Baseball's Persistent Drug Culture

Banning steroids will not prevent further substance abuse


The news about Alex Rodriguez's use of steroids is simultaneously distressing and encouraging. Distressing because we learned that yet another baseball star was cheating. Encouraging because the revelation is one more step toward putting the years of bogus biceps in the past.

Baseball and A-Rod were stained, but both have cleaned up and moved on. So now the Yankee slugger and everyone else will be competing on honest terms and records set in the future won't need an asterisk.

If only. True, Major League Baseball has gotten reasonably serious about curbing its drug problems. But the incentives for getting around the rules—stardom, records, big money, or merely hanging on to a roster spot—are as alluring as ever. The evidence suggests that plenty of players will take any help they can get. And for anyone who wants the benefits of steroids without getting busted, there's a good alternative.

You don't have to be a cynic to doubt that Rodriguez and any of his colleagues in crime have all had a moral epiphany. If they were willing to ignore the rules and use banned drugs before—and, in many cases, reaped impressive gains—why wouldn't they keep doing it?

The only obvious reason is the likelihood of detection. Baseball now has a system of year-round, unannounced testing for steroids and other artificial aids. But what if there were a steroid-like substance that couldn't be detected? Wouldn't it be just as tempting to anyone looking for an edge?

Judging from the steroid experience, that's enough players to fill several rosters. In 2003, the first year of drug testing, when Rodriguez got nailed, more than 5 percent of major leaguers flunked. In the years before testing became a deterrent, the number of steroid aficionados was undoubtedly higher.

But there is an alternative for anyone intent on a burlier body: human growth hormone, which is reputed to have the same muscle-inflating properties but doesn't show up in a urinalysis. To detect it, you need a blood test, which the players union has refused to accept.

The hormone's appeal is not in doubt. Barry Bonds was indicted for perjury because he told a grand jury his personal trainer had not given him HGH. Roger Clemens' trainer said he had injected the pitcher with the stuff. Andy Pettitte admitted using it. This week, Miguel Tejada did likewise, as part of a plea agreement.

But absent a reliable test, it's not easy to catch hormone hounds. Even a blood test may not suffice. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which supervises testing of Olympic competitors, has screened 8,500 athletes for HGH since 2000. And how many positive results has it gotten? Zero. So anyone feeling puny and weak without steroids is bound to contemplate a switch.

We also know baseball's new testing regime has not miraculously dried up the demand for performance enhancers. After Major League Baseball outlawed amphetamines, an interesting thing happened: More than 100 players got "therapeutic exemptions" for banned stimulants to treat Attention Deficit Disorder.

Calling that number "incredible," Dr. Gary Wadler, a WADA official, told USA Today, "There seems to be an epidemic of ADD in major-league baseball."

For now, though, the broadest boulevard for cheating is HGH. That could change: At a recent conference sponsored by Major League Baseball at the University of California, Los Angeles, scientists said they were making progress toward a urine test for the agent. But it is still in the future, leaving dishonest players ample opportunity.

We may have banished steroids, but there is no reason to think baseball is any cleaner now than it was before. If and when an HGH test is developed, we are likely to get another round of failed drug tests. And one or more of today's stars is bound to be doing the confession-and-repentance routine.

Unfortunately, we won't know how bad things were back in 2009. In theory, current samples could be preserved and retested in the future. But Major League Baseball doesn't preserve samples. That means today's players—possibly including the supposedly repentant Rodriguez—can use HGH with little fear of someday being unmasked.

It's slightly comforting to think we have moved beyond the steroid decade. But the drug-free era hasn't begun, and it may never.