Can baseball make a clean sweep?
This season, the major leagues will test for amphetamines and institute tougher penalties for steroid use. Is it enough?
Big-league baseball returns Sunday to the forgiving arms of its faithful, trying energetically to look and feel cleaner but suddenly sandbagged by a new episode in the endless saga of Barry Bonds.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Prodded by Congress and embarrassment over its long-running steroids crisis, baseball moved with uncharacteristic speed and unity to head off almost certain federal legislation. Only after high-profile testimony last year by some of the game's current and former elite did the administrative suits and players' association get serious about the chemical muck some of its stars put into their bodies to hit more home runs and harvest more millions. This year, a ballplayer caught using steroids will draw a 50-game suspension - nearly a third of the season - compared with 10 games last year. A third offense could lead to a lifetime ban.
Meanwhile, commissioner Bud Selig indicated this week that he will open an investigation, reportedly headed up by former Senator George Mitchell, on the heels of a new book chronicling Bonds's alleged steroid use.
But steroids has been just one of the game's open secrets. There's a new entry on its blacklist, one that has arguably had an even larger impact on on-field performance: amphetamines, or "uppers." Once as familiar in clubhouses as Gatorade and the pine-tar rag, amphetamines now are targeted for the same kind of testing as anabolic steroids, although the penalties are less severe: a warning for the first fall, then a 25-game suspension, then 80, and finally a possible lifetime ban.
Management has been notoriously bashful about publicly recognizing the potentially injurious effects of those tiny tablets, often called "greenies." Basically, said Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt in his new book, uppers "have been around forever." Why? "These guys are human. No matter how much you're paid, some days you just don't have it." So they got a lift. But now those homely little pills have been officially outlawed.
"I think we've found a policy that is strong and one that can last," says Andy MacPhail, the respected president of the Chicago Cubs. "Yes, there's been a blemish on the game. No major sport gets the scrutiny that baseball does. When big issues come up in baseball they go right to Congress and sometimes to the White House. But I think what's happened in the last few years" - the congressional hearings, demands for reform, more severe penalties - "has made baseball stronger."
The new rules won't purify baseball on the spot. Human growth hormone (HGH), a prime performance-enhancing suspect, is omitted from testing because the blood sample needed to trace it is allegedly unreliable. But most indicators - advance ticket sales, TV ratings, and the unexpectedly warm acceptance of the recent World Baseball Classic - support Mr. MacPhail's optimism. To this add the extraordinary outpouring of affection for Kirby Puckett, the Minnesota Twins Hall of Famer who died recently. For three days the community of nationwide baseball fans, players, and management came together in a bond that was spontaneous and genuine.
And yet, again, there is Barry Bonds. The Bonds melodrama and the legitimacy of his home run explosion over the past five years plays on unabated, refueled by a new book, titled "Game of Shadows," filled with allegations of steroid use that first surfaced in a grand jury hearing. Commentators are demanding more congressional hearings. Bonds is responding alternately with silence and outbursts of hostility. He denies ever using performance enhancers and has never tested positive for them. He is expected to speak to the issue when his ESPN show, "Bonds on Bonds," debuts Tuesday. His case remains, for the moment, but possibly forever, unresolved. He is baseball's biggest star, its enigma, ticking bomb, possibly the best player ever - and its heaviest burden.