King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Baseball's steroid debate: Whoever's talking, I couldn't disagree more.

Published November 18, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

No matter who's talking about steroids, and no matter what they're saying, I find myself disagreeing. It's just one of those subjects for me.

The international anti-doping crowd has been throwing bombs at baseball for its weak anti-steroids policy, even after that policy kicked in last week because a benchmark of positive tests had been reached. "I think it's an insult to the fight against doping in sport," World Anti-Doping Agency chairman Dick Pound said to the Associated Press about baseball's system, "an insult to the intelligence of the American public and an insult to the game itself."

"If Dick Pound actually knew anything about the Major League Baseball testing program," responded Gene Orza of the players' union, "I might give his views more than the irrelevance they for so long have been commanding."

I don't feel insulted by baseball's policy, which mandates mandatory testing next season, because at least 5 percent of the players came up positive in random testing this year. But on the other hand, Mr. Orza, Pound's right that the penalties are pretty damn weak. And they're weak because the players' union and the owners are both reluctant to deal with the steroid "problem," a problem that has likely been at the root of an offensive explosion that's put a lot of butts in a lot of seats over the last decade.

Those who came up dirty this year remain anonymous and won't be punished. Starting in the spring, a player will be sent to treatment for a first positive test, and fines or suspensions will begin with the second. The fines are chump change by the standards of people who make an average salary of $2.56 million. Even the maximum fine of $100,000, for a fifth offense, is still only 3.9 percent of an average yearly salary, roughly the equivalent of a $50,000-a-year worker being fined $2,000. The suspensions are a little more serious, starting with 15 days for a second bad test, then increasing to 25 days, then 50 days, and finally a full year for bad test No. 5.

"You can test positive for steroids five times, then they think of booting you out for a year?" Pound fulminated. "Give me a break. The first time someone has knowingly cheated and they give you counseling? It's a complete and utter joke."

Pound represents a system that whacks athletes for two years based on a single positive test, and bans pretty much everything except water, whether it enhances performance or not. As a baseball fan, I'm not at all uncomfortable that he doesn't like baseball's drug-testing system.

Dr. Gary Wadler, an expert on drug use in sports and Pound's colleague at WADA, told the AP that people around the world are amazed that baseball's drug-testing policy is collectively bargained. "There's no question when I meet with people who deal with doping in other parts of the world, they don't understand our system," he said. "They think there's something wrong with our system."

Of course there's something wrong with the system. But there's something wrong with every system, including no system, which is what baseball had until the most recent labor agreement.

I don't particularly like the idea of players juicing up, but I don't care about it so much that I want baseball to adapt the police-state atmosphere that rules the Olympics. There's a certain point at which I feel that if Joe Centerfield wants to pump up on steroids regardless of the risks to his own health, I'm OK with it. His home runs still look like home runs to me, even if he's tweaking on every chemical known to man and a few best left to elephants.

But make that argument to me and I can do 20 minutes on the purity and integrity of the game, on how ballplayers used to look like regular people, not like the Michelin man or Arnold Schwarzenegger with a bat, on how all these pumped-up musclemen have cheapened the impact of home runs, have made 50-homer seasons boringly commonplace where they were once rare and dramatic.

But if it were you doing those 20 minutes, I'd tell you to get over yourself, join the bluenoses in the Olympic movement, talk to me when you get to the 21st century. These guys have tools at their disposal that improve their performance. Why shouldn't they make use of them, just as they make use of improved equipment and training methods?

Don't answer that question. I can do it myself. And around we go.

I guess what I'm saying is that I wish this would all go away. I don't think it will. I think baseball's plan should be tougher, with a suspension on the first offense and longer suspensions for the next few. But I'd rather the system be collectively bargained, with the checks and balances that entails, than to have a Draconian drug czar imposing career-altering penalties on guys who got out of hand with the nasal spray. Still, I realize the weak penalties make it unlikely that the testing program will scare players straight.

Call me a nostalgic fool, but I wish we could forget this steroid stuff and get back to what baseball is really all about: labor-management squabbling, whining about contracts, and trying to extort the taxpayers into paying for new stadiums.

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