By: Mark fitzgerald
AP report on baseball star’s use of muscle boosters roils home run record race
and revives debate over athlete privacy and media access to locker rooms
AS CONTROVERSY SWIRLED around the revelation by Associated Press sportswriter Steve Wilstein that home run king Mark McGwire uses an over-the-counter substance banned in other sports ? and about how the writer found out ? Wilstein says the biggest mystery to him is why no one reported it earlier.
“What is amazing is that nobody ? of the hundreds and hundreds of reporters who have crowded around his locker since the beginning of the season ? reported it before. He obviously wasn’t keeping it a secret,” Wilstein said.
Wilstein was following McGwire around for several days in mid-August to write a profile of the St. Louis Cardinals slugger and his quest, along with the Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa, to break the single-season home run record that has stood since New York Yankee Roger Maris hit 61 homers in 1961.
During one typical post-game interview in the Cardinals locker room along with at least a dozen other reporters, the 6-foot-2-inch Wilstein found himself pressed up against McGwire’s stall and took an inventory of items on the shelf: “There were pictures of his kids, a cap from a Roger Maris celebrity golf tournament, some sugarless gum, a bottle of Creatine and androstenedione,” he said. Creatine is a nutritional supplement used by many athletes because it supposedly builds muscle.
That little bit of color was buried inside a 3,000-word profile. But when AP moved a separate story Aug. 21 about McGwire’s use of androstenedione, all hell broke loose.
Androstenedione, a testosterone-producing supplement, is banned in the Olympics, the National Football League and college athletics ? but perfectly legal in professional baseball. Nevertheless, the revelation that McGwire was using androstenedione spurred a furious debate among baseball fans ? and columnists ? about the use of performance-enhancing supplements and whether McGwire was tainting the race to break Maris’ record.
Wilstein’s story added another tongue twister to the annals of sports controversies. Pronounced andro-STEEN-die-own, androstenedione was quickly shortened to “andro” on talk radio and in newspaper stories’ second references.
Just as furious, however, was the debate among journalists and the athletes they cover. In the wake of his story, McGwire accused Wilstein of “snooping,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa threatened to ban AP from the clubhouse, and sports col-umnists nationwide contended over the issues of an athlete’s privacy and media access. Ironically, McGwire’s first reaction to being asked about andro was pretty mild.
“Everybody I know in the game of baseball uses the same stuff I use,” McGwire told the AP. He also confirmed that he had used andro for about a year ? a confirmation critical to reporting the story, Wilstein said. “We would not have run that story had McGwire not acknowledged he used the drug,” Wilstein said. “Just seeing it on the shelf was not enough. It could have been sent by the manufacturer or he could have bought it but not used it. It was only when he said he was using it for more than a year that we went ahead with it.”
Once McGwire saw the story in print, his reaction quickly turned to anger.
“The whole basis of this was some guy from the AP snooping around my locker,” McGwire said Aug. 23, after hitting his 52nd home run.
The “snooping” charge was taken up by St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist Bernie Miklasz.
“You have a reporter from The Associated Press snooping in McGwire’s possessions. And it was snooping,” Miklasz wrote Aug. 24. “I did my own test Monday at Three Rivers Stadium, inside the Cardinals clubhouse. With the Cardinals’ permission, I stood several feet from McGwire’s locker, and I could not read the writing on the label on the now-infamous bottle of androstenedione. My vision is 20-20, but I couldn’t see the spelling on the label until I moved much closer, all but sticking my head inches from the locker.
“If a reporter determined the contents of this bottle by reading the label, well, that’s crossing the line,” Miklasz wrote. “And to be able to decipher the label on this Andro bottle, you have to intentionally look, and look hard. And that’s out of bounds. We’re supposed to be in there for one purpose: to conduct interviews. And peeking inside an open locker is wrong. It’s unprofessional.”
Wilstein calls the notion he was “snooping” simply ludicrous. “I would have to be blind not to see it,” he said. “It was all in front of my eyes. I would have to close my eyes not to see it. . . . If that fellow (Miklasz) couldn’t see, perhaps it’s because he’s shorter than me. All he’s doing is acting like a homer. He is trying to protect him.”
In an interview, Miklasz said he had repeated the experiment a couple more times, and simply could not make out the label on the bottle. “I know reporters are supposed to stick together and all
. . . but I just don’t think you’d notice it accidentally. My personal standard is I wouldn’t do it,” Miklasz said, adding that the “homer” charge is an occupational hazard of writing in St. Louis during the home run chase. “I’m kind of paranoid that every time I stand up for McGwire I’m a homer,” Miklasz said. “But that’s just my point ? it wasn’t in plain sight.”
Like the clubhouses of almost all professional sports team, Cardinals lockers are better described as open stalls. There are no doors, and clothes and other personal items are in plain sight.
Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Jay Mariotti says the challenge for reporters is not to see personal items in a locker ? but to avoid them. “A lot of times we are almost literally pressed into someone’s locker,” he said. “The other day I was in [with] the reporters around Sammy Sosa. I noticed a big bottle of baby oil in his locker. You notice things like that.”
In any case, Mariotti says, privacy ? or lack of it ? is controlled by the teams and the athletes. “Look, we interview athletes where we are told to interview them,” Mariotti said. “I have no problem with interviewing someone in a room outside the locker room.”
AP’s Wilstein, in fact, would prefer it. “People think it’s cool to talk to people in a locker room. It’s not,” he said. “It’s not my preferred place. We’re there only because of deadlines. I don’t need to wait an hour in a locker room for a player to come out of the shower.”
La Russa certainly wants Wilstein out of the locker room. Immediately after the story broke, La Russa said he wanted to ban AP reporters from the clubhouse.
But the team says that’s not going to happen. “We will not ban AP from the clubhouse,” Brian Hainje, a Cardinals spokesman, said. “We had already arranged, long before this happened, that when Mark got to 50 home runs we would set up a post-game press conference to accommodate all the reporters, and we would make available Mark and other key team members along with Tony La Russa. We have not closed the clubhouse. Media will have access to the clubhouse.”
There is an irony in La Russa’s enmity: According to Wilstein, when La Russa managed the Oakland Athletics some years back, Wilstein learned “something about the personal life” of La Russa that could have damaged the manager personally and professionally. After talking with La Russa, Wilstein said, he decided not to write anything, and he would not comment on what the information concerned.
“I’ve been doing this since 1971. I’m not a rookie reporter,” said Wilstein, who was named AP’s national sportswriter in 1991. “I’ve had the experience almost every year of having to choose whether to write about a controversy. What is happening with McGwire and drugs is not a personal issue. His whole game is built on muscles, and so if he uses performance-enhancers, that is a public issue.
“Let’s say I saw a bottle of Viagra on the shelf,” Wilstein added. “Would I have written about that? No.”
Wilstein says the “snooping” charge has distracted attention from the main issue: Major League Baseball’s handling of performance-enhancing supplements.
“Mark McGwire is a good man, a good father, a good ballplayer. He works out every day and he is not hitting home runs because of this drug,” Wilstein says. “On the other hand, (Olympic shot-putter) Randy Barnes is also a good man who won a gold medal for his country. He also works out every day. Yet be-cause he used an-drostenedione he is banned for life, although that is on appeal. The ques-tion is, where’s the fairness in that?”
?(Slugger Mark McGwire faces the press, above, after AP’s Steve Wilstein, right, reported McGwire was taking a controversial performance-enhancing drug.) [Photo & Caption]
?( E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo. com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher August 29, 1998) [Caption]