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.
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.
For most players, Bonds is still part of their lodge. "He's trying to get on with his life," veteran Rondell White, now with the Minnesota Twins, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Barry Bonds is one of the greatest players who ever lived. Leave him alone." Added teammate Shannon Stewart: "The truth is, there were so many guys taking steroids for a few years, and they couldn't hit like Barry Bonds. In my opinion, a guy hitting with a corked bat is taking a bigger advantage than someone who was on steroids."
"Leave Bonds alone," however, is not enough for one of the sport's watchdogs. "It's to Bud Selig's credit that he has taken on steroids and amphetamines, and Congress had an enormous impact," says Gary Wadler, an associate professor at New York University's School of Medicine. "The players association went along and now you have tougher codes. But the 50- then 100-game suspensions, and then lifetime [ban] for positive testing are still not the answer."
Dr. Wadler was one of the driving forces in creating the World Anti-Doping Agency, which became a catalyst in the adoption of rigid drug-testing by the Olympic Games and other international sports federations. He says that baseball's new policy falls "far short" of the right organizational structure with not enough monitors in place. "From a global perspective, professional sports leagues and players associations in [the US] almost stand alone in not being bound by the toughest international antidoping standards. Think about it: We're dealing here with elite athletes in big money sports, and that continues to be an impediment to real reform."
HGH is where the game's integrity is still vulnerable. Growth hormone, now and in the foreseeable future, can't be detected in urine samples. Baseball, like other American sports organizations, has resisted the use of blood samples, often citing privacy concerns. "Theirs is an old and stale argument," Wadler says. "Blood testing had some issues that were unfounded. But it's routine around the world, and it works."
So far that argument has not made headway with baseball. Wadler grants that baseball, seeing itself in trouble, has opened its eyes. "Why should we care?" he asked in testimony before the House investigating committee. Because "baseball is a role-model sport and likely contributes to the alarming abuse of anabolic steroids by teenagers.... From a public-health perspective, the abuse of these drugs is harmful both physically and behaviorally."
So the call this weekend is not only the traditional "batter up." Fans and medical experts have told baseball, "Wake up." And it evidently has.
Every player was tested during spring training and random testing will continue throughout the year, including the off-season. Penalties are as follows (figures indicate length of suspension):
First positive: 50 games
Second positive: 100 games
Third positive: Lifetime ban, subject to the right to seek reinstatement after two years of suspension, with arbitral review of reinstatement decision.
First positive: Mandatory follow-up testing
Second positive: 25 games
Third positive: 80 games
Fourth positive: Discipline imposed by the commissioner up to and including a lifetime ban, with arbitral review.
Source: Major League Baseball