Commentary: Steroid Scandal? Pass The Peanuts

Do fans care half as much as a few politicos and media scolds?

If there was anything more predictable than the disclosure this month that baseball sluggers Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds used steroids to pump up their muscles and pad their home-run stats, it was what happened next. Those in position to gain from the scandal pounced. Sports talk-radio jocks hammered at the stars for betraying the public trust. The New York Yankees, spying an opportunity to dump the remaining $82 million of Giambi's bloated contract, scrambled for a loophole. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose grandstanding about cleaning up pro boxing so far has amounted to a hill of old sweat socks, threatened congressional action if Major League Baseball doesn't put the arm on meaty-armed steroid abusers. And President Bush urged baseball to take "strong steps."

But baseball fans? They seem a lot more interested in the free-agent mating dance between Red Sox hurler Pedro Martinez and Yankees principal owner George ("Who's Your Sugar Daddy?") Steinbrenner.

What Giambi did -- at least in allegations that have come out so far in the Balco steroids case -- was wrong. Wrong and dumb. His admission to a grand jury in December, 2003, that he injected himself with human growth hormone and had been using steroids at least two years earlier brands him as a cheat. Bonds hasn't exactly burnished his image, either. He claims never to have knowingly used steroids. But if you accept the San Francisco Giants star's cockeyed story about using creams he thought were harmless arthritis remedies, then there's a long golden bridge you might want to buy.

Sure, rank-and-file baseball fans are dismayed by the seamy revelations of steroid use, which follow years of forceful denials from the players about who took what. But do fans care even half as much about Steroidgate as a few self-interested politicians and media scolds? No question, the baseball public supports a drug-free game. In an poll, 93% said that using steroids is wrong and taints the sport. About 45% said an appropriate punishment for a player testing positive for steroid use would be a year's suspension. That's hardly a call for amnesty.

But if baseball fans frown on steroid users, they also seem inexorably drawn to bulging biceps and smashing home runs. Tick off some of the highlight-reel moments in baseball over the past five seasons -- the home-run duel in 1998 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa (neither of whom has been implicated in the steroid scandal), Bonds's record-breaking 73-homer season in 2001, his slamming career home run No. 700 this year. Aside from the Boston Red Sox feel-good World Series triumph in 2004, the big events have been about players who entertain with brute strength.

There's little to indicate that the latest drug scandal will cause fans to hesitate before buying tickets, especially to games starring Bonds. Last season, as steroid rumors swirled, MLB set an all-time attendance record. And the Giants, with Bonds as the star attraction, racked up the second-highest attendance in the National League and were the top-drawing NL franchise on the road.

Days after the grand jury leaks, MLB and baseball marketers continued to pitch Giambi and Bonds, and trading-card company Topps Co. (TOPP ) announced the signing of Bonds to a two-year deal that industry sources say could be worth more than $1 million. "We don't have a crystal ball, but we don't feel [the scandal] will have a major impact on the way fans view him," says Topps Vice-President Warren Friss.

MLB also continues to push an array of souvenirs tied to Giambi and Bonds. A week after the scandal broke, the fan shop offered a bronze Giambi medallion, a Giambi street sign, and a Barry Bonds Christmas tree ornament for $14.99.

As shoppers load their carts, MLB owners and the Major League Baseball Players Assn. will be putting teeth into a drug-testing program. After long resisting vigorous testing, union chief Donald Fehr on Dec. 7 announced support for tougher policies, and strict new rules are expected to be in place by Opening Day. But in the Be Careful What You Wish For Dept., one large question looms: Will fans -- especially younger ones weaned on Arnold-size action heroes and video games -- find a game played by mere mortals less exciting entertainment?

By Mark Hyman

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