By: Joe Strupp
After hints of steroid use by baseball players cropped up during the record home-run season of 1998, did sports writers drop the ball on pursuing the story? Steve Wilstein thinks so, and he should know: He’s the reporter who found the steroid precursor known as “andro” in the locker of onetime home-run king Mark McGwire.
Until recent revelations, “baseball was getting a free pass from baseball writers,” Wilstein told E&P in an interview Friday. “They should have been more aggressive about it, as those are who cover the Olympics.”
When asked what he thought of the congressional testimony given this week, he called it “a sham,” adding that McGwire “looked like a guilty man trying to cover up.” He also did not believe that any home run records would be erased due to the scandal, but believed “the whole era will be tainted.”
Wilstein is the Associated Press sportswriter who drew attention in 1998 when he blew the whistle on McGwire’s use of androstenedione, the steroid precursor commonly referred to as andro, after spotting it in the player’s locker one day. The veteran AP scribe was criticized by some beat writers that year for slightly tarnishing the home run chase between McGwire and Sammy Sosa, which ended with McGwire pounding a record 70 homers and fans flocking to ballparks in record numbers.
“A number of baseball beat writers were put off by the story because it took a shine off of baseball’s great summer,” Wilstein, now an AP sports columnist based in Seattle, told E&P. “It was a great story for them, guys hitting home runs, in McGwire’s case, farther than anyone had seen.”
But today, Wilstein is the one lodging complaints.
He contends that it should not have taken nearly seven years — and a tell-all book from Jose Canseco — to bring the issue the attention it’s now getting. Before the book, the leak of grand jury testimony to the San Francisco Chronicle in the BALCO scandal, and the congressional hearings that took stage Thursday, baseball writers should have been digging up the facts behind this almost open secret, he said.
“I think the baseball media should have been more attentive to the issue,” said Wilstein, an AP writer since 1982. “All of us who cover baseball as a beat writer or a columnist should have been more suspicious of this, at least since McGwire, and probably before ’98.”
He added that beat writers were too quick to accept the standard line that steroids did not help baseball players, and also were too ready to accept the first steroid testing program in 2002, which essentially offered little punishment and multiple chances for failed tests.
“Everybody in baseball kept saying, ‘that is not what helps you hit home runs, you need to have eye and hand coordination,'” Wilstein said. “But they do help you stay stronger, fitter, and help you come back day after day.”
Wilstein admits that, in some cases, proof was not readily available even though players were hitting more home runs and showing up to spring training in recent years more bulked up than ever (and then, after testing, mysteriously losing muscle mass). Still, he does not dismiss the responsibility of beat writers and others who cover baseball to dig deeper. “The media does have to nail down the facts,” he says. “But everyone [who covers baseball] should have been more critical and responsible for looking into it.”
Wilstein was working on a feature story for AP about the McGwire and Sosa home run chase in the summer of 1998 when he came across a bottle of andro in McGwire’s locker in July. Although the substance was not banned at the time for use by Major League Baseball players, it was banned by other sports organizations, such as the Olympics and the NFL. He revealed it in the story that finally ran in August of that year. At the congressional hearings on Thursday, McGwire was asked to comment on Wilstein’s find, and, as with many other queries, he refused to respond.
“When I reported about McGwire, a lot of baseball guys were upset that I was spoiling a great season,” he said. “But what I reported was accurate, and we had his own admission. Others should have been more critical.” He also says few followed up later in the year or in subsequent seasons.
He admits that he did not make digging into the steroid issue a full-time assignment either, but he says he is not assigned permanently to baseball, having to write about all sports.
“But I have written 10 columns in the past year about steroids,” Wilstein said. “And when the first [rather toothless] steroid testing agreement came out in 2002, I was critical then.” Wilstein’s 2002 column did take a serious swipe at the proposed testing program, saying “it leaves observers who are intimately involved in drug-testing aghast at the flaws in baseball’s plan.”
Earlier this year, he slammed the latest steroid-testing effort, describing it as “still just a bunt, not a home run” and “a watered-down version of the minor league anti-doping program.”
His advice for today’s sports writers covering the issue: “They need to look at things closely and ask if it is a tough [steroid-testing] program, look at the ball players themselves.” Wilstein estimated that the use of steroids, just from looking at baseball players, is likely not more than 10%. “There are about two or three players per team who raise suspicion,” he said. “But they need to be questioned.”
And will McGwire get into the Hall of Fame? “I think so, but it will hurt him,” Wilstein adds. “I think there will be people who will not vote for him. When I cast my ballot, I will look closely at it,” he said.