Grieving parents are big hitters on steroids reform

November 17, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

Neither Donald Hooton nor Denise Garibaldi imagined that their words would make this much of a difference.

In March, the father from Plano, Texas, and the mother from Petaluma, Calif., told a roomful of congressmen, Major League Baseball players and officials about their sons, how they're convinced that their steroid abuse led them to their deaths by suicide.

Eight months later, baseball put the punch into a steroids policy that had been long overdue. Congress, Bud Selig and even Donald Fehr have gotten their share of credit for the agreement reached Tuesday.

Hooton and Garibaldi have gotten something better - vindication. And a measure of satisfaction.

"No, I honestly did not think it would move that fast," said Hooton, calling yesterday from a business meeting in France, where, he said, "I've been monitoring things from here. ... It's a great step forward. I couldn't be more pleased."

"I had no idea it would work this quickly," Garibaldi said from her office in Northern California, where she is a clinical psychologist. She added with a laugh, "I don't know if government has ever worked this quickly on anything."

Quickly becoming serious, she said, "The spirits of Rod and Taylor and Efrain are working. Their suffering had to stop, and their suffering has stopped."

Rod was Garibaldi's son, a former Southern California player who shot himself in October 2002 at the age of 24. Taylor was Hooton's son, who died in July 2003. Efrain Marrero, who, like Garibaldi, lived in Northern California, committed suicide in September 2004.

Their families have joined to bring the steroids issue to the public - and to separate it from the debates over the sanctity of home run records and baseball's labor-management wars.

"Our battle has never been with Major League Baseball," said Hooton, who started a foundation in his son's name with which the Garibaldis, Marreros and similar families have aligned. His foundation made a major addition just yesterday, when Fernando Montes, an influential strength coach at the college, major league baseball and Olympic level for 20 years, became its first executive director.

"Our objective was a very simple one: to raise awareness of the problem [steroids] poses to the kids," Hooton said. "If we had gotten nothing more than that, I would've been satisfied."

Baseball just happened to be the battleground, particularly when Congress intervened.

The testimony of Hooton and Garibaldi didn't become iconic moments at the March hearing, the way Rafael Palmeiro's finger jab or Mark McGwire's evasions did. In fact, the interaction with the players might have sowed more doubt in the minds of the parents than given them hope. Garibaldi vividly remembers how sincerely and passionately one player had turned to her, looked into her eyes, shook her hand and pledged his support.

That player was Palmeiro. When he later flunked a steroids test, she said, "I had the same reaction they had with Shoeless Joe Jackson - `Say it ain't so, Rafael,'" Garibaldi said. Now she and her husband joke about her longtime prescriptions for B-12. "I guess that's why I've put on 20 pounds," she cracked.

Meanwhile, McGwire's tearful reaction to Hooton's testimony and his pledge to become an advocate later dissolved into nothingness. Selig, though, was apparently genuinely moved; he made emotional phone calls to Hooton and Garibaldi the next day and promised to push his side of the fight. The sanctions he later proposed eventually were the ones put in place.

"He said that Major League Baseball had a profound, sacred responsibility to the youth of this nation," Hooton said. "I was very proud to hear that."

Until then, neither parent believed that a critical portion of their message had gotten through to anyone - that this issue is the ultimate example of pro athletes being bad role models to youth. When young athletes take performance-enhancing drugs, they follow the specific examples of their big league heroes to achieve precisely the same results.

That connection is far more concrete than the one with the recreational drugs the pros might take, for example, or with the clothes they wear.

"It was definitely Rob's recipe for success," said Garibaldi, whose son, she is not shy in pointing out, idolized McGwire and Barry Bonds.

Baseball's new policy, Hooton said, "gets the nation to connect the dots between pro sports and the effect steroids have on kids." However, he admitted, it's too late for too many.

"The horse is still out of the barn," he said. "One million kids are using steroids. The poor example has already been set."

However, Garibaldi said of her son, Rob, "He did not die in vain."

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