The estimate of the number of players on steroids in MLB rises and falls more than the Dow Jones.
In his recent interview in Sports Illustrated, former NL MVP Ken Caminiti unintentionally lit a match -- and it's spreading like wildfire. There isn't a big enough fire extinguisher to put it out.
Caminiti has acknowledged his problems with substance abuse, and as part of his recovery process he's been told to come forward and be honest. He didn't do the SI interview to get sympathy. He did it to talk about life after baseball, and he said the steroid issue was just touched upon. Now it's the focal point of an ongoing debate.
The Steroids Era?
Could this be the era of steroids?
As NBC's Bob Costas said on my radio show Thursday, baseball has experienced three distinct eras. There was the dead ball era; in the next era, stats (especially home runs) increased but also reached a plateau for decades. Since 1994, it appears that we're seeing the impact of steroid use -- and thus the steroids era.
Perhaps we need to put an asterisk by the numbers produced in this new era. There's no way that Luis Gonzalez, because he hit 57 homers last year, can be mentioned in the same breath as Babe Ruth or Willie Mays or Lou Gehrig.
Through 1994, a player hit 50 or more home runs in a season just 18 times. Since '94, there have been an amazing 15 50-homer seasons. More than any other sport, baseball is numbers-driven. Fans relish numbers, and if they're tainted, there's a sense of consumer fraud.
Some of the spike in stats can be attributed to corked and maple bats, juiced balls, watered-down pitching and smaller stadiums. How much can be attributed to steroids?
That's the question baseball must answer.
-- ESPN's Dan Patrick
Caminiti acknowledged "dabbling" in steroids; he said he began taking them in 1996 for medicinal purposes (coincidentally or not, the year he won the MVP). He also saw other players take steroids. But he's not interested in bringing others down. Despite being quoted in SI as saying that half of baseball players use steroids, Caminiti told me his statements were misconstrued and the actual number is far fewer than 50 percent.
Unlike Jose Canseco's plan for a tell-all book, there was no intent to expose others behind Caminiti's SI interview. Perhaps now that he sees the repercussions of his statements, he's backpedaling. But Caminiti's only ax to grind is with himself. He's not blaming anyone else for his mistakes. He admits he cheated. And now he just wants to disappear. I couldn't help but feel sympathy for Caminiti.
Curt Schilling, however, isn't as sympathetic. Arizona's All-Star pitcher believes the bottom line is that Caminiti took steroids. But Schilling thinks only about 15 percent of MLB players use. Even if it's only 10 percent, is it 10 percent too many?
So the witch hunt has begun. It's a shame, with everything that Major League Baseball has had to deal with lately (labor issues, contraction, payroll, etc.). The last thing baseball needs is another black mark on the sport.
The use and abuse of steroids are not new, so why now? Why the sudden surge of attention? The knee-jerk reaction might be to blame the media. Baseball insiders might hope that if it isn't talked about, it will just go away. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.
Schilling said pitchers take steroids, too. He knows pitchers who threw 91 mph one year and then showed up the next season throwing 95-96 mph after using steroids. Schilling also quipped that anyone who looks at his body knows he does not take steroids.
Schilling acknowledged it would be tempting, given the money involved, to use steroids if you know that your employer doesn't care and can't test you. Because of the cash -- and knowing that others use and may be more talented without the help of a performance-enhancing drug -- what would prevent a player from taking steroids? But Schilling pointed out that you have to look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day. He hoped that personal morals and ethics would come into play.
With reported levels of steroid use varying widely, it's clear there's no accurate way to estimate usage. Speculation and association play a large role in those estimations. The only fact is that conjecture and speculation won't get at the truth. Form all of the opinions and assumptions you want, folks, but the truth is we'll never know.
The obvious answer is to introduce mandatory testing, as they do in the minors.
But who's the judge and jury? Whose responsibility is it to clean up this mess? And what can be done? Just like with Olympic drug testing, if an athlete is smart enough, he just needs to stay one step ahead of the law. Testing in MLB could begin today. But who would run these tests? Would they be hired by the owners or the players? In either case, the likelihood of the big-name, top-dollar stars getting called out is slim.
There are further questions. Can testing detect all steroids? What about the player who takes steroids in the offseason only to test clean during the season? If a player goes on the disabled list with a mysterious injury (one potential side effect of steroid use), should management have the right to test him? All ethical questions. And they won't go away.
Testing raises questions. Who would run these tests? Would they be hired by the owners or the players?
Former Oakland Raiders great Lyle Alzado died in pain and in vain. He withered away due to steroid use, but it didn't stop anyone in the NFL from taking steroids. Meanwhile, MLB has had its head in the sand -- for far too long -- and must find a way to police itself. If players are using an illegal substance that can land them in jail, baseball should care. If baseball cares about other illegal substances, it should address steroid use.
I took a drug test to work at ESPN. Every baseball player should have nothing to hide. So despite all the questions raised by testing, this begs one final question: Why not take the test?