Baseball's steroid program weighs in as skimpy

Critics fear penalties light compared with rewards for pumped-up statistics

December 27, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Major league baseball players should be leaner and cleaner when spring training camps open in February, at least in theory.

The specter of random steroid testing should discourage players from bulking up with performance-enhancing drugs and level the playing field for the athletes who have been pumping up their bodies - and their statistics - the old-fashioned way.

At least in theory.

The new testing and enforcement program was triggered when 5 to 7 percent of major league players tested positive for steroid use in anonymous testing conducted last spring. But troublesome questions about the effectiveness of the testing program and the disciplinary measures laid out in the most recent baseball labor agreement leave the potential impact of the program open to debate.

Will the threat of fines, suspensions and embarrassing public exposure prompt baseball's buff brigade to shed some of that excess muscle this winter?

Or will the huge financial rewards that come along with those bigger bodies and bigger statistics just send players farther underground in their pursuit of the perfect physique?

Experts on performance-enhancing drugs are understandably skeptical of the steroid plan that was reached in August 2002 by Major League Baseball and players union negotiators. The penalties for a first and second positive test are relatively light compared with those for steroid users in professional football and basketball, and the baseball program so pales in comparison to international steroid regulation that World Anti-Doping Agency director Dick Pound recently called it "a joke."

Baseball players testing positive a first time would be required only to undergo "treatment," and their names would not be made public. Subsequent offenses would be met with progressively harsher disciplinary action, though the $10,000 fine or 15-day suspension that comes with a second positive test hardly seems like a major deterrent in a sport where 10 extra home runs might be worth another $1 million in salary arbitration.

NFL players testing positive for banned substances the first time face a four-game suspension (one-quarter of the regular season) and six games the second time. First-time NBA offenders are suspended for five games of an 82-game season and for 10 games for a second positive test.

Charles Yesalis, professor of health policy at Penn State and a leading expert on performance-enhancing drugs, sounds far from convinced the program will lead baseball's millionaire steroid users to go back to pumping up old school.

"I can't believe that the elite players, with all their money and resources, would have to opt for that alternative," Yesalis said. "They've got four or five months before the season starts. They could take low doses of testosterone and cycle off before the testing begins."

The 4 1/2 -month gap

The fact that the program calls for testing during only the 7 1/2 months the players actually work in uniform each season (spring training and the regular season) leaves a serious hole in the potential effectiveness of the steroid policy, because players could bulk up well into the offseason and maintain the resultant muscle mass throughout the season without ever testing positive.

"If you take oral-acting steroids and don't have too much body fat, your urine could test negative in a couple of months," said Dr. Harrison Pope, a Harvard University professor who studies the effects of performance-enhancing drugs at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. "In theory, if you're not going to be tested for several months, you could take a lot of steroids and build a lot of muscle mass and not test positive, and you can retain some of that muscle mass for years if you continue to work out regularly.

"It would certainly be possible to take steroids in the fall and avoid testing positive in the spring of next year."

The structure of the steroid program reflects the industry's long-standing ambivalence toward performance-enhancing drugs. Steroid rumors were rampant during baseball's home run explosion of the late 1990s - and Mark McGwire's record 70-homer performance in 1998 was slightly tarnished by his acknowledged use of the legal pseudosteroid androstenedione - but Major League Baseball did not seriously address the issue until startling accusations by Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti caused a major public relations crisis in 2002.

Caminiti said in a Sports Illustrated interview that more than half of major league players were using steroids. Canseco, who became the subject of steroid rumors soon after he arrived in the majors in the 1980s, put the number even higher. Those revelations prompted calls for a testing program from a most unexpected place - the clubhouse. The players union has long opposed drug testing of any kind, but union officials could not ignore calls from influential players to find a way to keep the scandal from tainting everyone in the game.

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