SPOKESMAN: Into left center field. He's going to...
TERENCE SMITH: Baseball's new season got under way at ball parks across the country today, with many fans and players braving cold and windy weather. President Bush told reporters he had a strategy for the ceremonial first pitch.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm going straight fastball today. Try to get a little hop on it.
TERENCE SMITH: And then later in St. Louis, he put his arm to the test, and opened the Cardinals' season. This year, the cloud of steroid use looms large over baseball. Last season, nearly 1,200 ballplayers underwent anonymous, penalty-free testing for steroids as part of the league's new drug policy. Between 5 percent and 7 percent came back positive -- enough to staff about three teams.
Baseball's drug policy is less stringent than other sports. While a player can be fined and even temporarily suspended, no player can be suspended for a full season until his fifth offense. One San Francisco lab, Balco, is under heavy scrutiny for its alleged role in a scheme to distribute illegal steroids to professional athletes. Four people were indicted by a federal grand jury, including Balco's founder and the personal trainer to home run champion Barry Bonds.
During the off season, President Bush raised the issue in his State of the Union address. And at a hearing in Washington last month, Republican Sen. John McCain put the pressure on Major League players and owners to change their ways.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN, R-Ariz.: Your failure to commit to addressing this issue straight on, and immediately, will motivate this committee to search for legislative remedies. I don't know what they are, but I can tell you and your players that you represent the status quo is not acceptable.
TERENCE SMITH: For his part, baseball commissioner Bud Selig has acknowledged the problem in recent weeks, including yesterday on ABC's This Week.
BUD SELIG: We need, in my opinion, is random testing year round. We also need stiffer penalties. We need a program, as I said earlier, like the one that's in the minor leagues because that will forever remove the cloud. George, this is not only a health issue. There's no question about that. But it's also it's an integrity issue. There's a whole series of things that we really have to deal with.
TERENCE SMITH: The players union has resisted calls for random drug testing, citing concerns over the players' privacy. For more, I'm joined by Buster Olney, a senior writer at ESPN the magazine and a longtime baseball beat reporter.
Buster Olney, welcome. Tell us, as this season opens, just how widespread a problem is this? I mean, we mentioned those tests last year that suggested 5 to 7 percent. Is that the dimension or is it in fact larger?
BUSTER OLNEY: I think players think it's much larger than that. The 5 to 7 percent that tested positive last year, those were tests that players could reasonably predict when they were going to take place. I think when you talk to players privately they think it's probably about a third of the players, a couple years ago were taking it and maybe half of those because they're feeling pressure to keep up with their competitors.
TERENCE SMITH: What does that do to baseball, if that's the case, then it really is very widespread and as Commissioner Selig said, it's on one hand a health issue and on the other hand an integrity of the game issue. What does that do to baseball?
BUSTER OLNEY: It really puts it in a bind. They just, because the labor agreement is only 2 years old, and this is only the second year of testing, they're kind of locked into the current program unless the union leadership changes its stance, and I don't know if that's going to happen. The players internally within the union, I think, the vast majority of them want a more stronger testing program, but the union leadership I don't think wants to give away this issue when they're not in a situation where they're negotiating a new contract with the owners.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, break that down for us. You say the players want it. But the union is resisting it or treats it as a negotiating bargaining chip. That seems almost contradictory.
BUSTER OLNEY: Well, a couple years ago USA Today did a poll of players and they polled about 550 of 750 players, and 79 percent of the players in a private poll said that they preferred a strong testing system. I think most of the players look at steroid users as a threat to the others, competitively, financially, because they're taking jobs away from players who are not using it, and they don't know what the risks are health-wise. And they're, I think, a little worried about if I use this stuff what's going to happen to me in ten years, as one player said to me in spring, "I have to wonder if I'm going to be able to see my children go through their weddings." That's a difficult situation for the players.
On the other hand, the union leadership has always taken the public stance that this is a privacy issue for the players, they don't want players to have to submit to random drug tests, not only for steroids, but information other drugs. They feel like that's an infringement upon the players. But I also think that because they are not currently negotiating a contract, this is an issue they don't want to give away for free.
TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned you were at spring training, and I wonder what you heard there, whether players talked about possibly using steroids and now getting off it? Did you see any evidence of that?
BUSTER OLNEY: There is, there are a lot of executive scouts you talk to and looking at the players because this is the first year where a player can be suspended for steroid use, the bodies are definitely smaller, were definitely smaller around spring training, you look around baseball, you can see the effect that the testing is having on it.
The question is whether or not because they're not strong penalties, is this going to be a lasting effect. Most of the players don't think so. The players who want stronger testing think the current system is a joke. You basically, since the beginning of last year, you could have stood in the middle of the clubhouse, taken steroids in front of every reporter, every teammate four times and before you were actually subject to suspension.
TERENCE SMITH: Right, and it wasn't actually grounds for that sort of action at that point. What about the owners? When you talk to them, when you interview them, what level of concern and if they reflect Commissioner Selig's opinion that there ought to be widespread random testing and a real program here, why does it happen?
BUSTER OLNEY: Well, one of the owners said to me last year the baseball moves like a dread naught. It takes a very long time to change direction. There are a lot of indications in the mid '90s when you looked at how bodies were changing that steroids was becoming a growing problem in baseball, and yet it really hasn't been until the last couple years in which the owners stepped in to address the problem and not until the last few weeks when the owners have been particularly loud about addressing this issue. My own feeling is that Commissioner Selig, he knows which way the wind is blowing on this, and he knows essentially it's a situation where the union is going to have to address this before he can.
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, of course we're getting records broken year after year: Homerun records, pitching is stronger and more frequent. I wonder what you think of that as a development and whether you attribute it to steroid use on the first level, and secondly, if so, whether the whole era, the steroid era if you want to call it that, needs to have an asterisk attached to it.
BUSTER OLNEY: Well, I don't think you can attach something like that to the era simply because you can't prove whether or not a player used it. I have no doubt that steroids have had a huge impact, and not only on the hitters. There's an assumption that because hitters can gain a tangible result getting stronger that they are the ones who use it. A lot of pitchers are using this stuff. I presumably looking at the bodies and from talking with the players. It's because they can in taking steroids they can bounce back from pitching in a game much more quickly if they use the steroids.
And you look around at some of the pitchers who have been very successful in recent years, and there's a lot of suspicion about whether or not they use steroids. It has been a huge factor in baseball, again, since the mid-'90s
TERENCE SMITH: And you as someone who watches baseball all the time and is up close to the players, you can actually physically see the difference, you can see that they're more muscular, more built up, as a result of what you assume is steroid use?
BUSTER OLNEY: No question. And suddenly the bodies look like they have helium in them, the upper bodies, the foreheads squared off, you hear stories about how players capsizes are changing after they turn 30 years old. I walked up to a player last spring, and I could not believe the difference in him physically, and I thought he was embarrassed. He would never acknowledge to me that he used steroids, but you could see it in his eye, he was in a position where he felt like he needed to take this to keep up with other players who were using and it was unbelievable to see the difference in his arms, shoulders and in his forehead.
TERENCE SMITH: One of the older players who hold those records, the Hall of Famers, when you talk to them, what do they say about this?
BUSTER OLNEY: I think there's a quiet resentment, and more players, more Hall of Fame players, more star players are speaking out on this. Jim Palmer spoke out on it, was the Hall of Fame pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, talked about it a couple weeks ago, just yesterday Cecil Fielder, who became the first player in about 50 years did 50 homeruns, he basically suggested, he mentioned by name players who he thought were taking steroids. They feel like that their records, their accomplishments have lost the context that they should have because the numbers are being put up by suspected steroid users.
TERENCE SMITH: Clearly a lot of people think it needs more looking into. Buster Olney, thank you very much.
BUSTER OLNEY: Thank you.