"We have nothing to hide," said Bud Selig, as he concluded his State of the Game remarks in Detroit on July 12.
Perhaps. But the impression to the contrary was hard to shake. For more than a decade, the men putting on the show -- the owners and the players -- had evidence that there was a serious problem with their product. But they continued to sell a game contaminated by steroids while they pursued their separate agendas. Baseball, like any private business, usually heeds demands for change from only two groups: customers and regulators. And through all of this, we, the fans, kept on buying.
But the feds are a different story. The flak-jacketed IRS agents who raided BALCO in 2003 and the showboating congressmen now demanding immediate changes to MLB's drug policy have pushed steroids into the open. Since BALCO grand jury testimony began to trickle into the news last winter, it was clear that a season that should have been about Barry Bonds' pursuit of Hank Aaron's home run record was instead defined by a procession of steroids revelations.
And after Selig and Donald Fehr defended baseball's policy even as Mark McGwire was embarrassing himself and Rafael Palmeiro was denying steroid use at the congressional hearings in March, Washington smelled red meat. "The only reason Congress became involved in this is because baseball didn't," says Representative Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee. "Bud Selig has said he won't look back at what happened in the '90s to make sure it doesn't happen again in the future."
Selig has been flashing new political skills. In April, he boldly broke with the players union on the issue of penalties. His demand: a 50-game suspension for first-time violators, 100 games for a second offense, a lifetime ban for a third. He also asked the union to agree to independent testing, more frequent tests and a ban on amphetamines.
Finally, it was Selig who was framing the public debate. And when the commissioner returned to Capitol Hill on Sept. 28 with Hall of Famers Aaron, Lou Brock, Phil Niekro, Robin Roberts and Ryne Sandberg in tow, he glided through his testimony. As the Senate Commerce Committee accepted his arguments, Fehr was left alone on the hot seat. "Are you and the players in such rarified atmosphere that you don't see this as a transcendent issue, beyond collective bargaining?" Senator John McCain asked Fehr. "Don't you get it? Don't you understand?"
THESE DAYS, owners and players are battling mostly over details of punishment. Both sides have agreed on the basic structure of MLB's drug policy, which both Selig and Fehr claim is "working."
"Working draft" is more like it. Baseball's policy -- which has already been changed once and is headed for more revisions currently under discussion -- has all the omissions and ambiguities of an early-stage document. But while MLB and the union try to get the details right, baseball continues to lose ground in the race against anabolics. Although players think the policy is already working, they also acknowledge there are still ways to beat it.
Nobody understands this better than Victor Conte, who will be heading to prison for four months on Dec. 1 for funneling steroids to star athletes. After taking a close look at the MLB drug policy at the request of The Magazine in late September, he concluded that it is still remarkably easy for players to cheat. Conte suspects players are already turning to oral rather than injectable steroids, because they clear the body faster. Something that he says may be making clubhouse rounds is testosterone undecanoate, brown, football-shape pills also known as the beans that are taken four times daily and clear the body four days later. Useful stuff in a sport that guarantees each player will be tested only once per season.
Conte's experience has also taught him that pro ballplayers juice up most heavily in the off-season. But while MLB's policy states players "shall be subject to" off-season testing, the two sides haven't figured out yet how to make that work. Then there's the elephant in the room of anabolics, human growth hormone. Scientists are just beginning to understand its scary side effects, but Conte knows if he wanted to get the best-quality hGH, he could get it in 10-unit, easily replaceable twist-off cartridges from Denmark for just $1,000. MLB bans growth hormone, but there is no urine test for it. There's also insulin, which is a favorite among bodybuilders for its muscle-building effects, but is not covered by the current policy.
"A professional baseball player," says Conte, "can drive a Mack truck through the loopholes in the current antidoping program being administered."
ON OCT. 1, Mariano Rivera tossed a Johnny Damon comebacker to Tino Martinez to seal a Yankees win at Fenway, and the club's eighth straight AL East title. As his teammates streamed out of the visitors dugout, Jason Giambi found Joe Torre at the mound and embraced him.
Later, Giambi lit up the cramped clubhouse, cranking music, embracing every teammate and coach within reach, popping Korbel corks. He talked to the media, slicking back his soaked hair, rambling on about how a year earlier he'd been so sick that he felt on the verge of collapse and had to be left off the playoff roster. He described how proud he was of his team as well as himself, for battling through injuries.
Giambi didn't bring up his BALCO testimony, and no reporter asked him about it. His teammates accepted his silence. And so did the fans: five days later, MLB announced they'd voted Giambi AL Comeback Player of the Year.
But when Giambi embraced Torre, was growth hormone coursing through his veins, the way he told a grand jury it had in 2003?
When Bonds passes The Babe next spring on his way to Aaron, will new designer steroids have found their way into his body, the way he testified the cream and the clear did two years ago?
Is MLB finally in a position to root out cheating?
"A professional baseball player," says [Victor] Conte, "can drive a Mack truck through the loopholes in the current antidoping program being administered.