Baseball's escalating drug woes are sad reminder of '84 scandal

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It doesn't seem like yesterday, but it doesn't seem that long ago, either.

It was 1984, to be exact, and Major League Baseball was faced with its biggest public embarrassment since the Black Sox threw the World Series. The great Pittsburgh cocaine scandal, which really wasn't confined to Pittsburgh, shocked the nation and sparked the first serious call for strict measures to assure that the national pastime was protected against a national epidemic of drug abuse.

Fast-forward 23 years to the revelation yesterday that authorities just busted a huge Internet pharmaceutical operation suspected of trafficking in performance-enhancing drugs. Then, hit the pause button and consider the ramifications of the further revelation that many of the customers were professional athletes in various sports.

Did you really think the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative scandal would be the end of this? Call it BALCO East, if you want. The year-old investigation that targeted dozens of doctors, pharmacists and business owners has also reportedly outed former Oriole Gary Matthews Jr. and former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield as suspected customers of this shady enterprise. The Albany (N.Y.) Times Union reported that investigators also interviewed a team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who allegedly purchased $150,000 worth of testosterone and human growth hormone with his personal credit card.

This is all starting to come full circle, because another name that was mentioned in the Times Union report was Jason Grimsley, the former Orioles reliever whose mail-order delivery of human growth hormone came with a carload of federal agents who pressured him to name names in the now-famous redacted affidavit that allegedly includes several Orioles players.

I only brought up the 1984 Pittsburgh drug scandal because it was supposed to be some kind of watershed event in the fight against drug abuse in professional sports. It turned out to be the tip of an iceberg that continues to surface.

Sure, there is a difference between recreational drug abuse and illegal performance enhancement, but there are enough similarities in the way the two problems have been handled that it's fair to lump them together in one big mountain of chemically induced dysfunction.

Major League Baseball and a reluctant Major League Baseball Players Association instituted a long-standing joint drug abuse policy that was so effective that the image-conscious, Disney-owned Anaheim Angels could not even discipline Tony Phillips after a 1997 cocaine bust. And, remember, baseball only got around to amphetamines in the past year or so.

The other major sports instituted similar policies, but continue to grapple with widespread alcohol and substance abuse.

Basically, baseball's initial steroid testing program was created through the same collective bargaining process and was so halfhearted that commissioner Bud Selig and union chief Don Fehr were shamed into ratcheting up penalties after a series of congressional hearings.

The steroid program in place today should be tough enough to deter players from using anything on baseball's list of banned substances. Nobody can afford to sit out nearly one-third of a season for a first offense. But this latest chapter in the ongoing battle against performance-enhancing drugs only illustrates how the problem continues to evolve at a frightening pace.

Major League Baseball and the other major professional sports need to stay ahead of the curve, but baseball is sadly fixated on rehashing the history of the game's steroid problem through the multimillion-dollar investigation headed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

The Mitchell probe has bogged down because his investigators lack subpoena power to compel testimony, but Selig is convinced the investigation is necessary to determine the extent of baseball's steroid problem. He bowed to pressure from Congress in ordering the independent investigation. Those millions might have been better spent funding research to produce an effective test to detect the next generation of designer drugs.

Clearly, the job of uncovering the tawdry steroid truth is better left to federal and local law enforcement, which has shut down BALCO and now appears to have many of the bad actors in the mainstream pharmaceutical industry on the run.

Of course, we'd love it if this turns out to be the drug scandal that ends all drug scandals, but this is no time to be naive. It's only been 23 years since the last time we thought that.

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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