In 1998, the AP's Steve Wilstein spotted a bottle of legal supplements in Mark McGwire's locker. A decade of stupidity and Reefer Madness hysteria ensued, the Bill of Rights died a little, and now people think Wilstein belongs in Cooperstown.
Wilstein has been nominated for the Hall of Fame's J.G. Taylor Spink Award by the Seattle chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, which is unstinting in its efforts to be wrong about pretty much everything. The award recognizes "meritorious contributions to baseball writing." What Wilstein did, to put it simply, was cast suspicion on a man doing something perfectly legal with his own body, thus setting the terms of a story that has ended with federal investigators tap-dancing on the Fourth Amendment, merrily committing crimes far greater than anything they were investigating in the first place. What exactly is meritorious about that?
Go back and read the story that started it all, in 1998. This was in August, in the teeth of the Sosa-McGwire pursuit of Roger Maris' record. Wilstein built an entire feature around a bottle of Androstenedione that he spotted on the top shelf of McGwire's locker. Andro was perfectly legal and available over the counter at the time, but that didn't stop Wilstein from whipping up a little hysteria:
Sitting on the top shelf of Mark McGwire's locker, next to a can of Popeye spinach and packs of sugarless gum, is a brown bottle labeled Androstenedione.
For more than a year, McGwire says, he has been using the testosterone-producing pill, which is perfectly legal in baseball but banned in the NFL, Olympics and the NCAA.
No one suggests that McGwire wouldn't be closing in on Roger Maris' home run record without the over-the-counter drug. After all, he hit 49 homers without it as a rookie in 1987, and more than 50 each of the past two seasons.
But the drug's ability to raise levels of the male hormone, which builds lean muscle mass and promotes recovery after injury, is seen outside baseball as cheating and potentially dangerous.
The story established the model for everything that has followed: insinuation, heaps of pseudo-science, a whiff of Drug War-era moralizing, the assumption that use is the same thing as abuse, the fat paragraph of scary side effects in which the writer essentially holds a flashlight under his chin and goes whooooooo, a quote or two from Gary Wadler, who remains the go-to drug warrior for journalists too embarrassed to quote someone named Dick Pound.
This isn't meritorious journalism. It's Nancy Reagan in newsprint.
Wilstein went on to become one of journalism's most persistent steroid crusaders, kibitzing baseball's evolving drug policy at every turn, finding an excuse to summon the specter of PEDs even when he was writing about tennis ("At a time when other pro sports have been beset by problems with steroids, the arrests of stars and confrontations with fans, tennis stands to gain as a civil alternative") and, I shit you not, the Iditarod.
"No one has been found to be doping their dogs, but there are suspicions among some mushers that it's been done, if not in the race, then in training. Anabolic steroids and blood doping - the injection of whole blood, packed blood cells or blood substitutes - could help make the dogs stronger and enhance their endurance and resilience."
He helped create a phony atmosphere of crisis that certain overeager federal investigators could exploit to such an extent that their flagrantly illegal seizure of baseball's 2003 steroid tests results — which included the results of players outside the scope of their search warrant, not to mention records for people with no connection to the BALCO case or even baseball — was mostly cheered. (I wonder if people will cheer when this case shows up before the Supreme Court.) When Sammy Sosa's name was whispered into the ear of The New York Times earlier this week, no one, that I saw, called for an investigation into the leaks (a crime for which someone will eventually get tossed in the federal hoosegow), and no one, that I saw, expressed any outrage that Sosa's name emerged only after a lot of people had their Fourth Amendment rights trampled. Instead, people demanded more names, more names, more names — hell, the whole damn list.
Wilstein didn't do any of this himself, of course, but this is his legacy as much as it is anyone's. (Geoff Baker, Mariners beat writer for the Seattle Times and the chairman of BWAA's Seattle chapter, called Wilstein one of "a select few" who worked diligently to uncover doping in baseball.) Wilstein is retired from sportswriting these days, seemingly content to be turned into an instrument by which his former profession simultaneously flays itself for not bulldogging the steroids story hard enough and congratulates itself for starting the conversation. He now writes children's stories.
McGwire Author Wilstein Nominated for Baseball Writers' Award [Bloomberg]
A Hall of Fame Find by a Sports Reporter [The New York Times]
Legal in baseball [SI.com]