Orioles star Brian Roberts said yesterday that his first direct exposure to steroids was when he saw teammates using them after he was called up from the minor leagues in 2001, but he never imagined he would succumb to the temptation to use the drugs.
In an informal talk to high school athletes - and in an interview with The Sun - Roberts, a two-time All-Star and one of Baltimore's most popular athletes, described how he came to use steroids once in 2003, why he kept it quiet for years and why he ultimately admitted his mistake.
His comments contrast with years of equivocation or angry denials by other baseball stars accused of steroid use. Roberts himself denied using the drugs in 2006 after a Los Angeles Times report named him and others as users.
"I saw a couple of my teammates using steroids. I saw them begin to - what I thought was - see benefits from it for a short period of time," Roberts, who did not name the teammates, told about 350 student athletes and coaches.
Roberts, 30, said he fought a battle within himself over the drugs, using them once: "One day, that I wish I could take back for a lot of reasons."
The son of a college baseball coach, he suggested his steroid use was largely the product of pressure and expectations. "In the business I'm in that's so competitive, every move you make is scrutinized on TV and by 50,000 people. Every night you want to live up to those expectations, and you want to feel like you're keeping pace," the second baseman said.
In his remarks, Roberts cast himself as a different sort of role model - one who admits his flaws in the hopes others can learn from them. "What you have to realize is that we all make mistakes," Roberts told the students from Baltimore City and Baltimore County public and private schools.
He seemed to win over an audience that included Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools, and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who recruited Roberts to address yesterday's conference sponsored by Powered by ME!, a program educating about the dangers of steroids.
"It helped me realize that you don't have to take the easy way out by cheating," said Eddie Scott, a sophomore at City.
Said Cummings: "When he gets up to bat, I hope people will clap a little harder and a little longer."
Roberts was among 19 current or former Orioles named in December in the Mitchell Report on steroid use in major league baseball. Roberts was included after former Orioles outfielder Larry Bigbie relayed a 2004 conversation to investigators in which Roberts allegedly admitted injecting himself with steroids "once or twice" in 2003.
"I don't know how familiar you guys are with the thing called the Mitchell Report," said Roberts, who wore jeans and a button-down shirt as he paced back and forth on the stage of a hotel ballroom in front of the students.
"All over the TV, all over everywhere, people were saying that I was wrongfully thrown in this report, that this was crazy, that I should sue. For a day or two, I didn't know what to do. I was as confused as anybody," he said.
"I knew the truth, obviously, deep in my heart, but I was trying to seek counsel from people around me, my family and friends. And I had some people that I trusted very much who were saying, 'Don't tell anybody. They don't need to know. This is your life. This is your business.' And in the end, I said, 'You know I can't live with it like that.' "
The number of Orioles linked to steroids has led some observers to wonder whether the drugs were a bigger problem for the team than for others. "I don't know that anyone knows," Orioles owner Peter Angelos replied when asked that question by reporters in January.
Roberts said the climate was different when he used steroids than today.
"I think it was fairly open five years ago, and I would definitely say it's not anymore. I think there was a time period where it was the cool, in thing," he said.
Baseball has toughened its steroid testing and penalties since 2003, largely in response to congressional concerns.
Brenda and Frank Marrero, whose son, Efrain, used steroids before committing suicide in 2004, said Roberts' candor contrasts with years of angry denials by such players as home run king Barry Bonds and pitching great Roger Clemens.
The Marreros, who addressed students at yesterday's conference, said their son had looked up to Bonds and that many high school athletes take their cues from their professional heroes.
"These [athletes] need to come forward. They need to say, 'I made a mistake,' " Frank Marrero said. "I want them to speak to the kids directly."
Roberts said he has paid a price for his error.
"I went to meet my girlfriend's parents for the first time ... in December," he told the students. "I was sitting on the couch with a bunch of her parents' friends and my name is crawling across the bottom line of ESPN. And she's looking at me like, 'Why did I bring you here?' "
Roberts, who said his father always had high expectations for his son's baseball career, had often been told growing up that his size - 5 feet 9, 175 pounds - would keep him from achieving his dream of playing big league baseball.
He said he initially believed he would resist the drugs. "I knew the way that I was raised," he said.
After using steroids, Roberts said, he didn't initially consider disclosing it. "Honestly, it's not really anybody's business what I do on a daily basis," he said in an interview before speaking to the students. "I dealt with it the way I needed to between myself and between God and between the people closest to me."