When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home-run record in 1961, commissioner Ford Frick ruled that because Maris' season was eight games longer than Ruth's had been, the new record deserved an asterisk. Today fans wonder whether the slugging records of recent years will require similar caveats because of charges that top players have used anabolic steroids to help them turn fly balls into moon shots.
A steroid asterisk? Call it an asteroid.
And it could soon strike Earth, ruining what should be baseball's blithest month. Spring training is a time for hope, not dread; every team is tied for first, and each nonroster player can dream of starring in the majors. But in February, three weeks after President Bush made the war on steroids a priority in his State of the Union address, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the indictments of four men--two executives of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), track coach Remy Korchemny and Greg Anderson, a personal weight trainer whose clients include San Francisco Giants home-run king Barry Bonds--charging that they distributed steroids to top athletes.
Last week the San Francisco Chronicle cited unnamed sources who alleged that Bonds and New York Yankees stars Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, among others, had received illegal performance-enhancing drugs from BALCO. The four indictees proclaim their innocence, and all three players deny having taken steroids.
Reporters, smelling doped blood, bombarded players and managers with questions and accusations. "There's no need to address anything other than baseball," Bonds said at the Giants' Scottsdale, Ariz., training camp. Commissioner Bud Selig slapped a gag order on all major-league personnel. And Gene Orza, chief operating officer of the players' union, said it would continue to fight any expansion of testing procedures because steroids "are not worse than cigarettes." To which some major leaguers must have thought, Show me a cigarette that can help me hit 73 homers a season, and I'll buy a carton.
Powerful forces are marshaled on both sides of the debate (and in the middle). The union is fighting to limit the number of players whose steroid tests the government can subpoena. The owners--grateful for the home-run explosion that helped put fans back in the seats after the bitter 1994 strike but worried that fans will cry foul over steroid use--have assumed their familiar duck-and-cover stance. And Bush, a former co-owner of the Texas Rangers, is reportedly trying to organize a steroids summit. Tony Serra, Anderson's lawyer, argues Bonds is a "trophy martyr." Says Serra: "It's part of the Bush-Ashcroft platform. Knock off the celebrities, get total obedience to a federal mandate at the cost of the reputation of people." A pall has been draped over the Grapefruit League, as if Florida were Mordor.