On an extraordinary day in March of 2005, Mark McGwire appeared with Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro before a U.S. congressional hearing, and a national television audience.
Seven years earlier, McGwire had surpassed Roger Maris’s single-season home run record as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, veritably personifying the Mighty Casey as he captivated fans across North America, many of whom would arrive to stadiums early just to watch him splatter balls deep into the bleachers during batting practice. In retirement, though, McGwire appeared a shell of his former self, at least 30 pounds lighter and nearly breaking into tears as he read his opening statement to the House committee on government reform panel.
McGwire evaded questions throughout, though his chilling response to a pointed question still resonates today: “There has been a problem with steroid use in baseball. But I’m not here to discuss the past. … I’m here to be positive about this subject.”
His reluctant testimony gave credence to Canseco, a former teammate and author of a book exposing the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. He testified steroids had been as easy to procure in baseball clubhouses as a cup of coffee.
Senator Jim Bunning, a former major-league pitcher, pointed out that the players of his time – Willie Mays, Ted Williams and Hank Aaron – did not put on 40 pounds and hit more homers in their late 30s than they did in their mid-20s, calling the feats of Barry Bonds and McGwire, “unnatural.”
The panel ultimately hit home by chastising baseball commissioner Bud Selig and then-union head Donald Fehr about the gaping holes in the sport’s drug-testing policy. The program, introduced in 2003 on a trial basis, mandated a 10-day suspension for a first-time offence beginning in 2005, a laughable deterrent in consideration of the vast salaries to be reaped by walloping home runs prodigiously.
Toward the end of the 11-hour day, committee member Stephen Lynch, a House Democrat from Massachusetts, citing the “unbelievable” loopholes in the testing procedure: “I have not been reassured one bit by the testimony I have heard today.”
The experience in Washington that day laid the groundwork for the independent 2007 Mitchell report, which would accuse the entire baseball industry of indulging in a willful “code of silence,” and ultimately to the joint drug agreement between Major League Baseball and the players’ union.
While mandating the most complete testing in professional sport – as far as that goes – the agreement has also empowered baseball to use telephone records, texts and sales receipts as evidence against players in drug investigations.
Paper trails are at the foundation of baseball’s investigation of the now-shuttered Biogenisis clinic in Florida, and the anticipated suspensions of nine players including three-time American League most valuable player Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta, Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz and San Diego Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera. Whether the players will accept the suspensions, or appeal, has been the subject of negotiations this week. Baseball is expected to move one way or another by Sunday.
American cyclist Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles when confronted by evidence from a similar documents-based investigation, rather than a urine or blood sample.
“Using non-analytical material is more effective than getting people to pee in a bottle,” Montreal lawyer Dick Pound, former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said Friday.
Baseball’s blood-and-urine testing program is differentiated from football, hockey and basketball by testing for human growth hormone, for synthetic testosterone using a carbon isotope ratio procedure that costs about $425 (all currency U.S.) per occasion, and for a biological passport system to detect changes in blood and urine over passage of time.
Still, while baseball leads professional sports, WADA encourages a more expansive program featuring random 24/7/365 testing.
“I think baseball’s anti-doping program is weak,” said Greg Wells, a physiologist and assistant professor in the faculty of kinesiology at the University of Toronto. “I don’t think the list of banned substances is that extensive, and the other thing missing, the real deterrent, is a strong commitment to out-of-competition testing.”
According to various reports this week, Rodriguez, 38, was threatened with a lifetime ban if he does not drop his right to appeal, possibly through next season. Though Rodriguez would be deemed a first-time offender officially and thus liable only to a 50-game suspension (up from 10, in 2005), Selig could impose further discipline for seeking to obstruct the investigation of Biogenesis.
“I hope he does it,” former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent was quoted as saying this week. “It’s right for baseball. The harder he comes down, the better it is for baseball.”
New York Times columnist William Rhoden has likened Selig’s tactics to corporate bullying. Yet the vigilance of the Biogenesis investigation reflects the wishes of players who claim to want a level playing field free of performance-enhancing drugs.
That can be achieved only by rigid testing and heavy deterrents in the form of financial penalties.
Baseball suspends players 100 games for a second offence. Should the players entwined in Biogenesis exercise the right for their cases to be heard by an arbitrator, Rodriguez’s attorney has already stated he would challenge the credibility of the person at the root of baseball’s investigation, clinic owner Anthony Bosch. (Bosch was fined by the Florida Department of Health for impersonating a doctor, and had initially sought to avoid baseball’s investigation until leveraged by legal proceedings.)
Ryan Braun accepted a 65-game suspension last week, though it will cost him only a fraction of his $105-million, long-term deal with the Milwaukee Brewers.
“The penalties are really light,” Wells said. “If you are really committed to eradicating drugs, the penalties should be more like a two-year ban for first offence and lifetime ban for a second. … Ultimately, what we need to see is all professional sports leagues moving to the WADA code, which is the gold standard.”
Crafting the WADA code in 2003, Pound sent a draft to the commissioners of the major professional sports in North America. None wanted anything to do with it. He later met with representatives of that game-changing 2005 House panel.
“Baseball seems to be coming to party after year and years of resistance to even the thought that a player could be using drugs,” Pound said. “I always thought that the only thing to get baseball in the ballpark on the issue, so to speak, is [by elected representatives saying], ‘Get your act together, boys, or we’ll do it for you. And in the process we’ll make some legislative changes that will wreck your business.’”
Selig is expected to retire at the end of the 2014 season, if not sooner. His legacy will always be tied to doping in the sport, in his twilight years as someone taking extraordinary measures to eradicate performance enhancers, prodded by that embarrassing day on Capitol Hill, eight years ago.