Friday, September 07, 2007

As Testing Continues, Cheating Endures

Sports of The Times
September 8, 2007

Perhaps there will come a time when baseball shakes free of these vexing and occasionally damning performance-enhancement headlines. Perhaps the sport will awaken some future morning with a drug-testing program that is as good as it can be, and the right to say there is nothing more the game can do except to punish the cheats when they get caught.

For now, no such claim can be made as the testing apparatus remains incomplete and the slimy residue of industry-wide and years-long neglect is thrown back at baseball like a pie to the face. Rick Ankiel and Troy Glaus are the latest cases, the former based in St. Louis, nine years and a couple of weeks after the first sighting of Mark McGwire’s little bottled helpers.

“It’s kind of amazing, isn’t it,” Tony La Russa, the Cardinals’ manager, said after Ankiel’s assault on National League pitching escalated with two home runs in a rout of the Pirates on Thursday, giving Ankiel, a converted pitcher, nine in 81 at-bats since his return to the majors Aug. 10.

The home runs, yes; and also the timing of the curveball spun into the dirt yesterday, at the feet of Ankiel, the feel-good slugger of the baseball summer.

La Russa’s succinct commentary had barely been heard when Ankiel — author of the greatest comeback story ever told — was added to the growing list of major leaguers suspected of, or who have admitted to, spiking their spinach. The Daily News reported that Ankiel, in 2004, received 12 months’ supply of human growth hormone from a Florida pharmacy that was part of a national, and illegal, prescription drug distribution ring.

Ankiel was a pitcher at the time, futilely struggling to overcome the mysterious condition that prevented him from throwing a baseball in the direction he aimed it and an elbow injury that in 2003 required what is known as Tommy John surgery.

Was he taking H.G.H. merely for rehabilitation purposes, as he told reporters in Phoenix last night, while breaking no baseball rules? Assuming as much, does he deserve the benefit of the doubt for what he is achieving now because he reportedly stopped receiving shipments before baseball banned the substance in 2005?

That depends on how one views the purpose of baseball’s own investigation into its so-called steroid era — to comprehend what caused it and take every possible step to dismantle it or to declare mission accomplished by shooting down a select number of easy targets for mounting on Commissioner Bud Selig’s wall.

I’ve said many times that the crusade to invalidate Barry Bonds’s career home run record set last month was always more distraction than solution, the selective pursuit of celebrity for the sake of protecting sacred statistics.

“They have fixated on home runs and records in baseball,” said Dr. Gary I. Wadler, an expert on performance-enhancing drugs and a World Anti-Doping Agency consultant. “But that was never the big picture.”

It was about the rooted culture, always the culture. And here we have more names — Sports Illustrated’s online report on Glaus receiving steroids in 2003 and 2004 followed yesterday — in what has become a steady, insidious drip, reminding us again of how widely infected baseball was with the belief that natural preparation, or recovery, was for suckers.

A player, any player, bought into that or he didn’t. You want to still let Ankiel be Roy Hobbs, the Natural, because his H.G.H. timeline suggests no current foul play and because his inspirational return is just too good to let loose-lipped investigators and nosy newspapermen ruin? Fine, but you forfeit your right to sneer at San Franciscans who long ago extended that courtesy to Bonds, who, after all, became the inflated wonder of the world before baseball had a collectively bargained testing program.

None of that addresses the H.G.H. factor, of course, the elephant in the enhancement arena, not just for Bonds, but an entire sport that lied so insistently to America and, worse, to itself, and now expects people to take it on faith that its players, by and large, would not cheat even if they couldn’t get caught.

Baseball, Wadler said, has conducted a “misinformation campaign” about the reliability of testing for H.G.H. used by the Olympics because it doesn’t want to confront the players’ union on the drawing of blood. Now, he added, the new formula for cheating is believed to be a combination of H.G.H. with small amounts of steroids that go undetected in urine samples.

As more names leak from the faucet, further illuminating the past, the culture of enhancement continues.

From Bonds to Ankiel, one end of baseball’s summer spectrum to the other, there can be no selective reasoning, no double standard, only a complete accounting of a cheating culture bigger than any one player, and using that historical perspective to move on, confront the future headlines being written right now.



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