Baseball suffers Balco brickbats

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While Marion Jones was the focus of attention this side of the Atlantic following Friday's explosive television appearance by Victor Conte, the man at the centre of the Balco drugs scandal, it was a different story in the US. There it is the fate of two baseball players - one being the game's biggest superstar - that is gripping the sports pages and talkshows.

A day before Conte, founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative in California, said that he had supplied former Olympic champion Jones with performance-enhancing drugs, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the first of two scoops. It said Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees, in closed testimony before the grand jury investigating Balco, the nutritional supplements company accused of supplying performance- enhancing substances to athletes, had admitted to steroid abuse.Giambi has declined to comment on the report.

Then on Friday, the Chronicle delivered an even juicier scoop: San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, baseball's biggest name, had allegedly confessed to using steroids when he testified before the same grand jury, though he reportedly claimed that the drugs were given to him by his trainer and that he had no idea at the time what they were.

In public, Bonds has always denied using such substances. Greg Anderson, his personal trainer, is to face trial next year together with Conte, Jim Valente, a Balco vice-president, and Remi Korchemny, former coach to banned British sprinter Dwain Chambers, on charges of conspiring to distribute performance-enhancing drugs. All four deny the charges.

Of the three athletes, Jones, 29, has probably suffered the least harm from last week's allegations, but that is only because so much damage has already been done to her reputation. Though she has never failed a drugs test, and has strongly denied ever taking any illegal substances, the American has been linked repeatedly with drug scandals.

Her former husband, shotputter CJ Hunter, was banned for taking steroids; her current boyfriend Tim Montgomery, the 100m world record holder, stands accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs as a result of the federal investigation into Balco; and Jones employed Charlie Francis, the disgraced former coach of Ben Johnson, the banned sprinter.

Giambi's career could well be over if what the Chronicle reported is true. The 33-year-old first baseman missed most of last season because of a tumour on his pituitary gland, a condition that only fanned existing suspicions - tumours are believed to be a side-effect of steroid use. The New York Post ran a front-page editorial on Friday demanding that the Yankees get rid of Giambi. Unless he can clear his name quickly, his days as a professional baseball player are almost certainly numbered.

However, it is the 40-year-old Bonds, once talked about as possibly the greatest player of all time, who is under the darkest cloud. Three years ago, he set the all-time mark for home runs in a single season, with 73, and is now within reach of Hank Aaron's record 755 career home runs. But there are growing calls for the National Baseball League to strip him of his records.

The league, however, also finds itself under pressure. Baseball has the most lax steroid policies of all the main American sports, and there may be financial reasons for this. Home run kings such as Bonds put fans in the seats, and there is a strong disincentive to find out what, if anything, such players have been putting in their bodies. As former Chicago Cubs star Mark Grace, remarked last week: "The owners are making too much money off of guys hitting home runs, and the players are making too much money off home runs."

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