How Baseball Got Steroids Wrong, From Bo to A-Rod
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February 13, 2009
Gather ‘round, boys and girls, and I’ll tell you a tale of arrogance, avarice and deceit. It’s a disaster that could have been averted, but each time, all the parties involved thought it best just to cover it up, and hope no one noticed. The stakes kept getting higher and higher, until the whole thing finally went kerplooey – and now that the jig is up, there’s no easy way out.
No, I’m not talking about Wall Street’s addiction to get rich quick schemes, but baseball’s addiction to steroids.
Contrary to what baseball officials would like you to believe, this mess didn’t suddenly pop up out of nowhere. In fact, according to ESPN, Michigan’s own Bo Schembechler started the first steroid investigation – 21 years ago. Before the 1988 Michigan State game, Bo looked across the field at the Spartans’ massive lineman Tony Mandarich – famously called “The Incredible Bulk” on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Bo told one of his assistants: “I might not be the best recruiter in the game, but I’m not that bad. Why is Mandarich twice as big as our guys?”
Bo called an FBI agent, Greg Stejskal, who discovered the answer was steroids. He was surprised to find such drugs were already spreading in football, but rampant in baseball.The FBI warned major league baseball – which promptly yawned.
After the players’ strike cancelled the 1994 World Series, baseball owners were desperate for salvation. They found it in home runs, which they became just as addicted to as the new home run hitters were hooked on steroids.
There were plenty of clues. Light-hitting second basemen were suddenly swatting taters out of the ball park like Babe Ruth himself, and the real power hitters became monsters. Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds all shattered the previous record of 61 home runs in a season – topping out at 73.
But forget the preposterous numbers. All you had to do was look at them. These guys arms grew like Popeye’s, and their heads like the Pep Boys’. When Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s all time home run record, Aaron himself – one of the most dignified men in sports -- was so disgusted by the whole thing he declined to attend.
In 2003, over a hundred players tested positive for steroids – but the test was confidential, so baseball wasn’t shamed into doing much about it. But the growing scandal was so obvious, even Congress grew suspicious, and called for hearings. They were a disaster. Sammy Sosa acted like he’d forgotten English, and Mark McGwire acted like he’d forgotten the entire decade. Rafael Palmiero adamantly declared he’d never taken steroids – until he admitted he had – and Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens all but challenged the Congressmen to a knife fight, until his friends testified against him.
So, the league was left to pin all its hopes on Alex Rodriguez, a lean, mean hitting machine. He’s on pace to break Barry Bonds’s home run mark, and remove the stain on the most hallowed record in sports. Even better, A-Rod always claimed he was as clean as a whistle, and he looked it.
But a funny thing happened. It turns out A-Rod looked leaner than the others because he was taking two drugs, one to pump him up, and the other to hide it – something he was forced to confess this week. Maybe his teammates’ nickname for him, “A-Fraud,” should have been a hint.
In public relations classes, the steroid mess should be taught as a case study on how not to handle a crisis. If baseball did the exact opposite, at every turn, things would have gone much better. The “other shoe” has dropped so many times, you have to wonder just how many feet baseball has. But at least that explains why the league has been tripping over itself for a decade.
This whole thing might be amusing, were it not for the damage done. Ken Caminiti was one of the first players to use steroids, 15 years ago, which helped him win the National League’s MVP award in 1996. Five years ago, I was the last reporter to interview him. He told me steroids had screwed up his chemistry so badly, his body could no longer make testosterone on its own. He became deeply depressed, spending an entire year in his bedroom with the drapes drawn. But when I talked to him, he and everyone else thought he was on the mend, and better days were ahead.
A month later, Ken Caminiti killed himself.
Not so funny after all.
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