Steroid specter intensifies

By Kevin Baxter
kbaxter@MiamiHerald.com

As commissioner Bud Selig sat through last year's congressional hearings on steroid use in baseball, listening uncomfortably as a galaxy of the sport's biggest stars tried unconvincingly to prove the game wasn't awash in illegal substances, he probably calmed himself with one thought:

At least it can't get any worse than this.

Boy was he wrong.

Earlier this month, in the moment that threatens to finally bring baseball's darkest secrets into the light of day, former Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Jason Grimsley not only told federal agents that he used illegal steroids, human growth hormone (HGH) and amphetamines, but also named others he believes have done the same.

The chance that several big-name players could be implicated this time is real, with many baseball sources saying that if the names in Grimsley's affidavit are leaked -- and you know it's only a matter of time before they are -- it will cut a wide swath through a number of major-league clubhouses.

One name Grimsley reportedly included in his testimony has already been leaked, with two media outlets quoting an anonymous source as saying personal trainer and former coach Chris Mihlfeld was among those fingered.

Quickly, other well-known Mihlfeld clients, such as Albert Pujols and Mike Sweeney, were facing steroid accusations -- despite the fact Mihlfeld, once a strength and conditioning coach for several major-league teams, denies the charge and says that Grimsley and the pitcher's lawyer have denied it as well.

The Baltimore Orioles, one of Grimsley's former teams, are also expected to be swept up in the wake of the pitcher's testimony. Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo and other members of the organization are scheduled to be interviewed by investigators this week, and several Orioles players said they fear this could tear the team apart much like the Rafael Palmeiro case did last year.

The tension is palpable throughout baseball as players and officials wait for the other shoe to drop.

Diamondbacks managing general partner Ken Kendrick, whose team remains at the center of the scandal despite the fact it released Grimsley, gave a rambling interview with The Arizona Republic last week in which he appeared to out one of his own players as a steroid user, then said he was certain Grimsley was not the only Arizona player who used banned substances.

''Absolutely, I don't think he is,'' Kendrick told the paper.

SELIG'S DEFENSE


That led Luis Gonzalez, the All-Star named by Kendrick, to hold a media conference of his own in which he stopped just short of calling his boss a liar. The equally panicked Selig, meanwhile, released an open letter to fans in which he defended ''the overwhelming majority'' of major-league players as ''hard-working, honorable individuals who play to win the right way'' and promised to protect the ''integrity of America's pastime'' by cracking down on drug cheats.

If Selig had any hope the taint of performance-enhancing drugs could be erased from the game any time soon, he's clearly given it up. If anything, the subject is likely to overshadow the pennant races and World Series as prominent names are named, as Congress turns its attention back to the subject and as the owners and the players begin to discuss a new collective bargaining agreement.

''I'm sure it will be brought up,'' said Wes Helms, the Marlins' union representative.

It's strange that the impetus for all this lies with Grimsley, a 15-year veteran who pitched for seven clubs, posting an unspectacular 42-58 record and a 4.77 ERA. He didn't give up a run in three postseason games and was generally well-liked by teammates and opponents. Until now.

''It's one thing for him [Grimsley] to get investigated and get caught,'' said one National League veteran. ``But to name other names? That's kind of low on his part. It's his business. And don't bring other people's business into it.''

But Grimsley's lawyer portrays his client as a victim who became a target in the federal probe only after he refused to wear a wire in an attempt to trap other players, such as Barry Bonds. (Bonds, by the way, still stands a good chance of being indicted for his role in the BALCO investigation, a scandal that now seems almost quaint given recent events.)

Much of the blame for all this lies with baseball, and especially the players union, which only recently -- and begrudgingly -- admitted baseball had a problem with performance-enhancing substances despite the fact steroid use was widespread and amphetamines, or ''greenies,'' had been around the game almost as long as the seventh-inning stretch.

NEEDING HELP

Forget the fact the new drug-testing protocol is having an effect. That baseball waited so long to address the issue in a meaningful way, coupled with the fact that there is no effective test to detect the use of HGH, suggests that the sport will need some help in cleaning up its mess this time.

That Congress will again threaten to impose legislation is likely, as is the chance that a handful of players' careers will be tarnished (hey, anyone remember Palmeiro or Sammy Sosa?)

Fear, for the moment, has seized the upper hand. But that might be good because it might finally force the sport and its caretakers to accept the draconian measures to erase not just the drugs, but the specter of them as well.