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Steroids to Heaven

by DAVE ZIRIN

Some genetically engineered chickens are coming home to roost for Major League Baseball. Grand Jury testimony from the Bay Area Lab Company (BALCO) investigation has been leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, and the clucking has begun. We now know that former MVP and Yankee first baseman Jason Giambi admitted under oath to using all kinds of steroids. Reigning National League MVP Barry Bonds, in further transcripts, conceded to administering a “flackseed oil cream” that he found out was a steroid after the fact.

Giambi in particular took grand jurors down a harrowing rabbit hole of steroid use during his 2001-2003 seasons. He testified to injecting human growth hormones in his stomach and testosterone into his buttocks. Giambi in addition rubbed an undetectable steroid knows as “the cream” on his body and placed drops of another, called “the clear,” under his tongue. He also admitted ingesting a Female Fertility Drug called Clomid, which some medical experts say can exacerbate a pituitary tumor. Giambi suffers from such a tumor. His revelations occur in the wake of the drug related death of 1997 National League MVP Ken Caminiti who admitted to steroid use and a horror show of health problems in the months before he died.

Now baseball is suffering yet another PR debacle, as their biggest stars start to resemble self-contained chemistry sets. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig scurried to point fingers at the players and their union as the root cause of steroid abuse because they have the temerity to fight the strict unilateral testing Bud drools for. Selig said Thursday in Washington, D.C., “We’re going to leave no stone unturned until we have [a very tough program] in place by spring training 2005.” But as Selig attempts to use the scandal to turn the tables on the union he abhors, Big Bud and all MLB owners need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

Steroids and their link to increased power numbers appear to be a fact of life in baseball’s recent history. Only 17 times has a player hit 56 or more home runs. Eleven of those seasons came between 1997 and 2001, including all six 63-plus campaigns. Adrian Beltre, in this first year of a marginal steroid testing program, led the NL in home runs with 48. That number would not have made the top five in 2001 when Bonds set the all time mark with 73 dingers. The moon-shots were epic, and Major League Baseball loved every minute of it. It was Major League Baseball that hyped the hypo using sluggers of the mid-late 90s. It was Major League Baseball that rode the 1998 home run battle between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa – commonly called “the home run race that saved the game” – to a returned popularity not seen since before the lockout/strike of 1994. It was Major League Baseball that approved Nike’s “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” ad campaign. It was Major League Baseball that spent the ’90s building ballparks the size of Dick Cheney’s hot tub to encourage high scoring and increased home run totals. It was Major League Baseball that advertised its Home Run Derby and All Star Game two years ago using cartoons of players with freakishly huge muscles, slamming the ball out of the park. And it was Major League Baseball that rewarded the big bashers with eye-popping contracts.

Fraying Bonds

Of course the Moby Dick of the BALCO investigation is Barry Bonds. The cloud of steroid use has followed Bonds since, at age 37, he hit those 73 homers and reeled off four consecutive MVP seasons. He is at the top of his game and threatening the hallowed home run marks of baseball’s great legend Babe Ruth, and Henry Aaron. This column, to much derision, has defended Bonds and made the case for his innocence. I stand by my most basic assertion that muscles cannot be equated with the ability to hit a ball (although they can make a great hitter hit for more power) or a potential all-star would be in every Gold’s Gym across the country. Bonds is more than a basher. He is a lifetime .300 hitter with more than 500 stolen bases. He is not a lumberjack taking hacks at the plate. I also still believe that if Bonds was a knowing habitual user, every bit of anecdotal evidence would have had his body breaking down, not gaining in strength.

Therefore until I hear otherwise, I will stand with the 15% of people in a recent National Poll who believe Bonds’ story that he did it once and without knowledge. As baseball columnist Tom Boswell put it, “Granted, the presumption of Bonds’s innocence now hangs by a thread. But Bonds is such an odd, extreme, gifted and alienated character that he might do almost anything. Or not do anything. Just out of perversity.” That is the most charitable commentary on Bonds I could find. More typically, pundits are brandishing torches and pitchforks, as if he was handing out condoms at Bob Jones University. Former pitcher Jack McDowell, in an unintentionally hilarious assertion suggests he would have made the Hall of Fame if not for juiced players…[yeah me too.] McDowell believes that Bonds, Giambi, and anyone caught with an illegal substance should be banned for life, their names erased from the record books. He then derides anyone who thinks this is a “witch hunt”. No, an actual “witch hunt” usually involves a trifle less sanctimony.

I’m Sticking With the Union

Yet the brunt of the attacks, as Selig has signaled, will be aimed directly at the players union. The union has been attacked, slandered, and even brought in front of Sen. John McCain’s Commerce Committee for not walking lock step with the Major League owners’ draconian testing proposal. The union believes quite correctly, that unless testing is done impartially, in other words not operated exclusively by Major League Baseball, the owners will use this power to request blood and urine samples on a whim to find ways to harass players and void burdensome contracts. If this sounds far fetched, it’s exactly what the Yankees are doing right now to Giambi in an attempt to save $80 million. The stakes are high and the union is rightly not signing off on anything that moves just because Selig and McCain are pressuring them to do so. [As an aside, there is Ruthian hypocrisy in McCain’s concern about the health of players when he cheerleads the use of chemical and biological agents, including depleted uranium in Iraq. Let him grandstand for “healthy living” in the barely funded cancer wards of Baghdad.]

It’s certainly true that steroids don’t belong in baseball. They can destroy your body and even kill you. But as long as baseball pays the big money to the big bashers and glorifies the long ball, drugs will be ingested and as long as players are pressured by agents and management to keep up with the guy in the locker next door, there will be more Giambis to come. That’s not the union’s problem, or even the player’s problem. That’s on owners who see players as pieces of equipment, easily disposed and easily replaced.

DAVE ZIRIN has a book coming out, What’s My Name, Fool: sports and resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books) comes out in spring 2005. To have his column sent to you every week, just e-mail edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com.

Contact the author at editor@pgpost.com

 

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DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

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