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NOVEMBER 16, 2003
Baseball's Scarlet "S" (For Steroids)
By Steve Lombardi, NetShrine.com

On November 13, 2003, Major League Baseball divulged that between 5 and 7 percent of 1,438 anonymous steroid tests conducted (on players) during 2003 were positive.  (1,198 tests were conducted during Spring Training and an additional 240 tests were conducted randomly throughout the season.)

In the collective bargaining agreement reached by Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association in the Fall of 2002, it stipulates that steroid testing with penalties will begin after any season in which more than 5 percent of steroid survey tests (such as the ones performed in 2003) are positive.

Therefore, commencing with the 2004 baseball season, players will be tested for steroid use and those who test positive will be identified to the commissioner's office and the baseball player's union.  Further, the following penalties will be applied (as appropriate): 

All suspensions would be without pay.  Players who test positive more than once will be publicly identified.

For the most part, the reaction to baseball’s above-mentioned tier of penalties has been antagonistic.

In an ESPN.com feature, World Anti-Doping Agency chairman Dick Pound was quoted on November 14, 2003 (in speaking to the Associated Press) as saying: “I think it's an insult to the fight against doping in sport, an insult to the intelligence of the American public and an insult to the game itself.  You can test positive for steroids five times, then they think of booting you out for a year? Give me a break. The first time someone has knowingly cheated and they give you counseling? It's a complete and utter joke."

In the November 15, 2004 edition of the paper Newsday (in New York City), several notables were quoted with unenthusiastic feedback on baseball’s approach to positive steroid test results:

"This passes neither the smell test nor the laugh test" said Penn State University professor Chuck Yesalis (who is also an author on drugs in sports).

"The proposed system is making it easy to cheat, because it's a non-invasive system and it's sending all sorts of mitigating images on how seriously management takes this" said John Hoberman, a University of Texas professor (and an author of many books on this subject).

Nevertheless, the opinion here is that Stan Conte, a trainer for the San Francisco Giants, has the correct assessment of how this system will be effective.  

In a November 15, 2003 edition of the Pennsylvania Patriot-News, Conte is quoted as saying:  “The penalty for a second [offense] might not seem harsh. But just like in the NFL, this will become public, and I don't think the public will stand for baseball players testing illegally for anabolic steroids. It'll hurt their reputation and relationship with fans, and all their numbers will become somewhat tainted if they test positive."

Yes, the power of the scarlet letter.  Playing time and money lost mean little to the modern baseball player.  But, an adverse label for life is a serious burden to bear.

Some may be quick to point out another recent public relations black eye for baseball – the cocaine scandal of 1985.  Various players involved (such as Tim Raines and Paul Molitor) went on to have great careers and many fans either forgot or forgave their part of the shame.

However, the difference here is that cocaine is not a drug that would typically enhance performance on a baseball field – whereas the sole reason to take steroids is to enhance performance (and statistics).

A player who suppresses his numbers with drug use will fall out of the favor of most baseball fans for all the obvious reasons.  But, as time passes, more will express sympathy for such a player than will want to discredit their career. And, the “What if?” applications will arise from time to time when some examine the player's statistics at the end of his career.  Such as “Imagine how many homeruns Strawberry would have hit if not for his drug problems?” 

A player who boosts his numbers with drug use will also be disliked by most baseball fans for all the obvious reasons.  But, as time passes, the ostracizing process will not deteriorate.  The scrutiny on the player’s statistics will be harsh.  Such as “I know that John Doe had 500-something homeruns in his career; but, he was a cheater.  He got caught twice for steroids.  Those are corrupt homeruns and should be discounted.”

Granted, other sports have made steroid users public (such as the NFL) and some of those players exposed have not been scorned for life.  Why would this not also be the case for baseball?  The answer is simple.  Ask most baseball fans how many homeruns Hank Aaron hit and they will tell you the correct number.  Ask most football fans how many career pancake blocks Anthony Munoz had in the NFL and the answer would be “I dunno?” 

The large majority of baseball fans love and honor baseball statistics.  At the end of the day, any baseball player who cheats to inflate his statistics will never prosper – especially when they have that big “S” (for steroids) branded on their foreheads (in the minds of those baseball fans viewing them).

As long as baseball makes the names of those testing positive for steroid use public, their punishment system will work.


Steve Lombardi is the Creator & Curator of NetShrine.com.  Scrawling On The Scorecard appears regularly during the baseball season and sporadically during the off-season.  Steve can be contacted at sots@netshrine.com

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