Steve Chapman

The news about Alex Rodriguez's use of steroids is simultaneously distressing and encouraging. Distressing because we learned that yet another baseball star was cheating. Encouraging because the revelation is one more step toward putting the years of bogus biceps in the past.

Baseball and A-Rod were stained, but both have cleaned up and moved on. So now the Yankee slugger and everyone else will be competing on honest terms and records set in the future won't need an asterisk.

If only. True, Major League Baseball has gotten reasonably serious about curbing its drug problems. But the incentives for getting around the rules -- stardom, records, big money or merely hanging on to a roster spot -- are as alluring as ever. The evidence suggests that plenty of players will take any help they can get. And for anyone who wants the benefits of steroids without getting busted, there's a good alternative.

You don't have to be a cynic to doubt that Rodriguez and any of his colleagues in crime have all had a moral epiphany. If they were willing to ignore the rules and use banned drugs before -- and, in many cases, reaped impressive gains -- why wouldn't they keep doing it?

The only obvious reason is the likelihood of detection. Baseball now has a system of year-round, unannounced testing for steroids and other artificial aids. But what if there were a steroid-like substance that couldn't be detected? Wouldn't it be just as tempting to anyone looking for an edge?

Judging from the steroid experience, that's enough players to fill several rosters. In 2003, the first year of drug testing, when Rodriguez got nailed, more than 5 percent of major leaguers flunked. In the years before testing became a deterrent, the number of steroid aficionados was undoubtedly higher.

But there is an alternative for anyone intent on a burlier body: human growth hormone, which is reputed to have the same muscle-inflating properties but doesn't show up in a urinalysis. To detect it, you need a blood test, which the players union has refused to accept.

The hormone's appeal is not in doubt. Barry Bonds was indicted for perjury because he told a grand jury his personal trainer had not given him HGH. Roger Clemens' trainer said he had injected the pitcher with the stuff. Andy Pettitte admitted using it. This week, Miguel Tejada did likewise, as part of a plea agreement.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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