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Drugs in baseball

A sorry spectacle is being played out in a Pittsburgh courtroom, as baseball players testify about illegal drug use in the major leagues. This is not the first time that drug use has been charged among the players, nor is baseball the only sport affected. Yet concern among both fans and baseball officialdom is deeper today than ever before about the depth of penetration of drug abuse into the national pastime.

New baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth is on target when he says the use of illegal drugs risks compromising the integrity of the sport and must be rooted out. Increasingly, when a player performs at a subpar level the question now privately is raised by both baseball officials and fans as to whether his athletic deficiencies might be drug related.

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Further, there is the potential for ``throwing'' games. Baseball was severely shaken by the 1919 ``Black Sox'' scandal, in which eight players were barred from the game for life on charges of conspiring, in return for money, to lower their standard of play so that their own team would lose the World Series. Today the possibility exists that drug-using players could become deeply indebted to drug dealers and thus vulnerable to demands that they affect the outcome of contests.

Mr. Ueberroth's announced determination to rid baseball of drug use parallels the efforts now being made in private industry, which is rebelling at drug use by employees in the workplace.

Adults realize baseball is not a game but a business. But the athletes are idolized by many American youngsters. Players, so much in today's media limelight, have a responsibility to stay away from drugs and other nefarious influences.

Those who have had the poor judgment to succumb to drugs have undermined much of the public's sympathy for the players' efforts to obtain higher salaries and pensions. The average major-league salary is now $330,000 a year.

The legal immunity granted several players to testify is not likely to win fan support for the athletes, either. Would a sandlot athlete be offered the same immunity as the celebrity performer?

The proposal by baseball's hierarchy that mandatory drug testing be started for people in baseball, including players, may be repugnant as an invasion of privacy. Mandatory testing, as in Olympics programs, has been required to detect performance-enhancement through drug use.

Whatever the dimension actually is of drug abuse among players, it is in baseball's long-term interests that it now be fully exposed and rooted out. It is unfortunate, however, that a court case was required: Organized baseball has had years of warning of the existence of substantial drug use within the sport, and ought itself to have dealt effectively with the problem.

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