Sportswriters Say They Dropped the Ball on Steroids in Major League Sports

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By: Joe Strupp

It wasn’t a particularly long story. The 730-word piece by sportswriter Bob Nightengale in the Los Angeles Times on July 15, 1995, included no flashy graphics or leaked documents. But what it said turned out to be both groundbreaking and foreshadowing: Steroids had become both common and acknowledged in Major League Baseball.

Three years before an AP reporter found a bottle of androstenedione in slugger Mark McGwire’s locker, seven years before former MVP Ken Caminiti would admit he had regularly used steroids, and nine years before the San Francisco Chronicle would disclose that Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi had revealed steroid use in grand jury testimony, Nightengale got the word out.

In his piece, the sportswriter — now with USA Today — quoted several major league general managers on and off the record who admitted that steroids were part of the game. Several players who spoke to him urged that testing be implemented to weed out suspicions. “We all know there’s steroid use, and it’s definitely becoming more prevalent,” San Diego Padres general manager Randy Smith told the reporter. “The ballplayers all know the dangers of it, we preach it every year.”

But instead of sparking a wave of follow-up articles or investigations to ferret out the details of steroid use in baseball — who was using it, where it came from, what it did to the body — sportswriters essentially left the story alone. For several years, even through the home run derby summer of 1998 when McGwire and Sammy Sosa shattered the long-held 61-dinger mark, barely a word was printed about the illegal substances that were likely helping to boost home runs and endangering long-term health.

“The bottom line is, we were nowhere on it,” says Howard Bryant, who covered baseball during the late 1990s and the first part of this decade for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News and the Boston Herald, and now tracks football for The Washington Post. “It was too easy to ignore what was happening — and we did ignore it.” Adds Jeff Pearlman, a former baseball writer for Sports IIlustrated, “I think we just blew it.”

More than a dozen current and former baseball writers and their editors spoke with E&P about the often shoddy job sports reporters did on the steroid scandal in baseball, which now appears to date back almost 20 years. Most of them admit that those covering the sport either ignored or failed to properly look into the growing epidemic, which many say was prompting rumors and speculation as far back as the mid 1980s.

“I think all of us wish now that we had pushed harder,” says Tom Jolly, sports editor at The New York Times. “I suspect we weren’t as well-informed about the whole thing as we are now.”

Ken Rosenthal, an analyst for FoxSports. com and a former baseball writer for The Sun in Baltimore, agrees. “In hindsight, I screwed up,” he says about his failure to get at the steroid issue, especially during the 1998 home run chase. “That is our greatest sin, extolling these guys as something more than they were. Some of us had a feeling that something was amiss. We are more guilty of making McGwire and Sosa into heroes when they weren’t.”

Now, in 2006, the scandal has blown wide open. With the BALCO case drawing attention to Bonds and Giambi, last year’s congressional hearings, and subsequent increased testing either implicating or heightening suspicions about McGwire, Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and others — as well as an ongoing internal inquiry by Major League Baseball — the story has swelled into a regular beat for several writers. In some ways, the revelations about steroid use and other performance-enhancing substances have forever changed the way baseball and most sports are covered, reporters say. With each new amazing accomplishment — from bicycling to track & field — those on the beat are forced to raise the issue of what substance, if any, the athlete being praised might have used.

One key test will be the Baseball Hall of Fame, with McGwire’s name this year appearing on the ballot that goes to more than 700 writers (see sidebar, page 46). Many of those veteran sports scribes say they will not vote for McGwire this year, noting his alleged steroid use as the prime reason. “I think he cheated; he’s out,” says Jon Heyman, a longtime baseball beat writer for Newsday who now writes for SI.com. “We don’t know if he would have done it without steroids.”


Strike one

Steve Wilstein had been covering sports for nearly 27 years when he stepped into the clubhouse at Busch Stadium in St. Louis one day during the summer of 1998. An Associated Press reporter at the time, Wilstein was working on a story about McGwire, the Cardinals first baseman who was in the midst of what would turn out to be his best home run season ever, ending with 70 long balls and passing the previous mark set by New York Yankee Roger Maris.

Waiting by McGwire’s locker for the slugger to come back from the shower, Wilstein saw the now-famous bottle of testosterone-boosting androstenedione in his locker. He asked McGwire about it. The slugger said he used it, it was not banned, and he was not ashamed. A week later, Wilstein put the information in the middle of his story. Eventually, he found doctors who said the stuff caused heart problems and had been banned by the NFL, the NCAA, and the International Olympic Committee.

But then a funny thing happened: Instead of being praised for discovering a questionable act by a baseball star in the middle of a record-breaking season, Wilstein was vilified. Other sportswriters didn’t pick up the story or dig into what McGwire or Sosa were using as they pursued the historic home run mark. “After I reported it, people still didn’t want to believe it, and it was so important,” Wilstein, recently retired, tells E&P. “It may be that ‘andro’ was not the only thing he was doing. It probably put a little pressure on other baseball writers because it threatened the sport they loved and required them to write about something that they probably did not want to write about.”

Other sportswriters and former beat reporters agree that the 1998 home run chase, which culminated in both McGwire and Sosa surpassing the previous 61 mark, had many looking the other way. Several of those who were on the beat at the time recall that it was such a feel-good story for baseball, coming four years after the 1994 strike that cancelled a World Series. “I guess we were all caught up in the excitement of the home run chase,” says Heyman, who was a Newsday columnist in 1998, “rather than spend all of the time and energy [on steroids] when the only guarantee was that we would annoy everyone around us, we took an easier route.”

Peter Schmuck, a baseball writer for The Sun in Baltimore and president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, agrees, observing that in 1998, “Everyone knew that normal people don’t have arms that big.”

Glenn Schwarz, sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle since 2000, and prior to that at the former San Francisco Examiner, oversaw coverage of McGwire for 10 years when the slugger played for the Oakland A’s. He says speculation began during the 1988 playoffs when McGwire and teammate Jose Canseco were known as The Bash Brothers and they were “hitting balls unnaturally far, 500-foot shots.”

During the next decade, however, Schwarz says the story was not on the paper’s radar. Even after 1998, he admits, reporters missed a chance to dig into the issue with McGwire as the perfect target. “The ‘andro’ thing was forgotten about,” he says. “You didn’t read anything about it in 1999. It was a missed opportunity at the time to inform the public.”


Taking their eye off the ball

Wilstein, whose career in sports coverage began in 1971 as a “ticker boy” for United Press International, covered the winter and summer Olympics in 1976, 1984, and 1988. He says the use of steroids and other performance enhancers was suspected and revealed in many Olympic sports long before Bob Nightengale ever brought up the issue in baseball. Due to that, he says writers and executives should have looked for them in baseball much sooner.

“In 1984 and 1988, you started seeing the impact of steroids in East Germany,” Wilstein recalls. “You started hearing about steroids and in international events the East German women having manly features.” He recalls overhearing some East German female competitors joking about it during the 1988 summer games in Seoul, South Korea.

Clear evidence came out as early as 1988, when Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson failed a drug test with traces of an anabolic steroid found in his urine after setting a record in the 100-meter final. Wilstein recalls covering the event and interviewing Johnson before the race: “He kind of growled at me, like he had ‘roid rage. He had a huge upper body.”

Johnson’s stripped medal presented a new angle for Olympic sportswriters. “Day and night we were writing about steroids,” Wilstein says of the 1988 games. “From that day on, any of us covering Olympics became acutely aware” of them. But for some reason, the suspicions didn’t transfer to baseball. “We did a very good job of jumping on performance-enhancing drugs in Olympic sports,” says Bill Dwyre, a Los Angeles Times sports columnist who served as that paper’s sports editor for 25 years. “But you don’t treat baseball the same as something like weightlifting in the Olympics. It didn’t register on our radar like it should have.”

Tracy Ringolsby, a Colorado Rockies columnist for Denver’s Rocky Mountain News and a 30-year sportswriting veteran, points to coverage of dimethyl sulfoxide being used by some pitchers during the late 1970s. He recalls many using the substance to quickly reduce arm inflammation. “They saw it as a way to rebound quicker,” he recalls. “You are always looking for an edge.” Such attempts were a sign that players were looking for an easy extra step.

Add to this the rumors and off-the-record comments recalled by some former beat writers. Buster Olney, now with ESPN The Magazine, was a baseball beat writer from 1990 to 2003, the last six years at the New York Times covering the Mets and Yankees. He says he first heard whispers of steroids and other boosters while covering the minor league Nashville Sounds for the Nashville (Tenn.) Banner in 1988. “I never saw anything, never had a player admit it to me, but you’d hear things,” he says. “Players saying, ‘I think this guy might be on something.'”

Later on, as a baseball writer for the San Diego Union, Olney recalls covering the 1993 World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays and the rumor mill running rampant about some beefed-up players. “People just looked at the bodies,” Olney recalls. He cites suddenly musclebound Phillies outfielder Len Dykstra, who hit 19 home runs that year — twice the number he had during any other season — as among those suspected but never proven. “That generated a lot of conversation,” he says.

But Olney also notes the difficulty in proving those accusations. If a reporter hears whispers and rumors, he can’t prove it unless he gets a confession or witnesses something. “The problem is, how do you get at it?” he asks. “In 1996, I went up to a player and said, ‘People think you’re on steroids.’ He said, ‘Absolutely not.’ I didn’t write it because I didn’t have proof.”


Failing in the clutch?

Other sportswriters who are less willing to admit mistakes claim that without a “smoking gun” or other proof, writing more than speculative stories or rumor-based columns was impossible.

“We should have suspected sooner, but there’s no way you can possibly know what is going on all the time,” says Bill Center, former president of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America and a 25-year baseball writer now with The San Diego Union-Tribune. “These guys are not going to be shooting up in the clubhouse. Revisionist history is easy.”

Dan Shaughnessey, longtime baseball columnist with The Boston Globe, agrees: “It’s a hard area to pursue. I never saw any of it go on in front of me. It wasn’t something that jumped out.” He admits that the 1998 home run chase did not receive as much skepticism as it should have, but he notes that several acceptable factors contributed to the increased numbers, including smaller ballparks and more players swinging for the fences. “I don’t think it is fair to blame them,” he says of the beat writers.

Ringolsby claims beat writers are already expected to write so many stories, from trades to contracts to covering games, that searching for steroids was too much. “We are supposed to be legal experts, understand labor negotiations, and [find] steroids?” he exclaims. “There are a lot of things that go by the news department. What should they have known about JFK’s social life?”

T.J. Quinn of New York’s Daily News, who covered the White Sox and Mets for different papers between 1996 and 2000, now covers a sports investigative beat that includes steroids. He says editors weren’t pushing for such stories in the past: “Maybe I should have had a little more of a critical eye, but I never had an editor ask me about it, or a fan. There was a real naivete about it.”

Murray Chass, the veteran New York Times sports columnist who covered the Yankees from 1970 to 1986, also defends the lack of investigation, saying it didn’t come up in, or out, of the clubhouse in his day: “I wasn’t looking for anyone using steroids. If any baseball writer knew, they should have written it. Reporters who know or suspected something should have done something. I did not.”

Lance Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle, who with fellow investigative writer Mark Fainaru-Wada exposed Bonds’ steroid use (first in an award-winning 2004 newspaper series and then in the book Game of Shadows) says the story might have been harder to get at. “It is so difficult to write about it because there is so much resistance in the audience to believe it,” he asserts. “But individual writers did some important stuff.”

Sports Editor Bill Adee of the Chicago Tribune, who previously ran the Chicago Sun-Times sports desk, had reporters looking into Sammy Sosa’s conduct years ago — but they didn’t turn up enough evidence for a story.

“It is safe to say that we didn’t find enough where we felt comfortable to publish,” he says, declining to be more specific. “People are assuming that just because we didn’t publish anything means we didn’t try to report something.”

There is also the issue of angering players on the team they have to cover every day. “Somebody on a beat has to worry about getting their job done,” says Gary Jacobson, a reporter with The Dallas Morning News who co-wrote a series last year on high school steroid use. “A beat writer has to continue covering a team or a sport. If you piss people off, they shut you out.”



Regrets, they’ve had a few

Still, Olney and others say sports reporters and columnists could have written about the rumors and skepticism the way Nightengale did, and might have sparked some people to come forward sooner if they had. “That is the story we all could have done,” Olney says about Nightengale’s 1995 piece. “We could have written general stories about what people were saying.”

Jolly, the New York Times sports editor, says the question has nagged at him for years: “I’ve wrestled with it and wondered if there were other approaches — if there were other avenues outside the locker room we could have taken.”

While Nightengale understands the limits on proving specific players’ steroid sins, he agrees that his early approach could have been duplicated: “You asked a guy, and he’d deny it, but five of his teammates would say, off the record, that so-and-so was using steroids,” as long ago as the early 90s.

Pearlman, who authored his own book on Bonds titled “Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero,” contends that sportswriters are still missing the story, accusing them of acting as though steroids are being cleaned out of baseball when signs of abuse still exist. “After having been duped by the men they cover, America’s sportswriters are playing dumb again,” he wrote in an April piece for Slate.com. “Where, oh where, are the doubters?”

He points to the resurrection of Jason Giambi, who was as guilty as Bonds in steroid complacency, according to grand jury testimony — and is now praised for making a comeback. Pearlman also notes that when St. Louis Cardinal slugger Albert Pujols started this season with 25 homers in 51 games, major newspapers cheered the accomplishment with little doubt. “A little more than one year removed from congressional hearings that produced the most humiliating image in the game’s history,” he adds, “baseball writers have a duty to second-guess everything.”

Charles Yesalis, a University of Pennsylvania professor and the author of three books on steroids in sports, places much of the blame for the lack of coverage on the fans themselves. He contends that most don’t want to know bad news about their heroes, and editors know this. “It would be like telling a “Star Wars” fan about the special effects during the movie,” says Yesalis, who testified before Congress during last year’s steroid hearings. “They don’t want to know it, they want to be entertained.” He adds that many of the writers are too close to the game as fans: “They don’t separate their love of the sport from their job.”


A more skeptical view

But for many on the beat today, whether it’s baseball, the Olympics, or cycling, steroid skepticism is common. Most admit they can no longer accept any major individual feat without at least wondering if the athlete is on something. “We’re so jaded, we are thinking that,” says Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times. “We’re going to be there for a long time.”

The New York Times’ Jolly points to this summer’s disclosures that Tour de France Champion Floyd Landis had tested positive for high testosterone levels, leading to the stripping of his title. When word came out, Times staffers immediately checked on the testing that was done on the likely replacement winner, Oscar Pereiro. “We noted that since he had won several stages we knew that he had been drug tested at least six times,” Jolly recalls. “Those are the kinds of things we did not routinely do a few years ago.”

Chass, who says he has long opposed drug testing of athletes as an invasion of privacy, believes the increased suspicions are unavoidable. But he fears they will take much of the joy away from watching the games and reporting on them: “I’m not sure that you want to spend every day being suspicious of someone. It might be the journalistic thing to do. But it is not fun.”

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