- GEN - A blind eye to steroids?

 Wednesday, December 20
League policies test players' will
 By Tom Farrey

DALLAS -- Benji Gil is no stranger to steroids. He lives in Texas now but was born, and still has family, in Tijuana, Mexico. But only in the past couple years did he consider getting intimate with the synthetic, muscle-building hormones.

"I've given it a thought," Gil said, of taking steroids.

Benji Gil
Players often ask Benji Gil where to find steroids in his hometown, Tijuana.
And why not? Once one of the hottest prospects in baseball, Gil found himself back in the minor leagues in 1998. The glow that surrounded him five years earlier, when at age 20 he started at shortstop for the Texas Rangers, had been replaced by the question of whether Gil even belonged in the bigs.

At a time when his career should have been in high gear, Gil was relegated to trying to figure out sliders in Triple-A ball. The glory belonged to shortstops who were pounding the ball out of major-league ballparks at record rates. The money was going to the power hitters in locker rooms full of whispers about who was and wasn't on steroids.

Gil started researching steroids. He felt it was a necessary exercise.

"If there was drug testing in baseball, that probably never would have even crossed my mind," he said.

Unlike the NFL and other sports governing bodies, Major League Baseball does not randomly test its players for steroids. Until recently, officials for the league and its players' association were loath to concede that steroids were used at all. To them, drug testing was a non-question in labor negotiations, for in their mind steroids were the province of the NFL and other strength sports -- not their elegant game.

That might change with the next labor deal. Major League Baseball officials have expressed a desire to consider random drug testing in the majors, citing recent information showing that 12 percent of Triple A players tested positive for steroids. In the past year, players such as Gary Sheffield, Cliff Floyd and the recently retired Brian McRae have suggested that steroid use is even greater in the majors.

Estimates of steroid use in baseball vary widely. Gil, now back in the majors with the Anaheim Angels, speculates that about three or four players on each team have used steroids. His teammate, fellow infielder Justin Baughman, agrees with other players' estimates that 30 percent of major leaguers are using the illegal substances.

Regardless, by not testing for drugs, baseball now appears to have the same problem other leagues have. Officials of the league and its players union have allowed -- even encouraged -- steroid use to take hold in America's pastime, said Gen. Barry McCaffrey, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"Athletes want to be assured that they can compete and win in a drug-free environment," McCaffrey said. "When they don't believe that is the assurance, then many of them feel compelled to use doping in sports, even if they recognize the potential harm on their own physical health."

No easy answer
Baseball wasn't the only organization that did not respond to the 1994 DEA plea.

Just as the DEA was calling for increased vigilance, the NCAA actually began reducing the number of tests given to Division I football players. The U.S. Olympic Committee since then has been accused by its own officials of covering up failed drug tests. And U.S. Track and Field is under so much heat now for shielding its athletes who have tested positive for banned substances that it has offered to let some other body handle the testing.

The NFL's steroids policy is considered the best in pro sports. The league gives 10,000 tests a year, testing players year-round. The names of those who are found with steroids are announced publicly. Only 18 players have been suspended for steroids since 1990.

"We have a testing program that serves as a deterrent," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello.

But the "permanent banishment" that the DEA requested was not honored. The mandatory punishment in the NFL for a first-time offender who tests positive is four games; penalties for any subsequent offense are up to the commissioner.

Steve Courson, a former NFL player and steroid user, said the limited number of players suspended by the NFL in the past decade for steroids means that players have gotten more sophisticated in their use of drugs. For instance, steroids tests cannot detect the use of designer steroids or human growth hormone.

"The NFL has no interest in having a foolproof system," said Courson, who contends the NFL should fund the development of new testing equipment. "After watching today's NFL, do fans want to go back and watch smaller linemen?

The perceived lack of commitment to eradicating performance-enhancing drug use in sports by the governing bodies has gained the attention of Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug czar. He is pushing now for more rigorous testing programs and new forms of testing to detect cheaters.

It's also a headache for the rest of America. As a 1994 Drug Enforcement Administration report on black-market steroids noted, elite athletes often are looked to as heroes and role models for youth. Those athletes drive the demand for steroids on the grassroots level, as some are perceived as having benefited from steroid use.

The DEA report said that professional and amateur leagues "must hold athletes to a higher standard regarding drug use and fairness in sports." The agency pleaded with them to "get more involved in policing the use of steroids and enforcing their own rules regarding permanent banishment when steroid use is detected."

It's not clear baseball was listening.

"It's very difficult to be both the organization that promotes sports, that nurtures its development and still acts as its policeman," McCaffrey said.

"The general public likes home runs," said Brad Andress, strength coach of the Colorado Rockies. "So maybe they figure, why change anything?"

McRae, a former player rep with the union, does not see baseball and the union doing much more than talk about steroids in the upcoming labor negotiation.

"The bottom line is if guys are producing, (teams) kind of don't care," said McRae, who estimates that 60 percent of major leaguers have used some form of performance-enhancing substance. "If the guy's doing a good job, they'll just ride him as long as they can. The thing that's going to be a telltale sign of whether a guy is using steroids or not is 10 to 15 years from now when you see some of the health problems.

"The organizations, once they use the (players) up and get what they can get out of them, will let them go and it's not going to matter."

It's a scenario that puts marginal, light-hitting players such as Baughman and Gil in a precarious position.

"It's a tough world out there," Baughman said. "I find myself right now fighting for a job in Major League Baseball, period, and any advantage would help."

Like Baughman, Gil has decided not to take steroids. For now, at least.

"Maybe a couple years down the road, maybe it will be a possibility," said Gil, who in the past week signed a new contract with the Angels. "If I'm at a point in my career where that's like the last string, then possibly."

His young fans will be watching.

Tom Farrey ( is a Senior Writer for Tomorrow, the steroids series concludes with a look at the experience of a former University of Texas-El Paso football player who says coaches encouraged his steroid use.


Steroid use by 10th graders hits new high

Crossing the Line: Black-market steroids

Steroid smuggling: Crime but no punishment

Crossing the Line: Steroids nightmare

Health dangers: Fact and fiction

NCAA drug-testing program catches few cheaters

Audio chat wrap: Former NFL player, steroid user Steve Courson

 Angels' infielder Benji Gil admits he's thought about using steriods.
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 Angels infielder Justin Baughman says steroid use by other players his size puts him in a vulnerable position.
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 Colorado Rockies strength coach Brad Andress believes some players will try anything to stay competitive.
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 Gen. Barry McCaffrey, U.S. drug czar, doesn't believe baseball is not committed to stopping steriod use.
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 McCaffrey says Major League Baseball needs a drug- testing program.
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