JEFFREY BROWN: By any measure, it was a great post-season for baseball but now the action has moved from the ballpark to the lab. Yesterday, Major League Baseball released the results of its first year of testing for steroids, illegal drugs used to enhance a player's performance.
In random tests of nearly 1,200 players, between 5 and 7 percent were positive. The results were anonymous and some players were tested more than once, so the exact number of players who used steroids is not known. But the results will trigger stricter new testing and penalties beginning next season.
A cover story in Sports Illustrated helped bring this issue to public attention last year. Its author is Tom Verducci, senior baseball writer at the magazine. He joins us now. For the record, we invited representatives from Major League Baseball and the Players Association, but they declined to join us.
Mr. Verducci, welcome. Perhaps you can give us some background. What led to this first official testing from Major League Baseball?
TOM VERDUCCI: It is important to understand the Players Association has steadfastly opposed any sort of testing program on the grounds that without proper cause, someone should be subject to giving urine samples.
What happened though is when this issue became a front burner issue in 2002, things go on to change. Public pressure on both players and owners to do something about this, and quite frankly, among the union's own rank and file, players that were clean were getting increasingly upset about the number of players using performance enhancing drugs and wanted something to be done.
It became a bargaining issue during the rounds of the last collective bargaining agreement. They came up with a formula that said let's first figure out what is the problem. Let's try to put a number on it. The number they arrived at was 5 percent. Anything above 5 percent they would then institute mandatory random testing, which is what we're getting in 2004.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now just so we're clear, you talk to players. What are steroids used for and are they easy to get?
TOM VERDUCCI: Well, they're used to enhance performance and they do work. Players will gain mass. They will gain strength. In some cases, even speed. It's very common also for pitchers, for instance, to use steroids, to increase velocity and most importantly, to increase recovery.
Baseball is a game that is played every day, especially for a relief pitcher, who, say pitches four times in a six-night stand. Steroids will allow that pitcher to recover more quickly from the wear and tear.
It has become more popular because people have looked around and seen the results that players who are maybe second tier type players are putting up better numbers than they normally would, and athletics, on any sort of level, is all about competition and players were afraid that if they were not using steroids, they would be at a competitive disadvantage.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we have some statements from baseball officials after they released the numbers. Rob Manfred of Major League Baseball, "a positive rate after of 5 percent is hardly the sign that you have rampant use of anything but from our perspective, it's still a problem. We'd like it to be at zero."
From an official at the players union, "Plainly, many of the widely publicized claims regarding steroid use in the sport turn out to have been grossly uninformed. That said, we will continue to work with the clubs in the administration of the new testing program." What responses have you been picking up about the numbers?
TOM VERDUCCI: Well, that's been the magic question, what exactly is the percentage because in this case, we're talking about players who are caught during the seasonal -- during the season. Let's remember there was no testing, the survey testing program for 2003 during the off season nor will there be in the future.
So anybody who used in the off season was fair to use that without being caught at all; also these tests did not test for a popular supplement that most experts will tell you is a precursor to steroids. It did not test for human growth hormone and it did not test for THG, one of the so-called designer steroids that is out there now.
Only now they're beginning to pick up markers to show, that will show up on tests. So some people begin to think this 5 to 7 percent number really is the tip of the iceberg. So far that's the only hard number we have to go on.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now under the labor agreement, if the number was over 5 percent, it would trigger some new testing and some punishment. We have a graphic to put up to show some of the new punishments that will go into effect.
What jumps out at me is the second offense is when a player is publicly identified. Each offense, the suspension gets longer and longer, up to a fourth and fifth offense, where the ... where there is a one-year suspension or up to a $100,000 fine. What strikes you about this new regime?
TOM VERDUCCI: Well, what strikes me is the difference between in testing program and some other sports and the leniency that is built in upon the first offense.
In baseball, a first offense brings no public acknowledgment, brings no penalty in terms of suspension and/or fine. A player is placed on what is called a clinical track in which he will meet with medical professionals.
Now in the NFL, if you test positive for steroids on a first offense, you are suspended for four games. Remember, that's 25 percent of an NFL season. Baseball does not approach that sort of percentage level until a fourth or fifth offense. And in track and field, the first offense will bring a two-year ban from competition in international events.
JEFFREY BROWN: There was some very strong criticism. Dick Pound of the World Anti-Doping Agency said today that baseball's policy on steroids is a complete joke. I think he was talking about the type of testing as well as the punishment. What are the concerns there?
TOM VERDUCCI: Well, the testing next year, players will be tested twice, but it's really one test there. There is one initial test and then the other test is done five to seven days later. After the first test, the administrator will say don't use any over-the-counter supplements.
We don't want that to affect the follow-up test. And once that player is done with the follow-up test five or seven days later, he is done. If that test is taken in March or April, he is done for the year. That's what Dick Pound is driving at and he's also driving at the fact that the tests are not done by an independent agency such as the World Anti-Doping Agency.
This is run by a consortium, a combination of Players Association officials, lawyers and medical people and people from the commissioner's office.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now of course all this is happening in an era when some of the most cherished records in baseball have been falling, notably the single season home run record. A last brief question: Do you see the steroid issue causing people to take a new look at what has been happening, some of the achievements over the last few years, in baseball?
TOM VERDUCCI: That's a little bit of a dilemma. I think people look at these records and maybe scratch their head a little bit to try to figure out what part if any of these records have been chemically enhanced. By the same token, you look at the history of Major League Baseball and attendance has risen whenever there has been a spike in offense.
When beam get more people interested in the game, those are your casual fans that are joining, they're interested in the homerun ball high scoring games. On the one hand, the home runs are contributing to an increase at the gate and moneys coming into the game. On the other hand, you have to doubt or at least question whether some of these records or home runs or even some of the pitching records now have been chemically enhanced.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, thanks for joining us.
TOM VERDUCCI: Thank you.