Bud Selig had many reasons to feel good about baseball as he spoke to the press gathered in a Detroit hotel ballroom for his State of the Game address during the 2005 All-Star break. Major League Baseball would bring in an estimated $4.5 billion in revenues in 2005, nearly triple the amount from 1992, when Selig had first taken office. The overachieving White Sox and Nationals were surprise division leaders. The Red Sox and Yankees were in the midst of another epic battle. Fans everywhere were talking about Dontrelle Willis and Derrek Lee and Roger Clemens. And he had a labor agreement that ran to the end of 2006.
But then came this question from one of the reporters: are you worried you will be remembered as the commissioner who turned a blind eye to steroids?
Looking slightly irritated, Selig responded, "Yes, I'm the commissioner of baseball, so naturally, I accept this. But in the '90s, I went from camp to camp and talked to every manager, general manager, owners in some cases. And not one person ever came to me." He mentioned the names of well-respected GMs he'd talked to -- Billy Beane, Brian Cashman, John Schuerholz. He also turned the tables on the journalists: "This sanctimonious, 'Well, he should have known ... ' Okay, maybe." He then went on to decry the lack of press coverage while the issue was building. "I'm not being critical of you guys," he continued. "I was there with you."
His implication was clear. If team executives hadn't known about the scourge of steroids, how was the commissioner supposed to have known? If baseball writers, who saw players up close every day, hadn't reported the problem, how could they accuse Selig of turning a blind eye to it?
In short, who knew?
Who knew? We all knew: the trainers who looked the other way as they were treating a whole new class of injuries; the players who saw teammates inject themselves but kept the clubhouse code of silence; the journalists who "buried the lead" and told jokes among themselves about the newly muscled; the GMs who wittingly acquired players on steroids; and, yes, owners and players, who openly applauded the home run boom and moved at glacial speed to address the problem that fueled the explosion.
In a way, the story of steroids in baseball is not so much about the power added to the game, but about the power that was always there. It's a power that has entranced millions for more than a hundred years, surviving game-fixing, labor strife, all sorts of drug scandals. It's a power that has both a bright and a dark side. Becoming a baseball star is a noble dream, but to do that, some players did the ignoble, ingesting and injecting dangerous and often illegal substances to enhance performance. And because the people who depend on baseball for livelihood and amusement wanted so much to believe in the essential goodness of the game and the greatness of the players, we missed or ignored the signs: the larger biceps, the back acne, the outsize statistics. (As it happened, ESPN The Magazine was born in 1998, as home run totals were exploding, and we devoted four of our early covers to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.)
Years later, we would all confront the deception. Or was it self-deception? And so The Magazine decided to go back and trace the arc of the steroids age in baseball, from introduction to proliferation to condemnation. It is a tale told through some of the principals: a trainer, a supplier, an FBI agent, a GM, a writer, a doctor and several players -- a tale of crime, corruption and complicity. Many were put in difficult positions that required choices they now regret.
Why tell the story now? Actually, with the glory of the White Sox and the beauty of baseball still fresh in our minds, this is as good a time as any to look back on what went wrong.
We tell the story now so that we won't fall into the same web of deceit again.