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Savran: Steroid issue becomes PR plot

Saturday, June 01, 2002

This isn't about accusations or allegations. If there's no baseball law against taking steroids, muscle enhancers, and diet supplements, isn't it reasonable to conclude that there's no law being broken? And this isn't about users. No, the central issue is: Should anything be done about it?

Baseball's nasty little secret has been an elephant sitting in its living room. Everyone saw it, but no one dared speak about it. Ken Caminiti's statements in Sports Illustrated weren't so much a revelation, but rather provided the key to unlock the tabooed discussion.

The first and only determinant should be this: Has steroid use impacted the game? And if so, where? And is it enough to engage in negotiations with the players union, and further agitate an already contentious relationship?

When he was healthy, which is a related matter, Mark McGwire was a great home run hitter by any standard. But to raise the home run bar from 50 to 70 in a relatively short period of time? Neither Sammy Sosa nor Barry Bonds were considered power hitters five years ago. Hitters with power? Absolutely. But like McGwire? No.

Certainly, there's more than just a shard of truth in a player maturing as a hitter. But to go from a 30-something home run level to 60 and beyond? Remember what Bonds looked like in the early 1990s, and then note how he looks today. Someone who played with Sosa in the minors 10 years ago told me the Cubs' outfielder had the physique of a broomstick back then. Today, he's Arnold Schwarzenegger.

How did that happen?

McGwire and others have said, "You still have to hit the ball." True enough. The "juice" in whatever form cannot help you make contact with a nasty split finger low and away. But for the midrange, non-McGwire behemoths, a little extra muscle mass can push that 375-foot warning track fly ball to a 395-foot homer. It might help the little guy, too.

It's not hard to imagine that a light-hitting Jack Wilson or Abraham Nunez could hit the ball harder with a little help from their friends, driving balls through the infield for a base hit instead of a routine two-hopper. The "juice" might not make you a better ballplayer, but it will make you a stronger ballplayer.

Many fans would like to see baseball legislate as best it can against these supplements because they distort baseball's records and afford an unfair competitive advantage.

I for one don't much care about the records. The damage there already has been done. And I'm not sure baseball can sell the idea of testing based on competitive advantages because unless these supplements are declared illegal, they're legal to anyone foolish enough to take the risk.

And I definitely know that baseball will never sell testing to the union on the basis of player safety. There's such mistrust in the current environment that the players never will buy the notion that the owners are concerned about their well being.

What might ultimately determine this impending battle between owners and players is public relations. What kind of stance will the union take? There's no denying that the fans, those who still care, would like to see testing in some form. Clearly the owners do.

If Donald Fehr refuses, especially on the basis of invasion of privacy, he and his rank and file will take a brutal beating in the court of public opinion. Taking such a stance would be like coming out against ice cream. They cannot argue that there isn't substantial use of these substances, nor can they argue that such use isn't impacting the game. Further, they can't dispute the clinically proven negative effects they have on a person's physical well being.

Fehr is being painted into a corner. Maybe the owners planned it this way, although accusing them of planning anything is usually a mistake. Perhaps, this will be a bargaining chip for either or both sides in the collective bargaining sessions.

I don't see any way for the union to wiggle out of agreeing to some form of testing. And, for once, it's going to be interesting -- rather pleasing actually -- to watch them squirm.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 8-9 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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