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Baseball's Steroid Era

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When Kirk Radomski, a former clubhouse attendant for the New York Mets, pleaded guilty to distributing steroids in April, the feds gave the public a tantalizing look at their bounty. One page of the search warrant affidavit had a list of up to 23 players Radomski says he gave drugs to, but the names were covered by thick strokes of black magic marker. Only the feds and Radomski know who they are, but the list made one point perfectly clear: If those guys were using performance enhancers, baseball didn’t catch them.

Major League Baseball hasn’t caught many users, actually—only the young and inexperienced, like the numerous minor league players who have tested positive; or the inexplicably reckless, like Rafael Palmeiro.

They never caught Barry Bonds, but heaven knows they tried.

Two years after watching Bonds breeze past Mark McGwire’s three-year-old single-season home-run record in 2001, MLB had to read about Bonds’ illicit training regimen along with the rest of the world in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. When Bonds appeared before the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) grand jury in 2003, he said he never knew the substances he took—known as “the cream” and “the clear”—were steroids. (The feds never believed him.)

The thought has been passed around MLB headquarters in New York that once Bonds finishes this season’s assault on Hank Aaron’s record, base- ball will be able to move on, leave the “steroid era” behind for good, and pray that a more suitable home-run-hitting immortal presents himself soon.

That premise is flawed, however, because it’s built on the idea that baseball has solved its steroids problem. The lords of the game say that because stiffer penalties were enacted in 2005, the sport has the best testing of any game in America. By that standard they might be right. But if you want to get a good chuckle from the world’s top experts on doping, just try telling them this is baseball’s “post-steroid” era. Victor Conte and Don Catlin, the little devil and the little angel hovering over the shoulders of American sports, find that idea hysterical.

“There is no such thing,” Conte has said.

Conte, the founder of BALCO labs, is the man who helped make Bonds the greatest hitter in the game, and he turned track stars Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery into the fastest woman and man on the planet. Conte did four months in a federal prison for trafficking steroids and still makes millions selling legal diet supplements. Catlin, who recently left his post as the director of the UCLA Olympic testing lab, is the father of drug testing. He also led the team that decoded Conte’s greatest tool, the once-undetectable steroid THG.

What the two men agree on is that testing does not work. Sure, it may serve as a deterrent and catch the occasional slipup. But an experienced doper need never be caught; there are too many ways to beat the tests.

“Repeatedly,” Catlin has said, “we see evidence that the standard chasing-down-and-testing approach isn’t working. At all.”

First, there are the drugs for which there is no test. Athletes can use human growth hormone (HGH), insulin, and insulin-like growth factor with the knowledge that the substances can’t be tested for. Each of those drugs will help increase lean muscle mass and improve recovery time from injury and workouts.

Baseball players can also avoid testing for a week or two during the off-season, using all the heavy-duty steroids they can get their hands on, knowing that once they resurface the drugs will be out of their systems. (A favored method of track athletes was to do the “duck and dodge,” telling testers they would be in, say, Europe for two weeks, when they were actually doping it up in the Caribbean. They would call their own cell phones, fill the voice-mail box, and then refuse to answer the phone. Two weeks later they would call the testers, apologize for being out of pocket, and immediately make themselves available for testing.)

Users will benefit for as long as six months after they cycle off; they can then augment the effect with low levels of testosterone creams, gels, or patches that are absorbed into the body. To trip a positive test, an athlete’s urine needs to have at least four times as much testosterone as the amount of epitestosterone. The body should produce both at a 1-to-1 ratio, but because some people’s ratios are naturally out of whack, anything below a 4-to-1 ratio is acceptable. It’s relatively easy for athletes to keep their levels below 4-to-1, especially if they have their blood tested independently.

So if this isn’t the post-steroid age, then call it the age of enlightenment—at least for those who care to see the truth. Unless there is a major shift in technology, steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs are going nowhere. The only progress has been a retraction from the gross excesses of the Mark McGwire–Jose Canseco years. In this game, the cheats have always been ahead of the testers.

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