O's Gibbons fights off accusatory pitches

With scrutiny growing, he calls for more proof

Steroids In Baseball

March 03, 2004|By Joe Christensen and Peter Schmuck | Joe Christensen and Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles right fielder Jay Gibbons has taken over as the team's player representative this season, making him a point man for all matters concerning the Major League Baseball Players Association, but that wasn't the reason reporters kept approaching his locker yesterday.

The latest news in baseball's steroid scandal had hit, with a report in the San Francisco Chronicle saying All-Star sluggers Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield allegedly had received steroids distributed by a Bay Area nutritional supplement lab.

That could only mean more scrutiny for the rest of baseball, and as the Orioles' resident strongman, Gibbons could see the questions coming like 95-mph fastballs aimed directly at his Popeye-sized forearms.

"It's kind of like people are being convicted before they're even tested," Gibbons said. "Nobody knows who did what, you know what I mean? And it's really frustrating for a guy who works so hard, just to be accused of something."

Throughout the Orioles' camp, the latest steroid news hit with another thud, with players and team officials acknowledging that, for better or worse, the fans' scrutiny won't go away soon.

Questions about steroids have become as common inside spring training clubhouses as questions about the designated hitter rule.

"I don't want to say it's not a big deal because it is a big deal, but I think it's been blown out of proportion a little bit," Gibbons said. "There was testing last year, and 5 to 7 percent [tested positive]; I don't call that an epidemic by any means. Sure, you would like 0 percent in a perfect world, but that's just not going to happen."

Gibbons has become the team's primary link to a players union that has stubbornly resisted most of the sport's attempts to police steroid use. The MLBPA repeatedly states it considers drug testing a violation of players' privacy.

Basically, yesterday, Gibbons was quoting some of the union's standard lines.

But in recent days, major league veterans such as John Smoltz, Kenny Rogers, Todd Zeile and Turk Wendell have said baseball's drug-testing policy is too soft.

In the last collective bargaining agreement, the union agreed to random drug testing last year as a means to determine if penalties should be imposed to offenders this year. In November, Major League Baseball announced that 5 to 7 percent of those checked last year tested positive.

So beginning today, players will again undergo random drug testing. But a player would still not face a penalty until his second offense -- the penalty being a 15-day suspension and a fine -- and would not face a year-long suspension until his fifth offense.

"I think there are some interesting dynamics going on between the players and the players union," said Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie. "The union thinks that players should support the stance of the union, but there are some players who are saying, `We need more testing.'

"We [in management] have to be sensitive to the dynamics of the Basic Agreement. It was a real battle to get where we are. I kind of feel like the players should be the ones pushing it with the union for the health of the players."

But for Gibbons, it's also an issue of perception. Even though he has denied ever taking steroids, he still faces a great deal more suspicion than his smaller, less-muscular teammates.

Buck Martinez, the former Toronto Blue Jays manager and current Orioles television broadcaster, said he feels sorry for the players who are clean but still face that constant scrutiny.

"Everybody has their suspicions, but now everybody is looking at everybody with a jaundiced eye," Martinez said. "It's a sad day to have things like this associated with baseball when you've grown up in the industry.

"I think the guys it really hurts are the guys who have never taken anything. There are so many guys who train properly and train well. I look at a Vernon Wells [of the Blue Jays], who works so hard and is a model of the kind of player we want. A lot of guys like him, unfortunately, are going to be painted with the same brush."

With the Orioles set to open their minor league camp tomorrow in Sarasota, Orioles farm director Doc Rodgers saw an upside to the heightened steroid sensitivity for young players throughout the game.

"I think what happens is -- automatically -- this gets their attention," Rodgers said. "Before, they'd say, `Oh no, here it comes, the annual [substance awareness] meeting.' Now, they are motivated to pay attention. That's the positive effect. It can happen to them."

Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro is still an optimist. He said baseball's latest steroid scandal won't taint this generation's achievements.

"I think this will pass," he said. "Once they get the steroid situation settled and get it behind us, it will be forgotten."

Said Gibbons: "Maybe we should step [the testing] up a little bit, but they are stepping it up year-by-year. Let's just see how this works out the next couple years. We'll find out how it works. I think we're going in the right direction, that's for sure."

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