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Some Baseball Fans Rant, Others Yawn, About Athletes’ Steroid Use

Athletes in a variety of sports have been sanctioned in recent months for using muscle-building steroids. But nothing has gotten the attention of the U.S. sports fan as much as the doping scandal in baseball, the game known as “America’s pastime.” The scandal centers on professional baseball players who were given anabolic steroids and human growth hormones by a San Francisco laboratory called BALCO.

During the months in between baseball seasons – what is called the “hot stove” time of year – fans are usually busy keeping track of player trades and arguing over how well their favorite teams will do starting in the spring. But this off-season, the stove turned red hot when the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper printed transcripts of secret grand jury testimony about steroid use by two of baseball's biggest stars -- Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees and Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants.

Giambi testified that he bulked up his muscle mass -- and his batting statistics -- by using steroids and growth hormones supplied by BALCO. Bonds -- whose body has also turned strikingly denser as he shatters some of baseball's cherished home run records -- told the jury he used substances called “the clear” and “the cream” that have been shown to contain steroids. Unlike Giambi, Bonds said he thought the substances were a nutritional supplement and an arthritis rub.

Most observers have scoffed at such claims. On NBC television, longtime baseball announcer Bob Costas speculated that at least half of all major league baseball players are or have been using steroids to keep up with bigger, stronger competitors. “The game has been ripped from its historical moorings,” Mr. Costas said. “There's nothing they can do any more about the integrity of the records. The whole era will have a figurative asterisk after it when you look not just at Barry Bonds' totals, but also at the totals of lesser players who also saw their statistics inflated because of the use of performance-enhancing drugs.”

The leaked grand jury testimony outraged John McCain, chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. He had already threatened government intervention if baseball does not impose tougher steroid testing and punishments. “What this is really all about,” Senator McCain told NBC, “is high school athletes, who more and more believe that the only way they're going to make it to the major leagues is through the use of performance enhancing drugs. If one of these highly paid athletes wants to destroy his or her body, that's a terrible thing. But it's motivating young people to indulge in this ruinous activity.”

Yet, are baseball fans, who bought a record number of tickets last year, equally disturbed about steroid use? Not really, say many sports columnists -- including Tom Reed of the Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal newspaper. “As long as it's not their kid doing it, as long as pro athletes want to do damage to their bodies, then that's the risk they're willing to take,” says Mr. Reed. “It almost seems to me that they think it's equivalent to smoking. There's an inherent risk to it, and if people are that willing to do it, then they should go ahead and do it. It's funny. It's not the fans that are outraged about this and making baseball change. It's the government that's stepping in and saying, 'If you don't change this, we’re going to change it.'”

But Jeffrey Santaite, the president of an association of baseball fans that claims 60,000 members, says hard-core fans care deeply about fair competition. While crowds in San Francisco may be kind to Barry Bonds next season and New Yorkers may forgive Jason Giambi, he believes these stars should expect unmerciful booing and taunting at away games. “It's going to come down hard on them, as well it should,” says Mr. Santaite. “Fundamentally, I don't believe that the average fan who is involved in any sport likes the idea of cheating.”

Even Donald Fehr, the head of baseball's powerful players union -- which has fought drug testing as an invasion of privacy -- now says the union is ready to negotiate tougher steroid sanctions. But in a front-page article, USA Today pointed out that today's pro athletes would still have, as the newspaper put it, “million-dollar incentives to cheat.” Despite the recent media outcry over steroids, the story's headline proclaimed: “Drug-free sports might be a thing of the past.”