Monday, February 14, 2005

'Roid Rage

Jose Canseco's new book alleging rampant steroid use in Major League Baseball was the subject of Sunday's 60 Minutes feature story. Canseco, a brash, cocky, home-run hitting superstar of the 80s and early 90s was one of the most famous and infamous faces of baseball during that time. Now retired, Canseco's book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big has caused a sensation with its allegations of widespread use of illegal substances among players in the league, including such big names as Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, and Rafael Palmeiro.

In Juiced, Canseco claims "I would never have been a Major League-caliber player without steroids." He describes himself as a human guinea pig for the effect of banned substances. This comes as no surprise to many who have long suspected, despite Canseco's repeated prior denials, that the former Rookie of the Year and American League MVP was using artificial means to sculpt his mammoth body.

What has drawn more attention now is Canseco's claims that he introduced steroids to several of his teammates over the years, most notably baseball icon Mark McGwire. Canseco describes in his book how he and McGwire discussed steroid use casually and would "shoot up" together. In his interview with Wallace, Canseco seemed to back off his assertion in his book that he "often" injected McGwire, claiming that he did so "probably twice" but that the pair also did steroids in other ways such as by taking pills.

Every one of the players named by Canseco in his book have steadfastly denied any involvement with steroids, except for the now-disgraced Jason Giambi. In 2003, Giambi testified before a grand jury investigating steroid use by athletes in connection to the BALCO case that has implicated a number of famous sports figures, including Barry Bonds and Marion Jones. Last December, the San Francisco Chronicle revealed from a leak of Giambi' s testimony that he admitted to using steroids. Still, Canseco's claims concerning other superstars are by no means proved.

A major complicating factor is Canseco's poor reputation among players and fans alike. The slugger, who has had repeated run-ins with the law in the past, is known as notoriously unreliable, desperate, and greedy. Tony LaRussa, who was the manager of the Oakland Athletics when Canseco and McGwire were teammates there, derisively dismisses Canseco's claims, saying "I don't think there's any doubt that it's a fabrication."

More of Canseco's testimony airs Wednesday night on CBS. While his credibility is deservedly circumspect, we should not be so hasty to ignore him. What he has to say may well be a reflection of the sad state of the game of baseball. Certainly the pressure is there for players to take illegal drugs, knowing that the competition they face may not be on a level playing field. The incentive to get juiced is there too, since, as that old ESPN commercial used to say, "Chicks dig the longball." Fans like to see players hit monster home runs, and players who do so get rewarded with fat contracts. In the past decade, we've seen numerous instances of skinny guys transforming themselves into hulking gargantuans of home-run hitting renown. Think Barry, think Slammin' Sammy, etc. The result of injections, or the product of good old-fashioned hard work? Who knows?

Thus, Canseco's allegations, ridiculous as they seem to many, deserve serious attention. Steroid use has no place in baseball or any professional sport, if not solely because of the health risks it poses, then on the more important principle that steroid use diminishes the value of competition by making the game about something more than pure, natural talent and dedication. Until we know for sure that the players today are "clean", it is hard to appreciate their achievements in the context of the Babe Ruths or Joe DiMaggios of the past.

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