Can A-Rod's admission spur baseball's cleanup?

In what could be a sign of things to come, the minor leagues have developed a stringent drug-testing program.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Interview: Baseball player Alex Rodriguez told ESPN Monday that he used steroids from 2001-03.
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    Rodriguez: At left, he rounds the bases in Arlington, Texas, while playing for the Texas Rangers in May 2003. At right, he warmed up for a game in July 2003 at Yankee Stadium in New York.
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Superstar Alex Rodriguez's admission that he used steroids earlier this decade probably won't be the only blow for Major League Baseball this year.

A grand jury is considering whether Roger Clemens lied to Congress about using performance-enhancing substances. Barry Bonds is facing perjury charges for his grand jury testimony about drug use. And on Wednesday, Miguel Tejada is expected to plead guilty to lying to Congress about his knowledge of other players' steroid use.

Since 2003, however, Major League Baseball has taken steps to clean up its act – and Mr. Rodriguez's admission could be a catalyst for doing even more. Now, the major leagues have mandatory, random drug testing and penalties. And in what could be a sign of things to come, the minor leagues have developed an even more rigorous testing program.

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Don Catlin, who helped establish the current minor league program, sees hope that its elements could be transferred to the major leagues. "They're much less resistant than ever before," says Dr. Catlin, one of the world's top authorities on sports doping.

Still, revelations about steroids in baseball use are not likely to end anytime soon. As part of the Bonds investigation, the government seized urine samples from 2003 that came up positive for illicit drugs involving 104 baseball players. Rodriguez so far is the only one publicly identified.

Even President Obama weighed in Monday on the steroids issue. At his press conference in the evening, he called the Rodriguez news "depressing," adding that it "tarnishes an entire era, to some degree." But Mr. Obama also said he was pleased that Major League Baseball "seems to be finally taking this seriously, to recognize how big a problem this is for the sport, and that our kids hopefully are watching and saying, 'You know what? There are no shortcuts.' "

The major leagues are making progress, with a lead from the minors, which are freer to act because they don't have a union. In 2002, the Players Association and baseball's commissioner agreed on a new testing program based on one piloted in minor league baseball the year before.

However, both the Commissioner's Office and the Players Association have "retained exclusive authority over the most important aspects" of the program, according to the landmark Mitchell Report on steroids in December 2007. George Mitchell, a former senator, therefore said that the program "still falls short of true independence."

But in addition to resistance to a more-rigorous testing system, there's another major hurdle: the financial cost to keep up with the latest doping regimes. Since Major League Baseball began mandatory random testing for steroids in 2004, players intent on cheating have switched to human growth hormone (HGH), concluded the Mitchell Report. HGH is also banned.

No reliable urine test exists for HGH, and the Players Association has opposed blood testing. So Catlin and his team at Anti-Doping Research in Los Angeles have been trying to crack the code for a urine test since he left UCLA two years ago. But the top-notch scientists required for such a project draw salaries of about $120,000 each. And the equipment they use to sort through the roughly 1,500 proteins found in human urine in an attempt to find the one offending trace of HGH runs about $1 million apiece.

There's some help on the way, but it's limited and has been slow in coming. In January 2008, Major League Baseball – along with the NFL, the US Olympic Committee, and the US Anti-Doping Agency – announced a new Partnership for Clean Competition, which would provide $10 million in antidoping research grants over four years. But it has yet to get off the ground: Catlin just received an e-mail welcoming grant applications on Monday, more than a year later.

In addition, some baseball players may be using prescription drugs to give them an edge. Over 100 players have prescriptions for Ritalin, a substitute for amphetamines, says Andrew Zimbalist, a professor at Smith College and author of books on baseball. "The best you can do is minimize use, and baseball is basically doing that," he says.

Some of the players, including Rodriguez, say they feel under pressure from their gigantic salaries to perform.

"When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt that I had all the weight of the world on top of me to perform, and perform at a high level every day," said Rodriguez in an interview with sports channel ESPN.

Until Sports Illustrated broke the story of Rodriguez's use of steroids, he was considered a shoo-in to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Few expected his home-run totals to include an asterisk. He had steadily denied using any performance-enhancing drugs, including during an interview 18 months ago on the CBS show "60 Minutes."

Rodriguez is signed with the New York Yankees for the next nine years. His career there has been full of controversy, including a messy divorce. Some of his teammates referred to him as "A-Fraud," according to a new book by Joe Torre, the former Yankees manager.

Now, Yankee fans admit to some disillusionment. One of those is Doug Muzzio, a Yankees fan since 1954. "Another hero bites the dust," says the Baruch University professor. "I guess the push to greatness gets to them."

Baseball fan Ken Jenkins of Queens says the whole story is tragic. "The sad thing is that he had the skill and talent and didn't need the drugs."

The Yankee slugger, in interviews, says that is what he now realizes.
Material from the wire services was used in this report.

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