Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA. I'm Steve Ember.
And I’m Faith Lapidus. The two thousand five season of Major League Baseball opened on April fourth. But not all the action is on the playing field.
We start with details of the investigation in Congress into the illegal use of drugs by players to improve performance.
On April third, one day before the opening games of the season, a player on the Tampa Bay team in Florida was suspended. Baseball officials say Alex Sanchez violated a new Major League policy on steroids. He was suspended for ten days.
Alex Sanchez became the first player publicly identified under the new drug policy. It took effect last month, as Congress launched an investigation into the use of steroids in baseball.
Several current and former players appeared before a congressional committee in Washington on March seventeenth. Representative Tom Davis of Virginia heads the House Government Reform Committee. Congressman Davis says he ordered the investigation for two reasons.
First, he says he is concerned about the trustworthiness of the game. Second, he fears that steroids are a growing public-health problem among young athletes.
Mister Davis says too many college athletes believe they have to consider steroids if they want to go on to professional sports. High school athletes, in turn, think steroids might help them get scholarships or financial aid from colleges and universities.
Anabolic steroids are copies of the male hormone testosterone. They increase the size and strength of muscles. Adult males normally produce about ten milligrams or less of testosterone per day. Steroid users may take more than one hundred milligrams a day.
There is a big danger. Steroids can cause heart problems, liver damage, stroke and high cholesterol in the blood. They can increase aggression. And they can harm the reproductive system. Steroids can also affect the bones and limit height in young people.
In the United States, anabolic steroids are banned without an order from a doctor for medical use. But people find ways to buy these drugs illegally. Some get them over the Internet. Others go to Mexico to find them.
Baseball has been criticized for having a weaker drug-testing program than the National Football League or the National Basketball Association.
Now Major League Baseball has just strengthened its policy. A player found using steroids will be suspended for ten days for the first offense. A second violation means a thirty-day suspension. A third violation brings a suspension of sixty days.
Players found a fourth time using steroids will be suspended for one year. All suspensions are without pay.
The new rules also require every player to be tested for steroids at least one time during the playing season. There is no limit to the number of unannounced tests that a player may have to take. Players could also be tested in the off-season.
Yet critics say the new policy does not go far enough. They say baseball should have the same testing policies as the International Olympic Committee.
Olympic athletes are tested regularly for the use of performance drugs. They are barred from competition for up to two years for a first violation. After a second violation, they are barred for life.
A lot of baseball fans also believe that star players should not remain in the record books if they used steroids.
The House Committee on Government Reform is considering the issues, and not just in baseball. Two weeks after its hearing, the committee requested information from professional football, basketball, hockey and soccer. The committee asked for details of their steroid policies and results of testing programs.
The lawmakers also requested information from the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the U.S.A. Track and Field organization.
The House committee says it will hold more hearings at a later date. The committee may propose a single steroid policy for all sports in the United States, from professional down to the high school level.
But some people believe Congress has little power to influence the rules of professional sports.
Concern about steroid use in baseball grew during the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. In nineteen ninety-eight both players broke the record for the most home runs in one season.
Babe Ruth had set the record at sixty home runs in nineteen twenty-seven. His record stood for more than thirty years, until Roger Maris hit sixty-one.
Sammy Sosa finished the nineteen ninety-eight season with sixty-six home runs. Mark McGwire had seventy.
Both men appeared last month before the House Committee on Government Reform. Sammy Sosa denied using steroids. Mark McGwire refused to say. He retired in two thousand one.
Another former baseball star, Jose Canseco, also appeared before the committee. He has admitted using steroids. In his new book, "Juiced," Jose Canseco also accuses other players of using steroids. These include Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
Members of Congress are not the only ones investigating steroid use in sports. In two thousand three, in California, federal investigators raided the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, known as Balco. A federal grand jury is now investigating this company in connection with illegal sales of drugs to professional athletes.
These days there is lots of talk about baseball in Washington, and not just because of the investigations. The city has a new Major League team, the Washington Nationals. The "Nats" formerly played as the Montreal Expos in Canada.
The Expos were in financial trouble. Owners of other Major League teams bought the Expos in two thousand two. The owners looked for a new home for the team. Washington competed against five other cities. A financial disagreement almost wrecked the deal.
The first regular-season game in Washington is this Thursday against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Nationals will play in R.F.K. Stadium until a new ballpark is finished. It is expected to be ready in two thousand eight.
The team colors for the Nationals are -- you guessed it -- red, white and blue.
The last Major League team in the District of Columbia, the Washington Senators, moved away in nineteen seventy-one. They became the Texas Rangers.
Since then, baseball fans in Washington have had to travel sixty kilometers to Baltimore to watch the Orioles play. The Orioles play in the American League; the Nats are in the National League. Together the two leagues have thirty teams.
The Orioles and the Nationals will not play each other until two thousand six.
Baseball has been played for more than a century. The sport known as America's national pastime remains very popular. The New York Times reported that forty-nine million early tickets for this season had been sold through March thirty-first. Advance ticket sales were up more than six percent from last year, even with all the talk about steroids.
Last week, there were findings from a public opinion study for the Associated Press and the Internet provider America Online. A thousand adults were asked by telephone what they considered the biggest problem in baseball.
Twenty-seven percent listed steroids. But thirty-three percent said a bigger problem is that players are paid too much. The average Major League player earned over two million dollars last year.
Still, two-thirds of those questioned agreed that players found to have used steroids should not be honored in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And most people approved of the intervention by Congress. In fact, forty percent said lawmakers should do more.
Our program was written by Jill Moss and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Faith Lapidus.
And I’m Steve Ember. If you would like to send us e-mail, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. And our programs are online at voaspecialenglish-dot-com. Please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.