No pitching around steroids story

The Baltimore Sun

It has been four years since Major League Baseball began administering confidential steroids tests to its players, almost two years since the sport's drug policy was taken to task by a congressional committee and about 18 months since former Oriole Rafael Palmeiro tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance.

Some of baseball's most staggering drug-related headlines might now be in its rearview mirror, but as pitchers and catchers report this week in Arizona and Florida to begin a new season, the steroids issue will continue to percolate.

"I don't think it is going away," Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan said. "It will pop up again, I believe."

Even if no player with Palmeiro's name recognition fails a drug test again, there will be plenty of opportunities for steroid-based stories to permeate baseball's landscape in 2007 and beyond.

For one, a steroids investigation charged by commissioner Bud Selig and led by former Sen. George Mitchell continues. Last month, Mitchell warned owners that their personnel must cooperate with him or risk possible further governmental involvement. Mitchell has no timetable for presenting his results, but its release certainly will make news.

Meanwhile, federal investigators are continuing their probe into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative and the potential involvement of San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds.

Bonds, who could be indicted for perjury after testifying before a grand jury that he never knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs, is 22 home runs shy of breaking Hank Aaron's career record of 755 - a number well within his reach this season.

Bonds' pursuit of Aaron undoubtedly will stimulate steroids discussion, similar to what happened last month when retired slugger Mark McGwire, a suspected user of performance-enhancing drugs, was named on only 23.5 percent of the ballots in the latest of Hall of Fame voting, falling far below the 75 percent needed for induction.

"If nothing else, the results of the Hall of Fame voting ... and the reaction to it offer fresh evidence that this issue will not just fade away," Mitchell told club owners in January. "Whether you think it fair or not, whether you think it justified or not, Major League Baseball has a cloud over its head, and that cloud will not just go away."

In addition to Mitchell, Bonds and McGwire, additional stories could break in 2007 if more names associated with the Jason Grimsley affidavit or the results of the 2003 confidential testing - in which roughly 100 players allegedly failed - are leaked.

Grimsley, a former Oriole, was interviewed by federal investigators last year after he received a package of human growth hormone in the mail. In a federal affidavit, he allegedly fingered other players as performance-enhancing drug users, including former Oriole David Segui, who acknowledged his name is in the document but said he obtained hGH with a legal prescription.

According to the affidavit, Grimsley told investigators he had a conversation with several 2005 Orioles teammates about the use of amphetamines, but the names of the players were removed from the filed document.

In September, the Los Angeles Times, citing unnamed sources, reported that Orioles Miguel Tejada, Brian Roberts and Jay Gibbons are named in the document. All three have vehemently denied using illegal performance enhancers.

It was the latest in a string of steroid allegations involving former or current Orioles - one that began in August 2005, when it was announced Palmeiro had been suspended 10 days after testing positive for the steroid stanozolol.

"Hopefully, all that is behind us," Flanagan said. "Certainly, with Palmeiro, that announcement affected our season dramatically that year. We don't want anything like that to happen again."

Flanagan said suspected steroid use among players is a concern - but not an all-consuming one.

"It's out of my control, so at this point I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it," he said. "But in the back of your mind, it's certainly there."

As for the increased media focus, Flanagan said: "I don't think it has been a good thing for baseball, but as long as it gets to the point and is a deterrent, along with the new drug testing, the issue is hopefully under control."

Some experts say the more baseball and steroids are coupled in the news, the better chance the sport has of ridding itself of the drugs that have tainted the game.

"Yes, it's good that it keeps popping up," said Dr. Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor emeritus of health policy and sports science. "Anybody who is writing about any drug story hopefully will not say, 'It's only in the Olympics or only in football.' Maybe it will pop in their heads, 'Let's mention baseball, too.' "

Yesalis said he estimates, on average, 10 new stories on performance-enhancing drugs in sports are written daily.

"Here's where I think BALCO played a major role," Yesalis said. "The genie is out of the bottle or the cat is way out of the bag as far as the public knowing and having a far better idea of how widespread this is."

Richard Levin, an MLB spokesman, said the sport did not initially anticipate an ongoing stream of steroids stories when it negotiated testing with the players union four years ago.

But BALCO, the 2005 congressional hearings and former star Jose Canseco's tell-all drug book changed that.

"Given what happened a couple years ago ... it's not surprising it has not gone away," Levin said. "We have to be realistic. The issue is sticking around for a while. We have to deal with it, and we are dealing with it."

Pointing to three consecutive years of record attendance, Levin said baseball officials believe the sport will continue to prosper as it weathers this storm.

"We don't think this is detrimental to the overall health of the game," he said. "Even when things are going great, there is always a down side, and this is one of them. But we are dealing with it, and we think we can play right through it."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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