More Developments in BALCO Case

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Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci talks about a new development in the federal investigation of steroid use in baseball.


Yesterday, federal agents in Arizona searched the home of Jason Grimsley, a relief pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, looking for evidence of illegal drug use by players, coaches, or trainers. The search came at the request of the lead investigators in the BALCO steroid scandal, who have been working with Grimsley in an on-going investigation.

Grimsley stopped cooperating in April, but not before making some extraordinary statements about illicit drug use in Major League Baseball. In the wake of the search and today's news, Grimsley asked earlier today to be released from his team, and the Diamondbacks agreed.

For more, we go now to Tom Verducci, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, author of the anthology, Sports Illustrated: Inside Baseball, the Best of Tom Verducci. He joins us from his home in New Jersey.

Good of you to be with us today.

Mr. TOM VERDUCCI (Writer, Sports Illustrated Magazine): Thank you. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: So, Grimsley is leaving the team, but on the basis of the affidavits that have been made public now, he named names. He was going to have a tough time in his clubhouse.

Mr. VERDUCCI: I agree with you. I think he's done in baseball. You know, he's volunteered to be released by his team, but the fact is, as a 38-year-old pitcher - who is a replaceable kind of player - who has essentially ratted out teammates, I can't believe there's another job waiting for him on the other side of this.

CONAN: And so tell us a little bit about what he said.

Mr. VERDUCCI: Well, it was interesting. I mean, he spoke very specifically about his own performance enhancing drug use going back to 2000, using some hard-core steroids. And then when baseball started testing for steroids, he continued to use human growth hormone, which is banned by Major League Baseball, but baseball does not use a test for it - which puts basically everybody on an honor system. And, clearly, there are dishonorable people in the game.

And Jason also talked about the distribution of amphetamines and steroids and how they get around baseball. And in that sense, that's where he started to name names. They asked him, do you know of other people who do use steroids and amphetamines, and in fact, he did give names to the investigators.

CONAN: Those names were redacted, blacked out, from the documents that have been made public, but well - it's just seems to be a matter of time before they become public knowledge.

Mr. VERDUCCI: Well, I would have to agree with that, you know, as we've seen with the BALCO case. And really, in most high-profile court cases. Those redactions tend not to last very long. I mean, there's all sorts of people who have access to that information, and the word does seem to get out. I don't think this will be any different, and I think those names, in time, will get out.

CONAN: When you talk about amphetamine use, Major League Baseball just started testing for amphetamines this year. And according to Jason Grimsley, in the clubhouse last year there were coffee pots labeled leaded and unleaded, not referring to caffeine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VERDUCCI: That's exactly right. I mean, you know what you were getting, and the high-test stuff had amphetamines in it. And it's interesting in that he also gives some insight into how they get into Major League clubhouses, these illegal amphetamines. He mentions how a lot of the Latin American ballplayers have easy access to them from their winter homes and bring them in, in the bundles. And also, players who play in southern California are able to cross the border to Mexico and bring them in in great numbers.

And also, he mentions a representative from an equipment company who sells bats and gloves, who has access to the clubhouse, who also traffics in amphetamines. So it's really a very interesting window into how these actually wind up physically into Major League clubhouses and passed among players.

CONAN: There are several interesting aspects to this, one of which - we hear always about steroids and baseball when we hear, you know, the rumors about Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire, and Sammy Sosa, and more than rumors about Rafael Palmeiro. And more than rumors about Jason Giambi, as well. And yet, Jason Grimsley's a pitcher.

Mr. VERDUCCI: He is a pitcher, and you know, that's something a lot of people missed early on, but certainly should be up to speed by now, because - of all the people who have tested positive by the major leagues and the miner leagues since they started testing - nearly half of them have been pitchers. This has been going on for awhile. One of the great effects of steroids, and people kind of missed the boat on this, is the muscle recovery aspect. It's not so much about getting your biceps big so you can hit the ball 500 feet. It's to be able to bounce back after you pitch three, four, five times a week as these relief pitchers do, and have your muscles recover. It also enables you to work out harder, so you're able to withstand the grind of pitching in 162-game season.

So really, from the people around the game, it's not a surprise that a lot of people who have tested positive or have admitted to use have been pitchers -and even specifically more than that, relief pitchers, who do work a lot.

CONAN: We're talking with Tom Verducci, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Tom Verducci, another aspect of this. This is - as far as I know - the first player who's come out and said, well, you know, as soon as they started testing effectively for steroids, I had to switch to human growth hormone.

Mr. VERDUCCI: Well, that's right. I mean, and it could be a case where he had been using before. I know, when I wrote about steroids in baseball back in 2002, I wrote about how people were supplementing their steroid use with the use of human growth hormone. Their muscles were getting so big by virtue of the steroid use that they believed that the human growth hormone could reinforce the tissues and the joints to support that muscle growth.

And now it seems with testing, there are several players - many, many, perhaps many players - who, you know, don't want to run the risk of fouling up a steroid test and have dropped some of that, but have kept the use of human growth hormone. Because this is the gigantic loophole in the testing program that baseball and the Player's Association have really, you know, slapped themselves on the back in great glee on how they have such a strong testing program. They have banned human growth hormone, but they refuse to use the blood test that the Olympics use to test for the human growth hormones, so people are free to use human growth hormone in baseball without being caught -at least as far as a test goes. And Jason Grimsley got caught by a federal investigation.

CONAN: And, of course, as you say, a test for human growth hormone involves a blood test taking blood from a player, which the unions say - and correctly -is a lot more invasive. Yet, it is done in the Olympics. But to be fair, it's not just baseball. Human growth hormone is also banned in football, but they don't test for it, either.

Mr. VERDUCCI: That's right. There have been people who suggest that the tests that the Olympics use are not entirely reliable. The Olympics - it was used in Athens, it was used in Torino - there were no positive tests for that. A lot of people in Major League Baseball are skeptical as to the reliability of those tests.

There's also a problem with just getting the substances needed to test for it with a blood test. There's just not enough in the world to conduct so many thousands of samples as you would have to do in Major League Baseball. You're talking about 1,200 players who would be tested, you know, a couple of times a year at least. So, baseball and the union have said they're going to and they have - they've given a lab in California this directive, to try to come up with a urine-based HGH test. Now, most of the medical people will tell you we are many years away from getting near that. So I don't see that on the horizon anytime soon.

CONAN: Now, another aspect of Jason Grimsley being involved in this - this pitcher pitched for a lot of teams, and a lot of pretty prominent teams: Baltimore when they were pretty good, the New York Yankees during their great run of victories in the late '90s, Cleveland when they had a very good team, too, Kansas City - they weren't so good, but anyway. He's got a lot of stories to tell.

Mr. VERDUCCI: He does. There are probably a lot of teammates out there who are sweating right now because of what Jason knows and what he has already told people - at least the investigator.

You know, it's interesting. Jason Grimsley was a guy who was really your prototypical journeyman relief pitcher, kicked around many different organizations. In fact, was in the minor leagues when he turned 31 years old. And after that point, and he - at least according to what he told the investigator - around 2000, he began using steroids. He has since made something along the lines of $9 million in Major League Baseball. And this was a guy whose career was on the brink of being finished at the age of 31. He's not 38 years old. So, clearly, his career has benefited from his - what he has admitted to in terms of performance enhancing drugs.

CONAN: And one final point: in terms of being finished, the BALCO investigation, we all know they got the founder of the BALCO Labs in the Bay Area and Barry Bonds' trainer as well. They both served some time. They're both now out on probation. But it does not look as if this investigation is done.

Mr. VERDUCCI: No, clearly, it's not. This is the same agent who was at the forefront of the BALCO investigation and collecting a lot of information about Barry Bonds in particular through that investigation. Now, it's not difficult to imagine that this same agent is trying to connect some dots between Jason Grimsley and either BALCO or Barry Bonds. It, to me, it would be an incredible, just coincidence if in fact he's not trying to connect some dots here. But this is, as you mentioned, an on-going investigation, and I suspect this is not the last that we've heard from these federal agents.

CONAN: And Barry Bonds, of course, still reportedly under investigation for perjury in his testimony to the Grand Jury where he said he took what he thought was flax oil, which may have turned out later to be steroids.

Mr. VERDUCCI: That's correct. His claim has always been that whatever he took, he took unknowingly if in fact they were steroids, mentioning that he thought one was an arthritic balm for his knees, and the other, as you mentioned, was flax seed oil that he took under the tongue. And he said, according to the Grand Jury testimony uncovered by the San Francisco Chronicle, that he had no idea what he was putting into his body.

CONAN: Tom Verducci, of Sports Illustrated, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. VERDUCCI: Thank you so much.

CONAN: We should also point out this story was originally broken by the Arizona Republic, and thank them for their story as well.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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