Commentary: The Real Steroid Abuse

Bob Sellers
When I was 17 years old, I was drafted by the Kansas City Royals to play professional baseball.

It wasn't a fluke. I spent hours hitting in the batting cage, and as a first baseman I fielded hundreds of ground balls, pop-ups and throws in the dirt every day.

I was a good player, but I knew scouts weren't comparing me to my teammates. They were comparing me then, just as they do now, to Major Leaguers. If I had known the guys in the big leagues were on steroids, would I have used them too?

That's the problem with baseball today. I don't care if Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi or Jose Conseco -- just to name a few -- took illegal substances to gain an advantage in their professional endeavor. The outrage is that Major League Baseball is turning its head while youngsters are being tempted to do to the same.

I can ignore Conseco's contention that steroids can be good for you. Until he goes to medical school and puts some initials behind his name, I'll turn to medical professionals for advice on steroid use.

But what about a kid who dreams of the big lights? Will he listen to a guy who hit over 450 home runs in his career? Won't he crave the limelight and the money -- and worry about the physical cost later?

Ah, yes, the physical cost. In 2002, Ken Caminiti admitted he was on steroids during his 1996 MVP season. He also said half of all major leaguers were on them. He can't tell us more now, because he died of a massive heart attack last year at the age of 41.

Coincidence? Maybe. But the National Institute on Drug Abuse says, "... steroid abuse has been associated with cardiovascular diseases, including heart attack and strokes, even in athletes younger than 30."

And what does baseball do? It turns its head -- which is nothing new.

As a reporter in Medford, Ore., I struck up a friendship with a former major leaguer while working out at a local gym. He told me "roids" were "rampant" in the bigs. That was 1992. How could I know that and Major League Baseball management not know about it?

Maybe it's because after labor problems and the strike in 1994, owners -- including an "acting commissioner" -- didn't mind either a juiced ball or juiced players if they could help get the fans back with a home run derby.

There's also the problem of sports journalism. If your local 6 o'clock sports guy actually challenged athletes with probing questions and stories, he'd lose access granted by the player, the team and the league. No steroid stories, no change in policy. That's why it takes court cases like Balco, and Canseco's book -- true or not -- to bring a story into the light.

And who's at risk? That teenage kid competing for a pro career. The major leaguers are getting bigger, and he must as well.

When I was 17, so was future Hall of Famer Robin Yount, who was drafted on the same day I was. One year later, he was playing shortstop for the Milwaukee Brewers. I knew I had to continue to improve to get to his level, but I never considered that steroids might be part of the equation. A foot injury ended my career, but my life didn't end with heart, liver or testicular damage caused by steroid abuse.

But what would a 17-year-old do today?

Major League Baseball needs to stop dancing around the issue. There should be a short-term amnesty for players to admit they're on steroids. The list of substances needs to be broadened. Then one positive test should result in a two-year suspension, without pay.

Anything else reflects a lack of respect for youngsters who aspire to play the game at the highest level. These steps are not to save baseball. They're meant to save that kid.