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The Man Who Warned Baseball About Steroids

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Paul K. Buck / AFP / Getty

Texas Rangers pitcher Rick Helling in 1998

The 1998 baseball season was a party of epic proportions, the equivalent of an all-nighter with the music cranked and every care in the world, or at least the anger and bitterness of the 1994-95 players' strike, easily forgotten. The 1998 Yankees, the winningest team of all time, were just part of the fun for Bud Selig, whose caretaking role as interim commissioner finally ended in midsummer. Bud Selig, who had owned the Milwaukee Brewers, was the ultimate insider.

It was an expansion year, with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks adding two more television markets, $260 million in expansion fees, and another 324 games to the inventory of moneymaking possibilities. Attendance jumped 12%, with almost seven and a half million more people paying their way into ballparks. The per-game major league average improved by 4% to 29,054, the best it had been since before the strike hit. The ratings for games televised by Fox improved by 11%t.

It was the year David Wells threw his perfect game, a rookie Cubs pitcher named Kerry Wood struck out a record-tying 20 batters and the age-defying Roger Clemens, while in the employ of the Toronto Blue Jays at that stage of his pitcher-for-hire phase, became the first pitcher to strike out 18 or more batters in a game for the third time.

Most of all, it was the year that belonged to hitters, who just happened to be growing cartoonishly large and hitting baseballs into parts of ballparks where no baseballs had gone before. It was a freak show and baseball loved it. It was the first season in history in which four players hit 50 home runs. Greg Vaughn and Ken Griffey Jr., half of the 50-plus bombers that year, were dwarfed in size, production and attention by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Both McGwire, with 70 home runs, and Sosa, with 66, blew away the record 61 home runs of Roger Maris that had stood as the standard for 37 years. America was captivated by the two huge men and the great home-run race. Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, praised McGwire and Sosa as the "home-run kings for working families in America." McGwire, with forearms the size of a grown man's neck, 17 inches around, was a gate attraction unto himself, a modern wonder of the world. Ballparks opened their gates early and called in concession staffs to clock in early just to accommodate the thousands of fans who wanted to see him take batting practice. On September 9, Fox scrapped the season premieres of its prime-time Tuesday night shows to televise the game in which McGwire would hit his record-breaking 62nd home run. More than 43 million people watched.

Baseball was awash in goodwill, national attention and money like it had not seen in many years. The Los Angeles Dodgers garishly flaunted such largesse after that season by giving Kevin Brown, a pitcher soon to turn 34 years old, an age when players traditionally had neared retirement as their bodies gave out, a seven-year contract worth $105 million, sweetening the deal with private jet service back and forth from his Georgia home.

That same winter, with the party raging at full throttle, one man rose up and basically announced the whole damn thing was a fraud. Rick Helling, a 27-year-old righthanded pitcher and the players' representative for the Texas Rangers, stood up at the winter meeting of the Executive Board of the Major League Baseball Players Association and made an announcement. He told his fellow union leaders that steroid use by ballplayers had grown rampant and was corrupting the game.

"There is this problem with steroids," Helling told them. "It's happening. It's real. And it's so prevalent that guys who aren't doing it are feeling pressure to do it because they're falling behind. It's not a level playing field. We've got to figure out a way to address it.

"It's a bigger deal than people think. It's noticeable enough that it's creating an uneven playing field. What really bothers me is that it's gotten so out of hand that guys are feeling pressure to do it. It's one thing to be a cheater, to be somebody who doesn't care whether it's right or wrong. But it's another thing when other guys feel like they have to do it just to keep up. And that's what's happening. And I don't feel like this is the right way to go."

What Helling had just done was the equivalent of turning up all the lights, clicking off the music and announcing the party was over. "He was the first guy," David Cone said, "who had the guts to stand up at a union meeting and say that in front of everybody and put pressure on it."

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