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Squeezing the Juice out of Baseball

Vivek Rao

Major League Baseball is used to more than its fair share of controversies and pseudo-disasters, but the organization may now be facing its toughest challenge in years. With rumors of rampant steroid use by players, a high-profile trial involving a pivotal drug company, and specific allegations against three of the sport’s most talented stars, professional baseball once again runs the risk of alienating the general public, despite a marvelously entertaining 2003 season.

Baseball players, like all professional athletes these days, are bigger, faster, and stronger than their predecessors. A combination of new and improved workout techniques, healthier and more informed dietary habits, and a 365-day-a-year commitment to staying in shape has produced sportsmen who at times seem part human, part machine. At the same time, however, the stakes involved in professional sports have exploded; astronomic salaries mean that small gains in speed or strength can and do lead to significantly better on-field results, which inevitably translate into multimillion dollar pay raises. And thus, athletes have become increasingly willing to experiment with performance-enhancing drugs.

Particularly, in baseball, the fascination of fans (the people who put money in the pockets of team owners) and owners (the rich guys who write players’ checks) with the long ball has led hitters to pursue any and all options that can help them smack the ball over the fence. Slugger Mark McGwire, who famously broke Roger Maris’s hallowed single-season home run record in 1998, brought heightened attention to players new performance-enhancing drug binge through his highly publicized use of androstenedione, a legal supplement.

Speculation regarding steroids in baseball mounted over the last couple of years when a number of former players made claims, either in books or through the press, of widespread usage. Some alleged that more than half of all Major League players use steroids, and though those claims have generally dismissed as blatant exaggeration, many baseball insiders have suggested that 10 percent is a more accurate estimate. That number is still far too high, and it places the entire legitimacy and integrity of the sport in question, threatening to drive fans away even at a time when baseball is doing quite well.

Having finally recovered from its infamous labor dispute of 1994-95, Major League Baseball surged to its strongest television ratings in years last fall, boosted by the spectacular rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees and the continued success of underdog teams like the Florida Marlins. Total regular season attendance, meanwhile, stood at a solid 67,630,052, up 12.5 percent from 1996. But all of that can and will change if baseball doesn’t remedy the steroid problem soon.

The logical solution would be mandatory steroid testing for all Major League players. Those who use the illegal drugs right now would probably (though not definitely) be caught, and any younger players would probably think twice before starting on “the juice.”

In a 2002 collective bargaining agreement, the players union and the owners actually agreed upon a limited testing program that has been labeled severely insufficient by a number of people, including Arizona senator John McCain. Under the agreement, baseball players were tested anonymously last season. Roughly 5 to 7 percent of those anonymous tests came back positive, triggering the institution of a penalty system. However, the punishment of a one-year suspension is not meted out until a player commits his fifth offense.

McCain and others who feel that the repercussions for steroid use should carry significantly more bite are absolutely right. There is no place for illegal drugs in baseball. All the arguments that players present for opposing stronger testing add up to no more than a hill of beans. Yes, testing does deprive them of a certain degree of freedom, but if you plan to make your living off athletic performance, you need to respect the need for a level playing field. The presence of steroids in a sport only drives others who normally wouldn’t use drugs to start, since they logically fear that they would suffer a significant competitive disadvantage by staying clean. If unchecked, this could eventually escalate into a situation where most professional baseball players feel forced to take steroids, and perhaps worse, younger players in college and high school start taking illegal supplements, viewing them as a requisite for performing well enough to draw the attention of Major League scouts.

The solution is simple: baseball needs to institute a significantly stricter steroid testing policy as soon as possible. With players opposing obviously warranted policies, and with owners sitting on their hands, worried about the image of baseball but scared of risking the end of the home run binge that carried the sport through the 1990s, McCain and other members of Congress are threatening to impose “legislative remedies” that would stipulate a comprehensive testing plan if Major League Baseball is unable to do so in-house.

McCain is right to point out that the sport has a “legitimacy problem,” but the only way to truly solve that problem is for the players to step up and agree to rigid testing. Granted, the union is strong and it has fought hard for the solid bargaining power it enjoys today, but this is one time that the players can gain by giving in. If baseball wants to maintain its fan base, it needs to get rid of steroids on its own, proving that it is serious about maintaining its integrity and preventing the possibility of getting shown up by Congress.