Out of whack

February 20, 2004

MAJOR LEAGUE Baseball caught a big break this week. No matter your take on A-Rod joining the Yankees, the buzz momentarily eclipsed charges arising from a California grand jury investigation into steroid peddling - a probe that could explode across the big leagues.

With spring training opening in Florida and Arizona this week, a new season's timeless hopes are undercut by ever more evidence that the game is both financially and chemically out of whack.

A solution for the growing resource gap between baseball's big- and small-market teams has to involve more revenue sharing and some kind of salary cap, as in pro football and basketball. When the Yankees' payroll - including Alex Rodriguez - is four times that of the poorest clubs, fan interest at the low end withers, the occasional small-market triumph aside. Of course, greed works against quick remedy here.

Perhaps more tractable is the open secret of players' use of performance-enhancing chemicals, particularly steroids. By last year, even the powerful players' union could no longer keep the game's head in the sand, allowing its first drug testing, albeit a spotty survey with no player penalties.

Baseball's rulers minimized the distressing results - more than 5 percent of all those drug tests came back positive - but they can't ignore the recent federal indictments for steroid peddling of a northern California nutritional guru and an athletic trainer who worked with several players, including arguably baseball's best, Barry Bonds. who credited the two with helping him set the home-run record in 2001.

No athlete, including Mr. Bonds, was among the indicted. But in a move that could spell lots of trouble for baseball, the grand jury has asked for the names of players who flunked last year's drug testing - apparently with an eye on potential perjury charges. If these names become public, panic will spread through clubhouses.

Baseball, quite unlike any other professional sport, cherishes its lineage, its century-long chain of records. Every on-the-field moment can be measured against the game's past. That's so sacrosanct that when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season home-run record in 1961, he was saddled with an asterisk because the season by then had grown by eight games. If Mr. Bonds ends up implicated, suggests Charles Yesalis, a Penn State sports-drug expert, will there be a syringe pictured by his record?

Now, it may be that fans really don't care if players are doped. Moreover, top drug experts say even more extensive, Olympic-level testing couldn't keep baseball absolutely clean. But was it a coincidence that the first year of drug testing was the first in a decade in which no player hit more than 50 home runs? Perhaps there's some hope.

Competitive balance, among teams and players, is the key to fan interest. Baseball must tackle its drug problems - and then move on to healing its financial distortions.

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