By: Joe Strupp
Eight years ago, Steve Wilstein held several identities. Depending upon whom you asked, he was either the sportswriter with the scoop of the year or the party pooper who nearly ruined baseball’s best summer in decades.
An Associated Press veteran at the time, Wilstein was the reporter who found the bottle of Androstenedione — or “andro” — in the locker of home run king Mark McGwire, a discovery that put at least a small damper on McGwire’s 1998 home run chase that ended when he knocked out a record-breaking 70 long balls.
But more than that, Wilstein’s discovery marked the first real press probe into which substances and supplements baseball players were using, and what effect they were having on their accomplishments, abilities and health.
“Steroids affected the integrity of the game, the records and the health of anyone who used them,” Wilstein said during an interview this week. “After I reported it, people still didn’t want to believe it and it was so important.”
Eventually, reporters were forced to confront the story that continues to unfold almost weekly as Barry Bonds is scrutinized more closely than ever, baseball and government officials conduct their own investigations, and more players are either admitting or being exposed as having used such enhancement substances.
“The only regret I had was that so many thousands of kids, teen-agers, used it afterward,” Wilstein said. “The andro sales went up 1000 percent in the following months, more teens used it because of that. There is some small element of guilt in being part of that, but reporters report the truth.”
But for Wilstein, steroids are all but in the past.
Since 1998, Wilstein says he has not been badly treated by other sports writers or those who follow the game, but he admits to suffering what might be dubbed steroid fatigue after writing what he believes are “hundreds of steroid stories” since that first McGwire scoop.
“I had had enough of covering steroids, I got tired of writing about steroids,” he told E&P. “It was an issue that was going to go on forever and I was always going to be tied to it. I wanted the choice of doing other things, writing in a different style and about other things.”
Wilstein cited his coverage of the Iditarod dog sled race last year that included a column about possible steroid use by the dogs who competed.
“Steroids became part of sports in every way and I didn?t want to be part of it,” he says. “You consider a lot of things when you retire. I also looked at the media in general, which has become in my lifetime much bigger and less-probing. It is, in general, getting dumbed down.”
Retired from AP since December, the 57-year-old has not covered a major sports event since last year’s U.S. Open tennis championship, and doesn?t plan to. Instead, he’s been focused on a much more serious health issue – the cancer battle of his 83-year-old father.
Diagnosed last year with Hodgkins Disease, Hy Wilstein spends his days in and out of hospitals, his son says. Currently undergoing chemotherapy, his father shuttles between his Long Island home in Floral Park, N.Y, and nearby North Shore Hospital. Along with a bad heart and other ailments, the elder Wilstein’s future is not promising, his son says. But he wants to make his remaining time worthwhile.
“He came close to dying five times in the past year,” Steve Wilstein said Thursday during a lunch at The Press Box bar and grill on Manhattan’s east side. “I took some time off last year and decided to make it permanent. There was no way I could oversee taking care of him, with my brother, and keep traveling six to nine months a year. I was also looking at the idea of 34 years as a sportswriter. I’ve been there and done that and done everything I could.”
A New York native, Wilstein graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1970, taking his first job at UPI the following year as a “ticker boy,” who followed the old-time ticker machines for scores, statistics and other results. He later wrote a variety of sports pieces for UPI until 1978, among them one of the first interviews with a young tennis phenom named Jimmy Connors.
After joining AP in 1982 based in San Francisco, he stayed with the news organization in several sports capacities until last year. During some two decades, stories ranged from seven Olympic games to baseball to major tennis events.
But the story for which he has always been known is the discovery that McGwire was on andro. As many sports fans know, Wilstein stumbled upon the infamous bottle of pills while following McGwire around in the summer of 1998. He said the find occurred as he waited by the former All Star’s locker in St. Louis after a game and noted the items on his top shelf.
Later, when he found out that the substance, which boosts testosterone and helps increase muscle, was banned by the NFL, NCAA, and International Olympic Committee, he wrote a now famous story about it. Although McGwire admitted taking the supplement and it had not been banned by baseball at the time, Wilstein’s story caused a stir because it marked the first time that a major player had been found to have improved his abilities through a questionable outside substance.
“The reporters in the business I respect were always positive and supportive,” Wilstein recalled about the reaction, in between bites of a veggie sandwich and salad. “But it probably put a little pressure on other baseball writers because it tarnished the sport they loved and required them to write about something they probably did not want to write about.”
He also revealed that the McGwire scoop had not been the most important thing in his life in 1998. At about the same time the McGwire andro revelations were reported, Wilstein’s first wife, Cynthia, was dying of breast cancer. Having survived a previous bout four years earlier, and undergoing a mastectomy, Wilstein says she was struck again at just about the time the baseball season was heading in to September.
“It was odd to go through her having cancer and having to be involved in this other major story,? Wilstein remembers. “We were still hopeful that she could survive.” Wilstein recalls staying at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York in September 1998 for several days to conduct interviews on the McGwire story with dozens of news outlets.
“I was also talking to doctors in California [at the same time] who were saying she was getting worse,” Wilstein said. “I left and told my editor I was probably not going to be here for the U.S. Open and could not do anymore interviews about [McGwire]”
Just days later, on Sept. 11, his wife died. He says her death made the McGwire story, which continued to draw mixed attention, almost meaningless. “People thought I was getting some charge out of breaking McGwire or that it was so important,” he says today. “But it was not even the most important event of that week.”
Major League Baseball eventually banned the substance, while McGwire’s reputation was further damaged last year when he failed to credibly answer questions during congressional hearings about his possible steroid use.
Living outside of Seattle, Wash. with his second wife, Christine, who has three children of her own, Wilstein now has an expanded family of four children with his daughter, Tara, from his first marriage included.
He says he visits his father in New York about every four to six weeks for several days. Wednesday found them at Coney Island celebrating dad’s birthday. “It has been hard to watch him in his decline,” Wilstein admits. “It is hard for him and us.” Wilstein says he has not given up sportswriting completely, noting he has a piece in Hemispheres Magazine about the IMG sports academies in Florida.
But he stresses that being retired allows him to give more time to his father. “I am talking to him every day and I have spent more time talking to him in the past year than in the previous 20 years,” said Wilstein. “You realize the importance of each day more. The significance of what is important and what isn?t important.”