NEW YORK – For more than a century, baseball players corked bats, stole signs and cheated in other ways. The way Larry Bowa sees it, performance-enhancing drugs are different.

“I think when you play a sport at this level and you can get an edge, you take advantage of it,” the Los Angeles Dodgers’ third base coach said just days after Manny Ramirez became the latest superstar implicated in drug use. “I don’t think steroids is what we’re talking about to get the edge. People might say that’s hypocritical, but those things that we did – whether it was using an emery board or corking a bat, it can’t kill you. But this stuff can kill you.”

Major League Baseball suspended the Dodgers’ dreadlocked outfielder for 50 games Thursday. One day later, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez returned from hip surgery, stepping onto the field amid taunts and jeers after admitting in February that he used banned drugs while with the Texas Rangers from 2001-2003.

“Everyone sees what happens with steroids,” broadcaster Bob Costas said. “Great players became superhuman. Good players became great. Marginal players became very good. It’s a huge difference maker. It’s a career changer. It’s a career extender, and in the era of big money, many players see it was worth the risk because there were tens of millions of dollars to be made.”

In this steroids era, the spotlight on players accused of using banned drugs is unlikely to dim anytime soon.

Barry Bonds is under federal indictment, and Roger Clemens is being investigated by a federal grand jury to determine whether he lied when he told Congress he never used steroids or human growth hormone.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and Fehr have both said they were slow to react to the sport’s drug problem. Currently, every baseball player is tested each year within five days of reporting to spring training and again at a randomly selected unannounced date. There are 1,200 additional unannounced tests of randomly selected players.

The survey test that caught Rodriguez was in 2003. Testing with penalties didn’t start until 2004, and punishment for first offenses began in 2005.

Baseball discovered Ramirez’s use of HCG from a urine sample during spring training, a person familiar with the testing said, speaking on condition of anonymity because details weren’t released. Because the union has the ability to fight positive tests before an arbitrator, MLB chose instead to find documentary evidence that Ramirez ultimately concluded he couldn’t challenge.

There were 3,486 tests among 1,348 players last year, with five positives for performance-enhancing drugs, according to the baseball drug program’s public report. There were an additional 14 positives for stimulants.

Former New York Mets general manager Steve Phillips said he believes other athletes can come back from a positive test, whereas “in baseball it’s the end of your legacy.”

“Every year in the Olympics, somebody tests positive,” said Phillips, now an ESPN commentator. “I’m not sure baseball is different than other sports.”

Baseball officials, too, have expressed frustration that they feel they are in a no-win situation. If a star is punished, some people say the sport hasn’t been cleaned up. If no stars are caught, some say the system isn’t functioning properly.

“You are never going to be 100 percent in terms of preventing steroids use,” said Rob Manfred, executive vice president for labor relations in the commissioner’s office. “The relatively low number of positives we have, coupled with the discernible differences you see on the field leads to the conclusion we have a program that is working effectively.”

Dr. Gary Wadler, a frequent critic of baseball’s drug-testing rules, agrees the sport has improved. Still, he wants it to do even more – adopt the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list and punishments. Under those rules, most first-time doping offenses are punished with a two-year ban.

“You can keep nibbling away, but we should be at the stage beyond nibbling,” said Wadler, who leads the committee that determines WADA’s banned-substances list. “They get closer and closer, but they never quite get there.”

Bowa said he’s hopeful baseball can overcome its latest drug scandal and take additional steps, such as blood tests for human growth hormone, to clean up the sport even more.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you to your face that we’re 99 and nine-tenths clean out there. I can’t say that,” he said. “I do think this program is working, no question. Is it 100 percent effective? No. Is it better than it was? Most definitely.”

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