LOS ANGELES — Bud Selig, baseball’s commissioner, declared the game’s steroid era “clearly a thing of the past” and the use of banned performance-enhancing substances “virtually nonexistent.”
It was January 2010, and former home run champion Mark McGwire had just come clean about his use of PEDs during his career.
Selig’s statements have now proven premature.
Major League Baseball is investigating allegations that the owner of a shuttered South Florida wellness clinic distributed steroids, synthetic testosterone and human growth hormone to as many as 20 major league players, making it potentially the worst single drug-abuse case in U.S. sports history.
Don Catlin, founder of the first anti-doping lab in the U.S. and the former president of Anti-Doping Research Inc., said this latest strike against baseball confirms what many on the front lines of sports’ drug wars already knew: The playing field may never again be 100 percent level for the game.
“Drugs in sport is never going to go away,” he said. “You can beat it back quite far, and we’ve done that in many ways. But the people on the other side keep coming up with new and better techniques to foil our tests.
“That’s a game. And if we don’t play it, we’re going to lose.”
That view is shared by Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “The temptations and the pressures to win by any means necessary, (to) gain an unfair advantage, are so high. And the rewards are huge,” he said.
In baseball, the rewards include batting championships, Cy Young Awards and lucrative contracts. Outfielder Melky Cabrera, suspended 50 games last summer after testing positive for testosterone while with the San Francisco Giants, signed a two-year, $16-million contract last November with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Oakland Athletics gave pitcher Bartolo Colon a $1-million raise this year despite the fact he too was suspended 50 games after testing positive for testosterone.
“Any unfair advantage creates victims,” Tygart said. “If an athlete loses their spot on the field or loses a big contract or loses the chance to be MVP or is stuck in the minors — like so many players in the past had been because of those who were violating the rules — then that’s an unfair system and it can’t be tolerated.
“You’re always going to have those, for whatever reason, that think they can cheat and get away with it. Whether it’s corking a bat, a spitball, (or) using a performance-enhancing drug covertly. You’re going to have a few that always think there’s an easier way to win.”
Major League Baseball’s latest case involves Anthony Bosch, founder of Biogenesis of America, an anti-aging clinic in Coral Gables, Fla., that closed seven months ago. Bosch, 48, was expected to begin meeting with MLB officials this week to share information that could implicate some of the biggest names in baseball, including former MVPs Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees and Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Other players whose names have surfaced in the investigation are members of the powerful Major League Players Association, which has promised to “defend the rights of players.” That could lead to months of legal haggling that would keep baseball’s dirty drug laundry a front-page story.
Tygart, who was a central figure in penalizing seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, applauded baseball for launching its investigation knowing the sport would take a public relations hit. He also said Selig didn’t have a choice.
“The sport can’t afford not to do it because what we’ve seen is it eventually comes out,” Tygart said. “And so you have to take aggressive steps during it. You want to give hope to clean athletes but also give confidence to the public that you’re doing everything within your authority to provide a game that’s based on rules.”
“It’s an uneven playing field,” he added. “They’re making progress, but they’re trying to push toothpaste back in the tube if they’re trying to get a drug-free playing field — which is probably not possible.”
Testosterone, a steroid hormone found in the body, is just one PED that authorities are struggling with. High levels of testosterone are thought to enhance muscle development and athletic performance.
Tests revealed high levels of testosterone in Cabrera and Colon, and the use of that steroid is at the heart of MLB’s current probe.
Whether baseball fans really want a clean game — minus some of the tape-measure home runs and near-triple-digit fastballs — is another question.
MLB’s commitment to catch cheaters, “assumes that fans really are concerned with the possibility that their favorite baseball player is taking drugs,” said Mark A. Dotson of the Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich.
“What would happen if Major League Baseball decided, ‘Look, we’re not even going to test anymore. We don’t care. Take whatever you want,’” Dotson asked. “I don’t know necessarily that fans would draw a negative reaction.
“The purists, maybe. But the casual fan? Probably unlikely.”