Rooting out steroids stirs hope


It was Yogi Berra's 85th birthday Wednesday, as good a day as any to reflect on a time when baseball seemed pure and juice only got mentioned at breakfast.

A time when a diminutive catcher so small he barely needed to get into a crouch behind home plate could hit 30 home runs in a season. A time before modern chemistry turned the art of home run hitting into such a farce that today's records are meaningless.

A time when an admitted cheater would be scorned by fans instead of welcomed back with a standing ovation.

A time before steroids nearly ruined the game for good.

The past is history, and baseball no longer is the same. About the only constants between Berra's era and today is that the pitching mound still is 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate and the Yankees still dominate in the postseason.

The game survives, even thrives. But it has been damaged by more than two decades of brazen steroid use, and an entire generation doesn't know whether to believe what it sees on the field.

One season untainted by some blockbuster new allegation isn't going to change that. It will take a lot of seasons for baseball to finally put the steroid era behind it, no matter what commissioner Bud Selig believes.

So far this year, though, there seems to be renewed hope for the game. There's a certain silence, and for that baseball fans should be happy.

No superstars have been suspended. No needles have been discovered in the clubhouse.

"I think people have really moved on from the subject," Mark McGwire said recently. "People are tired of hearing about it."

Call that wishful thinking on McGwire's part, though he might be right. Not only did the people of St. Louis welcome him back with open arms, but few fans in other ballparks seem to care that one of the most notorious juicers in baseball is back in the game.

Could it be, though, that baseball finally has turned the corner? Could Selig's self-serving declaration in January that the steroid era is over be coming true?

"I'm hopeful baseball is on that path," U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief executive officer Travis Tygart said. "None of us can say it's cured, but I'm hopeful the switch has been flipped on in baseball so they appreciate the importance of athletes being clean and are going to do everything in their authority to protect the sport."

That the switch took way too long to be flipped can't be argued. Baseball and its union both turned a blind eye to steroids even after baseballs began flying out of ballparks in such numbers that the fact something was amiss was hard to miss.

No real testing took place until 2002, and no real penalties were issued for testing positive for years after that. Not until the feds began investigating and Congress began getting involved did any real push surface to rid the game of the substances that so changed it.

But now testing -- as limited as it might be -- seems to be working. Since Manny Ramirez was suspended for 50 games last year for testing positive for a banned fertility substance, Cincinnati pitcher Edinson Volquez has been the only other player caught doing the same thing.

Indeed, since the explosive revelations last year about Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz and Sammy Sosa, things have been fairly quiet on the steroid front. McGwire's admission that he was a user was the biggest exception, and his steroid use was years ago.

"No program is perfect, and they're not WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) compliant," Tygart said. "But baseball is running as effective a program as any of the other professional sports and has come a long way in protecting the rights of clean athletes."

That doesn't mean everyone suddenly is on the same playing field. Human growth hormone seems to be the favored substance these days. Until baseball and other sports begin blood testing for HGH, there's no way to know how many players simply switched from steroids to something that is not detectable in urine.

So far, though, so good. Even if we don't know for sure about HGH, there seems to be an ongoing culture shift in baseball helping turn the tide against the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Let's hope that will continue. Let's hope baseball and its union will go even further in adding more tests, including blood.

But it's still a fight, and there still are cheaters to be had. As Yogi himself would say: It ain't over 'til it's over.

Tim Dahlberg is a Las Vegas-based national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org.

 

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