Blight of steroids in baseball beats named AP Story of the Year

Alex Rodriguez joined the list of cheaters this year, and Manny Ramirez and David (Big Papi) Ortiz are forever tainted now, too.

Alex Rodriguez joined the list of cheaters this year, and Manny Ramirez and David (Big Papi) Ortiz are forever tainted now, too.

Five years after Major League Baseball added punishments to its testing program, questions about performance-enhancing drugs still swirl around America’s favourite pastime. The sport’s ongoing drug problem was chosen as the 2009 Story of the Year by members of The Associated Press, outmuscling even the shocking downfall of Tiger Woods.

“The impact that that story had made it the story of the year,” said Lance Hanlin, sports editor of the Beaufort (S.C.) Gazette and The (Hilton Head) Island Packet. “It was a big, ongoing, overall story.”

In fact, the Woods scandal finished fifth in the top story voting. Jimmie Johnson’s unprecedented fourth straight NASCAR championship was second, followed by Roger Federer winning his 15th Grand Slam and Brett Favre ending his (second) retirement to lead the Minnesota Vikings to the division title.

This year’s balloting was unusual in that a major story — Woods’ accident on Nov. 27 and the salacious revelations that followed — happened after voting had started.

By then, 37 of 161 ballots had been submitted by editors at U.S. newspapers which are members of the AP. The voters were asked to rank the top 10 sports stories of the year, with the first-place story getting 10 points, the second-place story receiving nine points, and so on.

Given the extraordinary nature of the Woods story, the AP added it to the top stories ballot Nov. 30 and gave editors who had voted prior to that the chance to submit a new ballot, which about 10 did.

“I think it’s transcended sports in general. It’s become a national story,” said Phil Kaplan, the deputy sports editor at the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel, who changed his vote to place the Woods’ scandal ahead of baseball’s drug woes.

“He’s such a figure in sports that people are interested,” Kaplan added. “People who don’t follow sports are following this story.”

Nonetheless, the final tally had the steroids story with 800 points to 617 points for Woods’ travails. And even if only the votes cast after the Woods’ scandal broke were counted, editors still picked the steroid scourge as the year’s top story.

Voters who included the Woods saga on their list, however, were more likely to make it their top item: His downfall received 41 first-place votes compared with 27 for the steroids crisis.

Though only one major-leaguer tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in this, the first full year under toughened rules, baseball still finds itself trapped in the clutches of the Steroid Era.

Spring training began with A-Rod, the highest-paid player in the game and one of its biggest stars, admitting that he used banned substances from 2001-2003 while playing for the Texas Rangers. Initially greeted with boos and foam syringes by some fans, the taunts quieted as he and the New York Yankees steamrolled their way to a 27th World Series title.

But he will forever be linked to Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — and not only because of their place on baseball’s home run list.

In May, Ramirez was suspended for 50 games after baseball obtained records that showed the Los Angeles Dodgers slugger used the female fertility drug HCG, or human chorionic gonadotropin. HCG is popular among steroid users because it can mitigate the side effects of ending a cycle of the drugs.

The summer brought reports that Ortiz and Sosa were on the infamous “list,” 104 players who federal prosecutors allege tested positive in baseball’s anonymous 2003 survey.

Sosa’s inclusion was hardly a surprise. Neither he nor McGwire, the stars of baseball’s great home run race in 1998, have ever admitted using performance-enhancing drugs. But people have been suspicious of them for years, and their appearances at that U.S. Congressional hearing in 2005 did nothing to change that.

Ortiz, though, was considered one of baseball’s good guys, his size, smile and cute nickname making him seem more teddy bear than surly slugger.

Ortiz said he may have been careless in buying over-the-counter supplements and vitamins, but he insisted he’s never knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs. And because the results of that 2003 survey were supposed to be anonymous and are now under seal, there’s no way to know whether Ortiz actually tested positive or, if he did test positive, whether it was for steroids or a substance contained in a supplement.

Miguel Tejada finally ’fessed up to buying HGH — he still says he threw the drugs away — and became the first high-profile player to be convicted of a crime stemming from the steroids mess. He was sentenced to a year of probation after pleading guilty in federal court to misleading Congress about the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Bonds and Roger Clemens remain in limbo, their legal cases related to performance-enhancing drugs working their way through the system.

Baseball is in a sort of limbo, too, unable to shake the taint of drugs no matter how often it tests its players or how many suspensions it hands out.

“Too bad for him, too bad for baseball. Too bad for both,” New York Yankees star Derek Jeter said this summer when the news about Ortiz surfaced. “I’m sad for everyone. Once again, we’re sitting here talking about this again.”

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