Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

There is nothing quite like a scandal that appears to implicate almost everybody, including the US president, and this week one broke in America. It even involves a couple of previously obscure journalists who, Watergate-fashion, have successfully gone over ground everyone else ignored.

The problem is that just about everyone really is guilty. For almost 20 years they have stood by, suspecting that the game was deeply infected by the use of anabolic steroids, choosing to say and do nothing. On Monday, the cover was finally blown by the publication of a book by the former player Jose Canseco. Its title - Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big - is a good indicator that this is a nasty tell-all potboiler ghosted on behalf of an ex-pro down on his luck.

But Canseco really does tell all, not merely admitting his own steroid use but implicating many of the game's biggest modern hitters. His victims have been running for cover ever since and although most have issued denials, some have been carefully worded.

Canseco was a bulked-out, Cuban-born slugger who made his name with the Oakland Athletics, where he was probably the most blatant drug-user in sport other than a few weightlifters.

His headline allegation is that at Oakland he injected steroids into the buttocks of team mate Mark McGwire. "It wasn't like you gave it a lot of thought, it was something so common," he said in a 60 Minutes interview. McGwire went on to the St Louis Cardinals, where in 1998 he broke perhaps baseball's most resonant record, hitting 70 home runs in a season. That record is already somewhat tainted: androstendione, a performance-enhancing substance - then allowed, now criminalised - was found in McGwire's locker. Canseco claims McGwire allowed this to be discovered to cover his steroid use. McGwire denies this.

But there are facts to back up Canseco's more general points. Journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, of the San Francisco Chronicle, have already leaked two items from testimony to the grand jury investigating the San Francisco sporting drug factory known as BALCO: admissions by another former Athletics player, Jason Giambi, and by Barry Bonds, still baseball's biggest star, that they took steroids - although unknowingly in Bonds' case. In 2001 Bonds broke the McGwire record.

The president? In 1992, before he took that less enviable job, George W. Bush was co-owner of the Texas Rangers. Canseco claims Bush must have known his players were on steroids, something the White House spokesman has had to address, and of course deny.

On some level everyone knew. Baseball has had a drug culture for generations; the summer schedule is so relentless - 162 games in fewer than six months - that players have lived on amphetamines, apparently since Babe Ruth's day. When the players and the hits started getting bigger circa 1990, it did not take a genius to work out something other than weight-training might be involved.

The game ignored the evidence for two reasons. First, the players' union - often described the most powerful in any US industry - made it impossible for the owners to act, even if they wished to do so. The union militantly opted to protect its members' short-term concerns rather than their long-term health.

Second, labour relations were so bad in the early 1990s that baseball was almost as decrepit as ice hockey is now. The 1994 season had to be abandoned because of a strike, and the crowds only flocked back four years later, thanks to the race for the home-run record between McGwire and Sammy Sosa, then of the Chicago Cubs. The whole country was entranced by that, and did not want to wreck the moment by speculating whether these emperors had metaphorical clothes, or, when literally naked, what they might be injecting into their buttocks.

But still this scandal is not over. Last month, Major League Baseball announced its tough steroids-testing policy. Anyone caught using steroids would be punished by a ban lasting 10 whole days. Even a fourth offence would rate only a year-long suspension. And the whole thing would be dealt with in-house.

Baseball bans gamblers not just for life, but for eternity, barring them from the Hall of Fame. On this issue far more dangerous and corrosive it simply doesn't care. "If you're good, you're good - whether it is the era of the steroids, or the cigars, or the hot dog, or the beer, or the amphetamine, or the red juice or the whisky," said Bonds' manager, Felipe Alou, of the San Francisco Giants. That attitude is a disgrace, but it seems wholly representative.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article