SBJ/September 17 - 23, 2001/Opinion

Fueling baseball’s power surge

Editor’s note:
Fred Klein, who wrote about sports for the Wall Street Journal for nearly 25 years, this week joins our lineup of the finest sports business writers and reporters. Klein will aim his column, “Between the Lines,” at issues and insights important or interesting to decision-makers in the industry. His column will appear in this space weekly.

The line about watching what you wish for, because you might get it, seems apt as baseball's regular season draws to a close. The game's prayer for another interest-revving Home Run Derby, a la the 1998 duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, has been answered, with three National Leaguers — Sosa, Barry Bonds and Luis Gonzalez — having topped the once lofty level of 50.

But along with the oohs and aahs, the homer race to top McGwire's munumental mark of 70 has stirred a question that becomes more nagging with each long-ball blast. Given Major League Baseball's don't ask-don't tell stance on steroids, those potent but sinister performance-enhancers, the suspicion has grown that more than good wood is behind the power surge.

Yes, baseball has a policy that prohibits the use of illegal substances, but it tests only players who've run afoul of the law over the use of such "recreational" drugs as cocaine, marijuana and PCP, and limits its inquiries to those things. None of them affect athletic performance, so it's a PR exercise.

By contrast, the NFL, NBA, NCAA and the Olympic sports all specifically ban and test for steroids. If their efforts are in some ways perfunctory, they at least evince a seriousness about the subject.

The notion that steroids have infiltrated baseball has gained credence as more players step to the plate, or mound, sporting button-popping physiques. The issue made news in 1998 when the Bluto-muscled McGwire admitted to having taken androstenedione, a steroid-based dietary supplement that had slipped through the U.S. controlled-substance net. It surfaced again last year when Boston police found injectable steroids and syringes in a car belonging to Manny Alexander, then a Boston Red Sox infielder.

Baseball people used to whisper about steroid use in their game, but some now say it aloud. Kevin Towers, the San Diego Padres' general manager, has repeatedly voiced concerns on grounds of competitive fairness and health, the latter because the drugs have been linked to heart and kidney damage, among other ills. In a spring training interview, Mark Grace, the veteran first baseman of the Arizona Diamondbacks, estimated that at least one-third of all major leaguers take steroids in some form. Grace, an old-fashioned type whose batting average bulges more than his biceps, said he didn't use them "because I'd like to have a life after baseball."

Of the current Home Run Derby contestants, the Chicago Cubs' Sosa raises the fewest eyebrows. He's a certified power guy whose 66 homers chased McGwire into the last week of the '98 campaign. Sosa's a thoroughly new-style baseballer who'd be convincing as an NFL linebacker.

The San Francisco Giants' Bonds' drive toward 70 home runs is more surprising because he'd averaged just 33 a year over his previous 15 seasons and 40 a year over the previous five. Once a built-for-speed model who stole 52 bases in one season, he's noticeably bigger through the arms and shoulders than he used to be.

The presence of the Diamondbacks' Gonzalez in the top three is downright astonishing. He'd topped 30 home runs in just one of his previous 10 campaigns, yet this year, at a taut 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, he's not only kept pace with the big boys, he also beat them in the home-run contest at the All-Star Game.

Gonzalez is a thoroughly nice man, so writers hesitate to ask him if he owes his new-found punch in part to chemistry. But they do, and, like Sosa and Bonds, he answers no, he's simply working harder and smarter than before. The other day, he was in a print ad for the GNC nutritional-aids chain, posing with a can of a dietary supplement whose main ingredient of whey has wholesome, nursery-rhyme connotations.

But go into a GNC store and you'll find andro-based products in the same section as the one Gonzalez endorsed, available to anyone with the requisite cash. You'd like to believe Gonzo, but baseball's head-in-the-sand posture on steroids makes everyone a suspect, and saying it isn't so isn't enough.

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