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Steroid Scandal Casts Shadow Over Baseball Season

As Major League Baseball begins another season, more and more players have reportedly been using steroids. An analysis of the steroid problem in baseball and how it will effect the year.

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    Two on, two out, and a count of 2-2, in a one-run game.


    The Major League Baseball season swung into full action today, with 13 games played across the country. In Cincinnati, President Bush threw out the first pitch in the opener between the Reds and the Chicago Cubs. And tonight, the player under the heaviest scrutiny this season, San Francisco's Barry Bonds, returns to the plate after missing most of last season due to injury.

    It could be a historic season for Bonds. He's chasing the all-time home run record, entering the year with 708, trailing only Babe Ruth, with 714 homers, and record-holder Hank Aaron, with 755.

    But for all of the attention at the plate, Bonds and the sport are facing problems off the field over new allegations of steroid use. Although Major League Baseball has toughened its policy on steroids in the past two years, a new book says Bonds and other players were able to get steroids for several seasons though a San Francisco-area lab known as BALCO.

    That prompted baseball commissioner Bud Selig to launch a new investigation last week.

  • BUD SELIG, Major League Baseball Commissioner:

    … the evidence revealed in a recently published book have convinced me that Major League Baseball must undertake an investigation of the allegations that players associated with BALCO have used illegal performance-enhancing substances.


    The book, "Game of Shadows," details Bonds' alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. It was written by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters.

    Co-author Lance Williams…

    LANCE WILLIAMS, Author, "Game of Shadows": There is no other conclusion you can draw from the evidence that we laid out in our book but that he knowingly used drugs from '99 through the 2003 season.

    We've got considerable government documents from the BALCO steroids conspiracy case. We've also got a recording of his trainer describing the undetectable steroid he's to giving to Bonds so he can beat Major League Baseball's test in 2003.


    Mark Fainaru-Wada said steroids helped Bonds become a better hitter in his late 30s, at an age when most players decline.

    MARK FAINARU-WADA, Author, "Game of Shadows": The numbers are pretty dramatic, if you look. We did a study that looked at the numbers pre-steroids as the numbers post-steroids. And he turns into, really, a better hitter than he's ever been in his life. The home run numbers obviously explode. He hits them at a rate almost twice as much as he is previously.


    Bonds has said that, if he ever used steroids, it was unknowingly as part of a supplement or shake. As for the book, Bonds says he won't read it. And on Saturday, he refused to comment on the new investigation.


    So absolutely no reaction to the investigation?

  • BARRY BONDS, Major League Baseball Player:



    Why not?


    Because I'm an adult, I don't have to react to anything if I choose not to.


    Leading the investigation is former Senate Majority Leader and a current director of the Boston Red Sox, George Mitchell. He's also chairman of the Walt Disney Company, the parent of ESPN, a national broadcast partner of Major League Baseball.

    GEORGE MITCHELL, Lead in Steroid Investigation: Those allegations require close scrutiny. At the same time, the individuals who are alleged to have used these illegal substances are entitled to a deliberate and unbiased examination of the facts that will comport with basic American values of fairness.


    The probe, launched Thursday, will initially be limited to events after September 2002, when the sport banned performance-enhancing drugs.

    Now, two views on the implications of the steroid controversy. Steve Hirdt is the executive vice president of the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statisticians for Major League Baseball. And Bob Costas, sports broadcaster for NBC and HBO.

    Bob, with the Mitchell investigation, with the new testing regimen, is Major League Baseball finally coming to grips with what steroids have meant to the game?

  • BOB COSTAS, Sports Broadcaster:

    Yes, pretty clearly they are coming to grips with it, Ray. Some of it comes too late, because it's unclear to me — and Steve, as a keeper of the stats, might be able to address this with more credibility — but it's unclear to me what they can do about what most knowledgeable baseball fans already acknowledge was a steroid era in baseball.

    So, even if they clean it up from this point forward — they'll never clean it up 100 percent. There will always be some undetectable substances. But even if they dramatically diminish the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and it's less of a factor in the game going forward than it has been in the past, they're still left to grapple with what has happened over the past 10-plus years and how the record book has been poisoned by it.


    Steve Hirdt, has baseball opened this season under a cloud, even with the changes it's trying to make?

  • STEVE HIRDT, Elias Sports Bureau:

    Well, I think, certainly in the minds of some people that this is — the book itself is kind of new and very detailed evidence. But strangely, when you look at the overall numbers, such as the attendance in the ballparks last year, the fans seemed to look past this, to a certain degree, especially once the game starts.

    So this has been a very big story in the run-up to the season in the first week and will probably continue to be so early in the season here. Let's see what happens as the investigation gets under way. There's probably going to be a quiet period here where we don't hear much from Senator Mitchell and his colleagues, and we'll see how the season plays out.


    Bob, respond to what Steve Hirdt just said about the fans not seeming to be all that caught up in the steroid controversy, baseball continuing to set attendance records.


    No, I think that fans are able to accommodate both thoughts. They don't want inauthentic performances to be honored; they want the game to be played on the up and up; they want the integrity of past performances to be respected.

    They don't want Hank Aaron to be overtaken by somebody who was a great player, but then became a superhuman player under very unusual circumstances, but they still love baseball, and they still love the pennant races and all the other things that are appealing about the game.

    So I don't think that you can infer from soaring attendance figures and other measures of the game's popularity that people don't care about the dark side of the game; I think they're able to accommodate both thoughts.


    Well, Steve Hirdt, what about Bob Costas' suggestion that baseball has to sort of wall off the '90s as a steroids era?


    I think fans have already done that to a great degree. You know, baseball fans are very used to making these sorts of arguments. There are entire television shows devoted to it. There are entire radio stations devoted to it, to arguing which performance is better than another.

    And statistics are used to put some performances in perspective, but baseball fans are very used to and very accomplished at arguing mitigating circumstances on a particular performance or another.

    Even outside the realm of steroids, it's done all the time, with respect to certain eras that players played in, certain ballparks they played in. A couple of very good hitters, Larry Walker and Todd Helton, always have their accomplishments mitigated by the fact that they played their home games in Denver where the air is very thin and the ball travels farther.

    So baseball fans have not ignored this and, in a lot of cases, they've already placed a mental asterisk next to some of these performances.


    Bob Costas, a mental asterisk so you don't need an official one?


    I first heard this suggested by Marty Appel, a former official with the New York Yankees who's been around baseball for a long time, and I agree with it. I think what baseball ought to do, at the very least, is have a page at the beginning of the record book that says that, while baseball has greater historical continuity than any other American team sport, there have often been disruptions and changes in the game.

    And so, even as we compare these statistics across the eras, which is part of the appeal of baseball, we have to take into account those changes: dead ball, lively ball, segregated, integrated, entirely day ball, primarily night ball, train travel, travel by air, the advent of a reliance on relief pitching. And, certainly, one of the major disruptions is the steroid era.

    And one of the things that has to be said about the steroid era: It didn't evolve; it erupted. And you had players who were already in the big leagues in the late '80s and early '90s who never approached what they did from the mid '90s on. And that's what made it so suspicious.


    Well, Steve Hirdt, as someone who is a historian and keeper of the stats, would that kind of disclaimer that Bob Costas suggests be a helpful thing, a tool added to the tools for assessing baseball's past?


    I'm not diminishing what Bob says as being true; I'm just saying that most fans over the age of 12 already know that, and they know that there have been different eras in baseball.

    You look at the home run records. None of them were set before 1920, because the ball was mushy and similar to a softball today. Lou Gehrig never played a game against an African-American or any other person of color. And, you know, the 1919 World Series itself was one in which players on one team, the White Sox, conspired with gamblers to lose.

    If you look in the official record book, it will merely say that Cincinnati defeated Chicago in that World Series. But any good baseball fan knows about the back story, knows the movies that have been done, the books that have been done about that.

    You know, I find it interesting that, in all of this talk, people immediately zero into the statistics. Have you heard word one about the results of games that might have been altered by player was who, assuming the worse, might have been on some sort of illegal substances? What about the championships won, the pennants won?

    Statistics are a subordinate issue in sports to the winning and losing of games and championships, yet you don't hear one word about how to rectify those.


    Bob Costas…


    And that's why it's…


    Go ahead, respond.


    Very briefly, that's why it's a true Pandora's box, because you don't know how you should discount a performance. Is 60 to be discounted to 45?

    And as Steve said, how did it affect the outcome of games? We don't know how many pitchers may have been using these performance-enhancing substances or fielders who got to balls that they wouldn't ordinarily have gotten to because they were less fatigued as the season went along because they were using some kind of illegal substances.

    There's no way to sort through it all, and so there's a mental asterisk that's placed next to the era by fans who make their own judgments. But very clearly, something fishy was going on for the past decade that rendered the game, to a large extent, inauthentic.


    Well, mental asterisks may be placed or not placed at the discretion of the fan, but what about the Hall of Fame? In five or so seasons, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro will both be knocking at the doors. What do you do?


    Mark McGwire sooner than that.


    Mark McGwire sooner than that. Good point. What's your call, Bob?


    I think what will happen, with someone like McGwire, who would have been, prior to the revelations or assumptions of the last year or so, a near-unanimous first ballot Hall of Famer, I think McGwire will probably be denied on the first ballot. It will be a way for the writers to register some sort of protest, but eventually he will get in.

    I think with others it will be more problematic. Sammy Sosa has virtually the same number of lifetime home runs as Frank Robinson. I don't know any knowledgeable baseball fan who thinks that Sammy Sosa is remotely as good as Frank Robinson. And Frank Robinson never hit 50 in a season, and Sosa hit over 60 three times.

    I don't think anybody thinks Rafael Palmeiro is better than Mike Schmidt or Mickey Mantle, you know, and these ought to be taken into account when it's time to vote for the Hall of Fame.


    Steve Hirdt?


    I would agree with Bob's assessment that McGwire will probably be denied entry in his first time out of the box.

    You know, we have to separate here — and I think most fans do — having the most is not the same as being the best. And those two terms sometimes get thrown around interchangeably, as if who holds a particular record means that you are the best in that category. It just means you had the most.

    Numbers and statistics reflect what happened on the field on particular days. And if you went back and tried to — made some effort to rewrite history, that's a dangerous precedent that would be like denying that Aaron Burr was the vice president because he killed Alexander Hamilton during his term, and then went back to Washington and presided over an impeachment trial of somebody else.

    But you can't deny the facts that certain things happened. I agree with what Bob has said, that a mental asterisk has already been placed there, and that's where I think it will lie. But the five-year waiting period for Hall of Famers will provide some perspective and context, in this case, to the careers of Sosa and Palmeiro and others.


    Steve Hirdt, Bob Costas, gentlemen, thank you both.


    Thank you, Ray.


    Thank you.

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