid use is soaring among kids that age. And that is their responsibility, and that’s on their conscience.

One of the things Bud Selig was told in this whole thing was, “Commissioner, if you don’t do something, people are going to die.” And I think that’s one of the things that has moved him to act.

MARGARET WARNER: Significant blow?

JOHN FEINSTEIN, Sportswriter: Absolutely, but a good thing. They needed to do this. It’s like a cleansing act. That’s why Bud Selig asked George Mitchell to put this report together, knowing full well that if it was done correctly, if he got lucky and found some people who would flip and talk — and he did, with the Mets clubhouse kid, Kirk Radomski, and with the trainer, McNamee, who talked about Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, who were the two new names in this who hadn’t been named in some way before publicly — he knew that would happen.

But baseball needed this, because, as Richard says, this has been going on for years. It has become an epidemic with young kids. And when Barry Bonds broke the homerun record this summer, and he was cheered, and Hank Aaron appeared on the message board, and the commissioner was there, what’s the message to kids? The message is, “Cheating pays.”

Independent report held sway

MARGARET WARNER: But, Richard Justice, do you agree that it takes a report like this, what, to give Bud Selig backbone to actually address it? I mean, if it was so widely known, it was obvious to the naked eye, as you watched these players bulk up, why does it take a report like this to get people to say, "Yes, this is going on"?

RICHARD JUSTICE: Well, the report emphasizes, again, that it was an institutional failure. Owners first asked players for steroid testing in 1994. Did they push hard? No, they didn't push hard.

The economics of the time, teams were going bankrupt, almost failing to meet payroll. Those were the things that were more important. Should they have paid more attention? Absolutely.

But they did get a testing agreement in 2002. They strengthened it in 2003. They have done some things. You have to be an adult about this. Human growth hormone is not one of the substances you can test for. If a player wants to cheat, he's going to be able to cheat.

I think the reason Bud Selig wanted this report was just tell us what we need to know. I'm sick of it coming out in books, and in dribs and drabs, and in grand jury testimony. Get it all out there, and let's try to deal with it, and give us recommendations on what else we can do.

And I think he intends to follow all those recommendations. So they have done some things. But were they slow to react? They were very slow to react.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just read you, John Feinstein, a couple things. Bud Selig said yesterday and Donald Fehr of the players union, though, if we're talking about whether this is going to get addressed, Selig said at one point, "If we were naive and missed some signals," quote, he accepted responsibility.

And Donald Fehr, the head of the players union, said about the testing program, "I don't think there's any suggestion in the report that the program we have in place now is not working appropriately and effectively." Now, does that sound like two men to you who are really ready to step up to this and do what's the best thing?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, it sounds to me like two men who want to say, "OK, this is it. You know, now we've taken care of it." The Mitchell report, Bud Selig says, "I'm going to follow all the recommendations of the report."

Well, one of the recommendations of the report is to take the drug testing program outside of Major League Baseball, to have independent testing, to expand it to the Olympic level.

Now, Richard made an important point about human growth hormone. You cannot test for it currently by urinalysis. So if you're going to test for human growth hormone, which I believe is the drug of choice now in baseball, and big time in football...

MARGARET WARNER: There's a lot of that in the report.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Yes, a lot of human growth hormone, because it's not detectable by the current testing. The owners have got to push the union for blood testing, if they're really serious about trying to clean this up.

RICHARD JUSTICE: And, Margaret, we have to acknowledge that this is a problem -- this is a war you're not going it to win. You just fight it. It's going to be a cat-and-mouse game with the testing and the people who are trying to cheat.

You just have to say, "This is all-encompassing thing. We're not going to get it past this. There are going to be new ways to cheat. The testing will have to try to catch up with it, and just do the best you can."

And you have to be honest with people about it. I mean, inside the game, there have been players that have laughed at the testing program as it was first installed. Now, it's been strengthened some since then. There are still going to be ways to cheat. We have to all be honest about that.

Players feel the heat

MARGARET WARNER: Let's talk about the impact now on the players and their reputations. I mean, what happens to all of these guys who set records? How is that accounted for or not accounted for? Does Roger Clemens get in the Hall of Fame.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Maybe not. Now, that's looking forward. You can't go backwards. You can't put asterisks on records or take them out. You cannot do that. It's too complicated, because if you take away Roger Clemens' wins, do you take away the losses with the pitchers he faced? If you take away Barry Bonds' homeruns, do you change the earned run averages of the pitchers who gave up those homeruns? You can't do that.

But you can keep these guys out of the Hall of Fame. Mark McGwire, who everybody suspected of using steroids, especially after his testimony to Congress two years ago, only got 23 percent of the vote the first time he was on the Hall of Fame ballot last year. It requires 75 percent to get in.

And I think both Bonds and Clemens may not get into the Hall of Fame because of this. And everybody named in this report, they're going to wear a scarlet "S" on their foreheads for the rest of their lives.

RICHARD JUSTICE: You know, that's exactly right, what John said. More than any asterisk, more than any suspension, these guys have to walk down the street now, and people are going to look at them and say, "You know what? They didn't do it the right way. They probably cheated."

And that's something you, as John said, you never escape that. And whatever happens in sanctions, in the Hall of Fame, anything like that, you are going to be looked at differently for the rest of your life. And nothing, nothing can change that.

MARGARET WARNER: But baseball more than any other sport is based on statistics. I mean, it's not just homeruns or pitchers games.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Right, we all read the box scores.

MARGARET WARNER: I mean, well, and every time someone steps up to bat and takes one swing, suddenly, boom, whatever the statistic is. Does that whole foundation now just get shaken? Is it...

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Yes, and certainly for this era of baseball. This will be known, as Senator Mitchell said yesterday, as the steroid era. And everybody will be tainted by it to some degree.

Weighing baseball's reputation

MARGARET WARNER: So everyone will have that scarlet "S" even if they didn't do it?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Yes, because there are people -- and Richard knows this better than I -- not named in this report who've been using steroids for years. And everybody in baseball knows it.

But what's really important here is the two guys who symbolized this era -- the best pitcher, Roger Clemens, the best hitter, Barry Bonds -- have both been outed now as steroid users. And they stand as the symbols of this era.

RICHARD JUSTICE: Yes, you know, one of the best players of the last 15 years, Jeff Bagwell, said to me a couple of months ago, he said, "Are you telling me that every player that accomplished great things in the last 10 or 12 years is going to be under the umbrella of suspicion?" That's right.

You don't need an asterisk. When you show, 20 years from now, when John and I show our grandkids the record book, we're going to look at all these numbers that stand out from all the other numbers and go, "Well, this was a different thing going on here," and try to explain it to them.

Nothing has to be done, in terms of asterisks or taking names out. People are going to know that those guys played by a different set of rules.

Cheating and the wider culture

MARGARET WARNER: And, Richard, briefly before we go, to both of you, is this about more than baseball? Does this say something even larger about our broader culture, this problem?

RICHARD JUSTICE: Well, I think in competitive sports you're always going to have people that want to cheat. And the means justifies the ends. If you look at the San Francisco Giants 10 years ago, a failing franchise, empty ballpark, a terrible ballpark.

Now they play in a great ballpark. Every seat is full. And why did that happen? Barry Bonds and hitting homeruns, it was a huge part of that.

So, yes, it's -- and what it said to the Giants was, the Giants said, "Hey, we're going to look the other way. This is pretty good for our business."

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Not just the Giants. All of baseball, and all of sports. And you go back to the '70s with the East Germans in the Olympics and how we look back on that era as tainted. We'll always look back on this era of baseball as tainted.

MARGARET WARNER: But I guess, is there a responsibility that the fans have here?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: I don't know that you can put responsibility on the fans. It's very hard for me or for Richard to say to our kids, "We're not going to go to baseball because we know there are people cheating." They don't get that; they don't understand that; they don't want to hear that.

Most fans don't care about cheating. All the fans in San Francisco, as Richard said, went to those games and cheered for Barry Bonds, and they knew he was cheating.

RICHARD JUSTICE: Yes, you know, Margaret, people didn't want to know how the sausage was being made. They just wanted to go and watch the games. And one of the things this report did was give you a little peek through the keyhole of things that basically we didn't want to know.

If fans were really upset about steroids, they'd stop going. And in contrast, they're going in record numbers.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Richard Justice, John Feinstein, thank you.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Margaret.