Chain of allegations full of links to O's

Rafael Palmeiro gave the downtrodden Orioles a reason to be boastful in March 2005, when he wagged his finger on national television and proclaimed to a congressional committee on steroids that he had never, ever taken performance-enhancing drugs. While former St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire choked out "no comments" and new Oriole Sammy Sosa was unconvincing in his denial, Palmeiro emerged as a hero on an otherwise embarrassing day for Major League Baseball.

That was then. Now, for the third consecutive September, the club is stumbling its way to Sunday's finish line mired in more losing and more drug accusations involving one of its own.

Within five months of his finger-wagging declaration, Palmeiro, then the Orioles' first baseman, encountered a humiliating and ironic fall from grace as the first recognizable name to fail a drug test under the sport's newly enacted steroid policy.

Since then, seven other current or former Orioles have been linked to illegal drugs in published reports. The latest is injured outfielder Jay Gibbons, who, according to an SI.com story this month, received shipments of human growth hormone (hGH) and steroids from 2003 to 2005.

Seven of the eight, including Palmeiro, were Orioles in 2004; the other, Gary Matthews Jr., was with the club in 2002 and 2003.

Although the circumstances vary - some, for instance, are accused by federal investigators of having drugs sent to their homes while others are merely mentioned by an old teammate as possibly using steroids - the eight are linked by the Orioles uniform.

In time, more players and teams likely will be involved, because the issue is being pursued by various sources simultaneously and isn't going away anytime soon.

Former Sen. George Mitchell is still conducting MLB's steroid investigation, which could wrap up by the end of the year, while cases involving Internet drug rings are playing out in New York, Rhode Island, Florida, Alabama and Massachusetts, among other states.

A separate federal Drug Enforcement Agency sting, called "Operation Raw Deal," culminated this week with 124 arrests and the seizure of 56 steroid labs throughout the United States and has targeted international drug manufacturing and trafficking in nine other countries, including China, Mexico and Germany. No athletes have been implicated yet in those raids, but client lists are still being compiled.

Did O's officials know?
Potentially, no case could be more damaging for baseball than that of former New York Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, who is awaiting federal sentencing after admitting to distributing steroids and hGH. According to his plea agreement, he gave the drugs to "dozens of current and former Major League Baseball players [on teams spread throughout Major League Baseball]" from 1995 to 2005.

A baseball source said at least one ex-Oriole - who has been implicated in a previous report - will be mentioned when and if Radomski's testimony is made public.

It would further fuel the public perception that, in the past decade, the Orioles were filled with juiced-up players and management was either oblivious or didn't care.

But that's completely untrue, said former Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, who joined the club as a coach in 1996 and took over as skipper three days after Palmeiro was suspended in 2005.

"I think it is unfair for the Baltimore organization to have to take all of this on its shoulders," said Perlozzo, who was fired this June. "It has nothing to do with anybody on the Orioles condoning anything or anyone in the organization having access to it or anyone allowing anything to happen. I think it is totally coincidental."

As a longtime member of the coaching staff, Perlozzo continually interacted with players and, as bench coach in 2004, was a conduit between those Orioles and new manager Lee Mazzilli. He said he never heard or witnessed evidence of any steroid use.

"If anyone did know anything, it would have to be just among the players," he said. "But when something is among the players, it always gets out [to coaching]. And nothing ever got out. So that makes me think some of these things were just random."

One former Oriole, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject, said there obviously was some individual steroid use during those years. But the users didn't congregate or discuss their personal situations.

"It wasn't like there was an underground, secretive group where guys knew about each other and talked about it and shared it," the former Oriole said. "That just didn't happen."

Clubhouse syringes
Nearly all of the Orioles' links to the drug controversies, however, started with one player and eventually spread to others. That trend began with Palmeiro.

At the time of his suspension, Palmeiro said in a teleconference that taking the banned steroid stanozolol was "not an intentional act on my part."

Later, The Sun learned Palmeiro told an arbitration panel the drug might have entered his system when he injected liquid vitamin B-12, which he said Orioles teammate Miguel Tejada had given him.

Before that revelation, Orioles players had publicly supported Palmeiro, a relatively private man who didn't often socialize with his teammates. But once Palmeiro mentioned Tejada as part of his defense - even though Palmeiro suggested Tejada didn't know the B-12 was tainted - an already tense clubhouse snapped.

"If you're going to call somebody out, that's not right, but he's trying to save his name, too," then-Orioles reliever Steve Kline said in 2005. "I guess you do things when you're in tight situations. Do two wrongs make a right? Who knows?"

Gibbons said at the time: "I don't think it would help ... to say another teammate gave you something. I think you've got to look in the mirror and take responsibility for your actions."

Palmeiro's allegation about the liquid B-12 - which isn't a steroid or illegal, but requires a prescription in the United States - triggered an investigation that found no traces of steroids in Tejada's other vials of the B-12. But it also uncovered that Tejada and two other unidentified Orioles injected each other with the vitamin repeatedly in 2004 and 2005, creating the possibility that there was an underground culture of syringes in the Orioles' clubhouse.

Allegations mount
More disturbing evidence arose in June 2006, when federal officials intercepted a shipment of hGH headed for former Orioles reliever Jason Grimsley, then with the Arizona Diamondbacks. According to a federal affidavit, Grimsley admitted to buying 10 to 12 shipments of hGH, including a double dose while he was a member of the Orioles in July 2004.

Also in the affidavit, Grimsley allegedly mentioned a conversation he had with three 2005 Orioles teammates about amphetamine use, and he supposedly accused specific players of using steroids. However, all names in the document were redacted before it was filed in Arizona court.

Within days, former Orioles first baseman David Segui said publicly that he was one of the blacked-out names in the Grimsley document. However, he said he uses hGH with a prescription for medical reasons and did nothing illegal.

Then, last October, the Los Angeles Times, citing an unidentified source, reported that Grimsley listed Gibbons, Tejada and Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts as steroid users. All three denied the allegations.

Finally, this year, Gibbons and two other former Orioles, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Matthews, as well as several other major leaguers, were linked to targeted online pharmacies, which shipped hGH and steroids throughout the country, according to various media reports.

"It seems that all of the people that have been mentioned have played with the Orioles. It's kind of weird," said Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora, who joined the club in 2000 and is the longest-tenured current Oriole. "I hope it stops, because this organization does a lot of [good] things for guys."

Where's the proof?
Jim Beattie, Orioles executive vice president from 2002 to 2005, said the number of Orioles involved in the scandals makes it difficult to dismiss as purely coincidental. But he cautioned that the information is trickling out, so it's too early to pass judgment on any one player or organization.

"Everybody's trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with a lot of the pieces missing," said Beattie, whose contract wasn't renewed after the 2005 season. "So you fill in the missing pieces with what you think makes sense. But it may not make sense at all."

Beattie said there were players on the Orioles and the Montreal Expos - the team he ran in the late 1990s - whom he suspected might be using performance-enhancing drugs. The suspicions, he said, came primarily from the eyeball test - from observing the size and muscularity of certain players. But those were also the guys, he said, who worked out tirelessly in the weight room. There was never tangible proof that those players were using illegal drugs, so no punitive measures could be taken.

"You have to have the smoking syringe," Beattie said. "You have to have physical evidence."

Besides closely monitoring its players and offering help from baseball's employee assistance program, the club had no other recourse, especially before league-wide drug testing, Beattie said.

"We continually had conversations with our medical staff ... about if they had any suspicions and, if they did suspect anybody, what we could do about it," Beattie said. "In most clubhouses, you are talking about one, two or three that might be suspected, but certainly not six, seven or eight."

Because of baseball's itinerant nature, several of those implicated in the reports, such as Segui, Grimsley and Matthews, have played with multiple teams. That's why current Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar said it's unfair for one club to be branded as a steroid home.

"This isn't about the Orioles organization. It's ludicrous how people say that," Millar said. "This is a whole witch hunt. That's what it is."

Not a steroid club
Orioles outfielder Jay Payton, who is with his sixth big league club, said he was unfazed by one team's having so many links to the drug scandals. It wasn't as if Payton, while playing elsewhere, viewed the Orioles as the majors' steroid club.

"I never really paid a whole lot of attention to where the names were coming from. I'd just see another name get thrown out and say, 'There's another guy,'" Payton said. "I didn't really think too much about the fact that it was four or five guys from the same team."

That one club - whether it's the 2004 Orioles or another - has been cited in a rash of reports doesn't surprise Payton.

"After you think about it, it kind of makes sense. There's usually a common link," he said. "If one guy is doing it, he's probably supplying more than one guy on the team. That's basically what it comes down to, I guess."

Yet when one team is continually linked to the controversies, it can undeniably be a distraction, said Mora, who remembers life in the 2005 pennant race after the Palmeiro story broke.

"Everybody was thinking about steroids. They weren't thinking about the game," Mora said. "I was like, 'OK, this is not good.'"


Recommended on Baltimore Sun