When it was revealed that Yankee slugger Jason Giambi used steroids, Major League Baseball pretended to be stunned. The club owners all professed to be shocked- shocked!-by Mr. Giambi’s admission and pledged to get steroids out of the game. And the baseball players’ union got all contrite and made an unprecedented offer to reopen the collective-bargaining agreement.
But it’s hard to imagine that anybody outside the cocoon of Major League Baseball was surprised. Everybody who has watched the game over the past 10 years knew that something was amiss. ESPN Classic is full of reminders of how skinny the players of the 1980′s and even the early 90′s were in comparison to today’s bulked-up Hummers.
The fact that everybody within the game refused to acknowledge the elephant in the room is a good indication that even the latest steroid bombshell won’t cause much change. The owners and the union have agreed to reconsider baseball’s toothless steroid policy, but neither side is seriously interested in putting any muscle behind it.
The players have too many reasons to cheat-120 million reasons, to be specific, in Mr. Giambi’s case. And the owners will remain complicit in the skullduggery because they profit from all the home runs hit by juiced-up players. People don’t pay $40 a pop to see guys who can bunt. George Steinbrenner may not have known for sure that Mr. Giambi was using steroids when he signed him, but I doubt he went out of his way to find out.
But we don’t have to wait for baseball to go through the motions of a new steroid policy-not if individual players are willing to take the initiative. To that end, I suggest a policy of voluntary steroid testing.
In an interview on ABC’s 20/20, BALCO founder Victor Conte said he would “guesstimate that more than 50 percent of [baseball players] are taking some form of anabolic steroids.” Even if his guesstimate is twice too high, an accusation of that magnitude casts doubt on the achievements of every player in baseball. To remain above suspicion, players who aren’t cheating-pitchers, infielders, catchers and Enrique Wilson-should line up to be tested for steroids.
Voluntary testing skirts the privacy issue. Any player who volunteers for steroid testing isn’t giving up his Fourth Amendment rights: He’s pleading his innocence to fans who already presume him guilty. There wouldn’t even be any punishment for refusing to take the test, or even for taking the test and failing. Except in the court of public opinion.
To prevent cheating, a steroid test would have to be administered as often as once a week. And there’s no reason to test players for recreational drugs: The issue isn’t drugs; it’s cheating. Do fans care if players smoke a little weed, or snort something so passé as cocaine, if it doesn’t affect their play on the field? Judging from their embrace of Doc Gooden, Steve Howe and Darryl Strawberry, the answer is a resounding no. But they do care if players are using performance-enhancing drugs to shred the record books. To many fans, the expanding crowd of players in the 500-homer club is more offensive to baseball than Pete Rose’s gambling was.
Since steroid use wasn’t against the rules of baseball until 2003, the achievements of players suspected-hell, even players convicted-of steroid use can’t be discounted. It would be no more fair to asterisk all those home-run statistics than to disqualify Burleigh Grimes’ victories because he threw a spitball before it was banned.
Even voluntary testing wouldn’t disqualify any home runs hit henceforth, though it might make fans, M.V.P. voters and Hall of Fame voters think twice before rewarding any player who refused to be tested. And it would validate the performance of players who proved they did it legally.
And in a perfect world, the players volunteering for steroid tests would reach such a critical mass that even slow-footed Hulks, first basemen and designated hitters might be shamed into giving up the juice.
Would some players be so crass as to volunteer for testing, all the while continuing to take performance enhancers they knew the tests couldn’t catch? It would be naïve to think otherwise. Even the most lauded steroid-testing policies, the ones used by the N.F.L. and the Olympic Games, are “like taking candy from a baby,” according to Mr. Conte. “In short, the Olympic Games are a fraud.” And as far as the N.F.L. goes, just look at all the pituitary cases on the sidelines. The Giants’ defense does a better job stopping the running game than the league’s testing policy does at stopping steroid use.
But it would be even more naïve to adopt a mandatory steroid-testing policy that places the onus on the owners to catch the cheaters. Voluntary testing, by contrast, allows the players to take responsibility for their own actions. They’ve been sneaking around the clubhouse for long enough. It’s time for them to step up to the plate.
Follow John Rosenthal via RSS.