The Muscle Men

Grass doesn't get any greener than on major-league baseball's spring training fields. It's the annual dawn of each season, when vivacious young hopefuls play catch with millionaire all-stars. That was the scene on a February morning at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, spring training home of the St. Louis Cardinals. Dozens of players who likely will never play an inning of a meaningful game in the big leagues struggled to impress assistant coaches in fielding drills and batting practice — perhaps their only chance to wear the famed Cardinal red. Fans relaxed in the spring air. Parents and grandparents ate hot dogs and sipped beer as children in ball caps clung to the chain-link fence, begging for fragments of broken bats or old balls, calling their heroes by name: "There's Troy Glaus!" "Hey, Pujols! Albert Pujols!"

When Pujols — the most popular Cardinal — was done taking batting practice, fans wanted to know where the second most popular player was. He was the best story in sports in 2007, the man people compared to Robert Redford's character in The Natural. Where was Rick Ankiel?

Still, there were enough sights and smells to satiate even the most curious children and autograph seekers. There was even a tiny St. Louis fan who played a resident of Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz telling stories by the bleachers.

One year ago, this citadel of major-league baseball wasn't so serene. Investigators contend that South Florida is not just a popular spring training destination but also the epicenter of a nationwide network distributing illicit prescription steroids and human growth hormones.

Officers were assembling in a parking lot a few miles away in the commercial area of this wealthy retirement and golfing town. Federal agents brought a battering ram when they raided the quiet third-floor offices. They hauled out computers, file cabinets, bins of papers. The sign in front of the building said "Anti-aging clinic," but the name of the business was Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center. A line of employees — mostly muscular young men — exited the building while PBRC owners spoke with agents inside. Officers also carried out packages of stanozolol, a synthetic anabolic steroid; and cartridges of Genotropin, the brand name for synthetically produced human growth hormone.

The raids were a result of a joint investigation initiated by the Albany County District Attorney's Office in New York state. Deemed "Operation Which Doctor," it included the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, the IRS, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the New York State Bureau of Investigation. Albany D.A. David Soares was, at that very moment, at a simultaneous raid of Signature Pharmacy in Orlando. More agents were raiding Infinity Rejuvenation in Deerfield Beach and Oasis Longevity & Rejuvenation in Delray Beach, along with other "anti-aging clinics" in Texas and New York. The raids brought about more than a dozen arrests and seizures of truckloads of customer records.

Former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) released a report to Bud Selig, commissioner of major-league baseball, last December detailing the illegal use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs by players. The Mitchell Report, which followed more than a year and a half of investigation and cost $60 million to produce, said rejuvenation centers like PBRC "troll the internet for customers, corrupt physicians who write prescriptions for patients they have not seen, and compounding pharmacies [which make drugs from raw ingredients] that fill these dubious prescriptions and deliver performance enhancing substances to end users by mail." The report describes allegations about Roger Clemens and the widespread steroid dealings of former New York Mets batboy Kirk Radomski but says, "As serious as Kirk Radomski's illegal distribution network was before it was shut down by federal agents, the threat to baseball posed by illegal sales of performance enhancing substances over the internet is greater."

District Attorney Soares' office claims these businesses were no more than boiler rooms or call centers set up to streamline illegal drug sales over the internet by connecting — through cyberspace only — crooked doctors with the most desperate players in the game. Star players like Clemens and Barry Bonds have personal trainers to procure their drugs (allegedly), but patrons of these rejuvenation centers are young athletes striving to make it onto a major-league roster or journeyman veterans willing to do anything to extend their careers another year. They're pro athletes, but most are far from household names: Paul Byrd, Jay Gibbons, Jose Guillen, Darren Holmes, Ismael Valdez, Steve Woodward, and Jupiter's own Rick Ankiel, all of whom, the report claims, purchased HGH and prescription drugs from South Florida rejuvenation centers.

At a time when the steroids issue so pervades sports and prescription drugs inundate our culture, many see an operation like this and shake their heads. Fans want to see men with bigger chests and arms hit baseballs harder and farther. They want to see towering pitchers well into their 40s burn fastballs past men half their age. Ticket prices are up. Attendance is up (except at Marlins games). Television revenues are up.

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Michael J. Mooney