The end of denial

December 07, 2004

EVEN THOUGH baseball's field of dreams has turned nightmarish, there's still a part of us tempted to play the small boy and desperately implore the game's giants, its home-run hitters, to "Say it ain't so, Joe." But the truth of Major League Baseball's drug disaster has been so evident for so long that even small boys likely were more saddened than actually stunned by the reports last week that two of the game's premier M-|ber-sluggers, Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, admitted to a grand jury they had used steroids.

Of course, Mr. Bonds reportedly claims he didn't know at the time he was using steroids, a stance that takes the game's already deep denial of its drug problems into, well, fantasy land. If widespread use of performance-enhancing substances wasn't already apparent in too many major-leaguers' suddenly bulging musculatures and soaring home runs, then we've got a fan co-dependency program for you -- you know, the sort of therapy reserved for drug users' families.

Fortunately, it's now no longer possible for anyone in or around baseball to plausibly deny its drug problems. Like a lot of binges, the game's last decade has been a wild ride -- peaking during the 1998 to 2001 seasons when Mr. Bonds and two other sluggers, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, together registered the top six home-run seasons of all time.

Everyone loves a good show. So fans flocked to the spectacle, sustaining the game owners and, not least, enriching the new sultans of swat. The end of denial thus is not just a problem of the game's integrity -- we do have sympathy for sticking a large asterisk (or syringe) by many recent records -- it's a threat to baseball's financial system.

That system has rested on the players union's effective resistance to thorough drug testing. Major League Baseball knows what a fairly effective drug-test regimen looks like; it imposes one on all minor-leaguers. But the major-leaguers' union has hidden behind its high-priced members' privacy rights, only allowing a joke of a limited testing program for the first time at the start of the 2003 season. (And even then from 5 percent to 7 percent of all those on team rosters flunked.)

The union is meeting this week in Phoenix, and -- under pressure from U.S. Sen. John McCain's threats of congressionally imposed drug testing -- it is expected to publicly respond. Only one response should be acceptable: An announcement that the union will immediately begin cooperating with the game's owners on putting in place a much stronger program of year-round, random testing of major-leaguers for performance-enhancing drugs -- a program entailing substantial penalties for abusers.

There's an arms race between drug users and testers, so no testing program can be 100 percent effective. But certain other sports -- particularly track and even pro football -- have managed to confront similar problems and submit to stringent testing. It's long past time for baseball to end its denial and make the same commitment.

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