In the spring of 2002, the Milwaukee Brewers' manager shared his thoughts on players' taking steroids. "To be honest," Jerry Royster told the Los Angeles Times, "until they make it a rule, I don't care what anybody does."
It was a common defense at the time: If it's not against the rules, then what's the problem? Even today, many players believe that steroids were not banned in the majors until August of 2002, when the league's first drug-testing agreement kicked in. Before then, says former pitcher Bryce Florie, steroid use "may have been against national law, but it wasn't against baseball rules." It's a notion that has been stated as fact in national media as reputable as USA Today, The Associated Press and ESPN The Magazine.
In truth, steroids have been banned in baseball since 1991 -- in a policy baseball officials made little effort to publicize. A source provided a copy of the seven-page document to ESPN The Magazine on the condition of anonymity. Titled "Baseball's Drug Policy and Prevention Program," the memo was sent to all major-league clubs on June 7 of that year by then-commissioner Fay Vincent. He spelled out components of the program, and ordered, "This prohibition applies to all illegal drugs and controlled substances, including steroids."
On May 15, 1997, acting commissioner Bud Selig distributed a nearly identical version of the drug memo, again citing steroids and directing clubs to post the policy in clubhouses and distribute copies to players. Selig's memo also went largely ignored. "I don't remember anything being posted in the locker room on drugs, like we did with gambling," said Bob Gebhard, then the Rockies' GM. In fact, baseball's gambling policy is still prominently displayed, and it must be read annually to each player by a club employee.
Players then sign a statement affirming that they understand the rule. Does such awareness make a difference? Hard to know, but the last gambling scandal was Pete Rose in 1989.
ESPN spoke to five GMs from 1997, three of whom (from the Royals, Dodgers and Rockies) couldn't recall that a steroids policy even existed -- not that it would have mattered. "I hate to say this, but it didn't do a whole lot of good to know the policy," says Herk Robinson, the Royals' GM during 1990-2000. "You weren't going [to] solve anything. You couldn't test. You couldn't walk up to a guy and say, 'What are you taking?'"
That sense of futility, brought on by the union's refusal to allow drug testing, descended from Vincent, who concedes he made no effort to enforce the league's first drug rules. "We could have done a lot more lecturing, lobbying and educating," he says. "But I didn't know anything about steroids." He says steroids were included in the 1991 memo because of rumors involving one player, Jose Canseco.
By 1997, the juice was loose in clubhouses well beyond Oakland. Selig, who had played a central role in the 1991 policy as chair of the Player Relations Committee, was becoming concerned, but not enough to make sure his edict was understood, much less enforced. By then, the home run had revived attendance and a new ethic took hold. As Robinson sheepishly says of the phantom steroid ban, "If a player is helping your club immensely, you know how it is -- maybe it's better you don't know."