Baseball prosperous but at loss with drugs

September 06, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Major League Baseball expects to set another overall single-season attendance record in 2006, surpassing the current mark of 75 million, set last year.

In other words, while the infiltration of performance-enhancing drugs into the game and its record books has made major headlines and turned off some fans, it hasn't persuaded nearly as many as you would think to walk away.

The game actually is stronger than ever before financially, which is good -- but also unfortunate in one sense. Without a drain on the bottom line, commissioner Bud Selig and the rest of the industry might not remain vigilant about cleaning up the mess.

Can't you hear them? Hey, they ramped up steroid testing and strengthened punishments (only after Congress, Jose Canseco and others shamed them into it). And hey, they asked former Sen. George Mitchell to conduct a widespread investigation into steroid use throughout the game. What more could they do?

Well, plenty. Sports Illustrated reported last week that the Mitchell investigation isn't expected to produce any bombshells, having lacked subpoena power, the full cooperation of the players and access to anyone involved in the Barry Bonds grand jury. How about finding another way to keep digging into the game's dark corners? How about getting out front on helping develop a reputable test for human growth hormone?

How about making sure Barry Bonds doesn't have a place to play in 2007 so he won't make a run at Hank Aaron's all-time home run record? (Will each individual club owner hold firm on just saying no to Bonds? Let's hope so.)

Even with its bottom line flourishing, the sport has a mess to clean up, a mess that continues to leave stains on virtually everything.

The Philadelphia Phillies' Ryan Howard might hit enough home runs this year to surpass Roger Maris' former record of 61 (he had 53 going into last night), but he is already defending himself against juicing rumors even though not a single shred of evidence exists.

"People are entitled to their opinions," Howard told the Philadelphia Daily News. "But it does bother me. It casts a shadow on the game. I know I'm not using steroids. People are going to say what they want to say. I thought about it once and then it was like, `Well, whatever.' I'm not doing it. If they want to test me, they can test me."

Phillies general manager Pat Gillick told the same paper: "It's a natural question, I guess. But it bothers me because I absolutely don't believe this kid is doing it."

The same blanket denials have long been said about St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, who hit three home runs Sunday and then pounded another well into the upper deck at RFK Stadium on Monday. I happened to witness the last one, a shot so majestic that plenty of fans surely left the park wondering how it could be authentic. Blanket denials don't mean much anymore. Rafael Palmeiro's fall from grace took care of that.

This is not the way to go forward, with glorious achievements automatically doubted, suspicions hovering over every swing, reputations sullied by rote.

The only way to get beyond it is to keep making a genuine effort to eliminate performance-enhancers, as opposed to making a few high-wattage grandstand plays and then sitting back as the cash rolls in. That's the same see-no-evil approach that ended up tarnishing (in hindsight) the 1998 home run duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. (McGwire, by the way, is refusing to cooperate with the Mitchell investigation, according to the New York Daily News. He can kiss his 2007 Hall of Fame chances goodbye.)

It could be that the robbers are always going to be a step or two ahead of the cops in offering ways to bulk up without getting caught. That's a depressing but plausible scenario.

But giving in is just too easy, not to mention dangerous. As many as 1 million high school students have tried steroids, according to a 2003 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, and the health risks for youngsters are many and varied. Other sports also have to confront the problem to help turn all tides against it, but baseball, for better or worse, is at the forefront.

That many of the sport's fans seem almost nonchalant about it is interesting. Who knows what to make of that?

But baseball shouldn't let that affect it. Now more than ever, with the legitimacy of its history in jeopardy and almost every swing stained by implication, the sport needs to continue to make evert effort to clean itself up. Even if the bleachers are full.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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