Getting past denial

November 18, 2003

MAJOR-LEAGUE baseball has a drug problem, and the first step in its recovery is for those running the show to admit it. That still hasn't happened, and it should be deeply disturbing to those who care about the game.

What industry would claim there's hardly a problem when as much as 7 percent of its workers test positive for drug use? That was the result announced last week after the players' union finally assented to the game's first-ever round of anonymous tests for steroid use last season.

The goal was to begin to pin down claims that players' use of performance enhancers is rampant. Certainly baseball's record-setting power surge since the mid-1990s -- and players' increasingly Hulk-like figures -- were big clues. And lo and behold, as many as 84 of the 1,200 players on teams' 40-man rosters turned up positive for steroids.

The actual incidence of steroid use is likely much higher, experts say, in part because players had four months' notice that testing would begin in spring training. Some could have bulked up on steroids all winter and knocked off in time to appear clean. Flunking that sort of test, it's been noted, is like flunking an IQ test.

Now for the real problem: major-league baseball's denial. The first reaction of one of its top executives was to label the test results "relatively low." That's so ridiculous as to be a slur on baseball's storied history.

The only good news here is that all players now face two seasons of random steroid tests with penalties, though so light that the head of the Olympic drug-testing agency calls them "a complete and utter joke." Baseball remains far short of the National Football League, which tests year-round for amphetamines, steroids and more. (Even so, as evidenced by this week's spreading scandal over the use of the designer steroid THG, football is hardly drug-free.)

Baseball maintains it got to this point because of its contract with its powerful players' union, which has long resisted drug testing as an invasion of privacy. But the real reason that players have been willing to risk their health and owners the integrity of the game is that home runs put fans in the seats, plain and simple.

Now they face this wake-up call. The game knows how to do stringent drug testing; it's been testing all minor-leaguers since 2001. The sad thing for baseball is that it's not at all clear that either the players or the owners really want to get clean.

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