Minor thoughts on Big Mac

McGwire and Sosa
Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1999. (REUTERS/Sue Ogrocki)

Mark McGwire‘s admission to using steroids was about as shocking as Sarah Palin‘s announcement to join Fox News on Monday. As someone who grew up watching McGwire — I was 14 when he broke Roger Maris‘ record in 1998 — and now a journalist observing this whole drama, it’s only become more intriguing when you compare the statements coming from other baseball legends… Hank Aaron this morning advocated for McGwire to get into the Hall of Fame, and later on in the day today, Goose Gossage pretty forcefully said no steroid users should ever get near Cooperstown. I’m with the Goose.

One thing that’s kept my attention (as my co-workers know) is the rate and number of Minor Leaguers who continue to test positive and get suspended for steroid use. To the casual baseball fan, the suspensions of Minor Leaguers probably went under the radar and, in reality, maybe few fans even care.

But there were so many this past season, I literally started keeping track, first on a notepad on my desk and, after I ran out of room (not kidding), on an excel file on my laptop. My last unofficial count had the 2009 positive tests around 75. That’s roughly a dozen players each month getting suspended, roughly three players per week.

It amounts to a Minor Leaguer being suspended for performance-enhancing substances almost every other day!

Think about that. Here’s how Bud Selig somewhat candy-coated that statistic:

“We conducted 8,995 tests in the minor leagues last year, of which less than eight-tenths of one percent was positive.”

Yeah, sounds much better when you word it that way. And granted, the majority of the kids who tested positive in ’09 were teenagers in the Dominican Summer League programs, but that’s still pretty alarming. They’re not blind to the rules. There were American kids, some in Double-A and Triple-A, former first-round picks who got busted. And yet, this is what Selig had to say:

“The use of steroids and amphetamines amongst today‚Äôs players has greatly subsided and is virtually non-existent as our testing results have shown,” Selig said in a statement released by Major League Baseball on Monday afternoon. “The so-called ‘steroid era’ is clearly a thing of the past.”

Wow. Really? Not so long ago we all found out what “boli” is — one of the steroids Alex Rodriguez injected himself with over the years, supposedly just with Texas. The majority of positive tests I saw this season in the Minors stemmed from two drugs — boldenone, the A-Rod drug, and stanozolol, which is a more traditional strength-training, body-builder drug also used in race horses (ask Barry Bonds and Viagra-man Rafael Palmeiro).

Alex Rodriguez
Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez admitted to using steroids for several years in March 2009. (Danny Wild/MLB.com)

Selig is retiring soon and I’m sure he wants to walk away with the legacy that he cleaned up baseball. To me, testing needs to be better; MLB doesn’t even test for HgH, although it’s debatable whether that substance can currently be detected. If the Dominican programs are breeding a culture of drug use — that the risk of taking them is still a good one to take — then perhaps we need to look into better education and stricter standards for testing, especially down in those areas.

It brings me back to McGwire and the somewhat cliched line that you now hear from people condemning steroid users — that these guys are setting bad examples for kids who look up to them as heroes. It sounds like a line, but how true is it? A-Rod, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Miguel Tejada, Sammy Sosa

Pedro Martinez
Phillies right-hander Pedro Martinez denied steroid use in July. (Danny Wild/MLB.com)

I was at a press conference with Pedro Martinez in July when he went off on a rant about how baseball only targets the Dominican players when it comes to steroid suspensions. I thought at the time it was pretty absurd to say — but regardless, MLB needs to do a better job, and it can start with Selig not issuing these fluff comments declaring, like George W. Bush with a megaphone, that it’s “mission accomplished” on the steroid era.

All that being said, I can’t wait to get to Cardinals camp in March and see Big Mac!

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