Major League Baseball has gone to great pains to move past its so-called steroid era, which gripped the game for more than a decade and stained the reputations of many of its greatest players.
But nearly six years after the release of the Mitchell Report, which was designed to put an end to that period, baseball is again shadowed by a drug scandal that has fans and analysts wondering if the problem can ever be stamped out.
About 20 players, including former Most Valuable Players Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, could face suspensions of up to 100 games based on their dealings with the Biogenesis clinic in South Florida, according to an ESPN report.
"People have asked me for decades what can be done, and the answer is nothing," said Dr. Charles Yesalis, a retired professor of health policy at Penn State and longtime expert on steroids. "I'm an avid sports fan, but I take it with a giant block of salt. I watch the games the way I watch a Spielberg or Lucas movie with all the special effects."
Financial incentives for great performance, gaps in testing and easy availability of drugs combine to make the problem intractable, Yesalis said.
"The shock has all gone out of it," he said. "I don't think any name would surprise people at this point."
This scandal is different in some respects. Baseball officials, not federal authorities, are spearheading the crackdown on alleged drug users. Accused of passivity in the years leading to the Mitchell Report, they have run in the opposite direction this time, pushing Biogenesis founder Anthony Bosch to testify against the game's stars. His anti-aging clinic allegedly provided human growth hormone, testosterone and other drugs to players.
Many questions raised by this episode are familiar, however. Will any scandal be large enough to drive players away from performance-enhancing drugs? Will fans ever again trust that their heroes' feats are authentic? Will baseball lose popularity because of another drug-related black eye?
"It's another disappointment," said Mike Gimbel, director of Powered by ME!, a program at St. Joseph Medical Center that teaches young athletes about the dangers of drugs. "No matter what we do, no matter what we try to keep athletics clean, there always seems to be somebody who will test the system."
He keeps a picture in his office of Rodriguez talking to kids from the Powered by ME! program in 2009. The image of the Yankees star prompted mixed feelings Wednesday morning.
"He was so sincere," Gimbel said wistfully. "He seemed so committed to doing things the right way."
Gimbel said the problems in sports run deeper than drugs.
"Our biggest addiction in sports is to winning, and winning at all costs," he said. "If winning continues to be so important, athletes will continue to do anything. They'll play hurt, use drugs, anything."
Baseball fans are all too used to seeing the game's best players torn down by drug allegations. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, arguably the greatest pitcher and hitter of the past 20 years, fell far short of Hall of Fame election last winter because many voters won't support alleged cheats. Rodriguez, once baseball's brightest phenom and its presumptive next home-run king, seems headed for the same fate.
"You're just not surprised anymore by any name," said Orioles fan Steven Rybicki, 46, in a Wednesday interview outside Camden Yards. "You hate to say it, but even if somewhere along the line, [Cal] Ripken's name popped up on a list, it wouldn't shock me anymore."
Baltimore has felt the sting of the scandals. Popular Orioles Brian Roberts, Miguel Tejada and Jay Gibbons were among the players named in the Mitchell Report in 2007. Current utility infielder Danny Valencia was mentioned in a document from the Biogenesis clinic obtained by Yahoo Sports in February.
Valencia was not linked to any performance-enhancing drug on that list, and he vehemently denied using drugs when asked during spring training and again Tuesday night.
Another fan, 39-year-old Paul Devincentz, said he has enjoyed introducing his kids to the current Orioles team but added that steroids have clouded his appreciation of the game.
"To me, that's where the biggest sadness is," he said. "I shouldn't have to explain to my kids what drugs these guys are using and what the drug does for you. We live in a society where you've got kids who've got to grow up quicker now because you have to explain to them what these scandals are."
The Major League Baseball Players Association released a statement Wednesday urging restraint in judging the players linked to Biogenesis.
"It would be unfortunate if anyone prejudged those investigations," the statement read. "The Players Association has every interest in both defending the rights of players and in defending the integrity of our joint [testing] program. We trust that the Commissioner's Office shares these interests."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter also took a wait-and-see approach when asked about the situation before Wednesday night's game in Houston.
"A lot of the things like this, let it play out," he said. "See what's real and what's not. It's very obvious that it is something they are not going to treat lightly, and I also have a lot of confidence that the people that are looking into it will get done what needs to get done. I'm more concerned, everybody's trying to take care of their own backyard. You try to do everything possible to try to educate your people. We'll see what we are actually talking about. I'll leave it [in Major League Baseball's] hands."
The questions of baseball's popularity are perhaps easier to answer, because evidence from the past decade suggests that no scandal will derail the game's economic growth.
Major league attendance increased 4.6 percent in 2007, the year the Mitchell Report was released. The years 2004-2007, when the steroid revelations came hot and heavy, were the four highest-attendance seasons in history. Last season was the fifth-highest, with a total attendance of 75 million. Team values continue to rise, reaching an average of $744 million this year, according to Forbes. The league agreed to television deals last year that will pay $12.4 billion over eight years, more than double the value of the previous contracts.
"I don't know that the Dodgers sell for $2 billion if steroids had really damaged baseball," said Mike Ozanian, who has worked on Forbes' franchise valuations for years. "If you look at the most recent national television deal, the people paying the big money don't seem to see any indication of that. Attendance has held up. I haven't seen any evidence that the whole steroid topic has slowed the revenues or values."
For Gimbel, all that money speaks to the underlying problem.
He gives credit to baseball officials for attacking the drug issue more aggressively than their peers in the NFL or the NBA. But he says the message becomes muddled for young athletes who see the honors and riches accrued by performers such as Braun and Rodriguez.
"It makes our work a lot harder," he said. "These players are very successful, and they're rich. That's what a lot of these kids look at."
Baltimore Sun reporters Dan Connolly and Seth Boster contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun