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Imperfect game

Sports | Leaked grand jury testimony puts baseball's lax steroid policy on trial

Issue: "UN: Kofi's crisis," Dec. 18, 2004

For Taylor Hooton, taking steroids was a way to become a better ballplayer. He started taking steroids in 2002 as a junior at Plano West Senior High in suburban Dallas. As a pitcher, he hoped to start for the varsity during his senior season. A junior varsity coach even told Taylor he needed to bulk up to make the cut.

And he did bulk up, by secretly taking steroids. Taylor quickly gained 30 pounds-and also acne on his back and fits of rage that included punching holes in walls. After admitting to a psychiatrist that he was taking two different steroids, Taylor halted the drugs altogether. Suffering a withdrawal-induced depression, his behavior spiraled out of control, and on July 15, 2003, he hung himself from his bedroom door. His parents and doctor believe the steroids and withdrawal symptoms led to his suicide. Taylor's father Don Hooton set up a foundation to educate parents and teenagers about the dangers associated with the drugs.

The dangerous message sent to children is just one more sinister implication to a growing steroid scandal that now includes not only Major League Baseball but also the NFL and U.S. Track and Field. While performance-enhancing drugs have altered baseball's athletes, the results aren't just massive in home runs: Male users can experience hair loss, acne, rage, tumors, and a higher likelihood of liver or prostate cancer.

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In grand jury testimony leaked this month to the San Francisco Chronicle, baseball greats Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi both admitted using steroids. According to the Chronicle, Mr. Bonds, the Giants outfielder, said that his trainer and lifelong friend, Greg Anderson, gave him "flaxseed oil" and an "arthritis balm." Mr. Bonds admitted the supplements were nicknamed "the cream" and "the clear"-also names of popular and undetectable steroids produced by Victor Conte's Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), the subject of the grand jury investigation.

Earlier, the Chronicle reported that New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi also told the grand jury he had taken steroids. Like Mr. Bonds, the Yankee first baseman also admitted to using "the cream," a testosterone-based rubbing balm, and "the clear," a designer steroid also known as THG and taken in drops under the tongue. Publicly Mr. Giambi and Mr. Bonds denied using steroids before their grand jury testimony was leaked.

But don't expect punishment for either of the sluggers. Baseball first banned steroids in 2002 and didn't outlaw THG until last March. Injecting human growth hormones remains legal in baseball, and under the current steroid policy, a positive test for either player would result only in counseling.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig says he'd like to see more frequent testing and stiffer penalties. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he'd introduce legislation overriding baseball's drug policies if the union and owners can't crack down on steroid use by January, and Mr. Selig said he would welcome the intervention.

But it may not come to that. Even the ballplayers union-once a stalwart against more testing and harsher penalties-said it wouldn't fight a tougher steroid policy. "We really need to clear up the public perception of what's going on," said Eric Byrnes, an Oakland outfielder and former teammate of Mr. Giambi.

While Mr. Byrnes and others downplay the scope of the scandal, the numbers are significant: A first round of testing last season revealed that 5 percent to 7 percent of baseball players use detectable steroids. But if baseball had the technology to test for stealth steroids, how high might the number be? Former MVPs Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti both admit to using steroids and say there is a doping pandemic in the major leagues.

Prosecutors say Mr. Bonds began using steroids in 2001, and in that season, the transformed player-heavier, with neck and biceps bulging-set a record for single-season home runs with 73-24 more than his previous high.

Mr. Bonds is on pace to surpass the career home run record of Hank Aaron, who played at 185 pounds. But Major League Baseball canceled a mammoth marketing campaign to highlight the home run quest, and now even Mr. Aaron, a long-time supporter of the Giants slugger, has called Mr. Bonds into question: "Let me say this. Any way you look at it, it's wrong."

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