By Keith Mills
Thank you, Brian Roberts.
Athletes all over the world continue to deny their use of performance-enhancing drugs despite hard evidence and testimony to the contrary. They continue to hide behind the shame and embarrassment of getting caught despite the public’s willingness to forgive. And as they refuse to initiate insightful discussion, despite the next generation’s desire to hear the truth, Roberts is doing something about it. He's making a difference where it counts.
Roberts addressed more than 350 area high school athletes last Friday in Timonium at the "Powered By Me: Playing Safe, Fair and Sober" conference put on by Congressman Elijah E. Cummings and the St. Joseph’s Medical Center.
"I have a tremendous amount of admiration for Brian Roberts,” said Cummings, a graduate of City College in East Baltimore. "This is about life's lessons. This is about mistakes made and how you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going. And when you can help others from falling in that same ditch, that's just wonderful."
It has been four months since Roberts was named in the Mitchell Report, Major League Baseball's investigation into performance-enhancing drug use. He was named in the report by former Orioles teammate Larry Bigbie, and Roberts admitted to using steroids just a few days after the report came out. Last Friday, he made his first public appearance to discuss the subject.
“One of my closest friends was involved with it and did an interview and said he recalled a conversation that I had said I had done steroids once,” Roberts told the audience of high school athletes and their coaches. “So, here I was all over the national TV. Some of the TV people were saying I was wrongfully thrown into this, and I should sue. For a day or two I didn’t know what to do.
“I was just as confused as anybody. I knew what happened deep down in my heart. There were some people I trusted who said, 'Don’t tell anybody. They don’t deserve to know. They don’t need to know. This is your life.'
"In the end I said, 'I can’t live like that. The only thing I can do is tell the truth, and in the end I believe something good is going to come out of it.' "
It already has. Last Friday’s seminar is believed to be the first time a professional athlete has stepped forward publicly to share his or her experience with that next generation of athletes -- high school boys and girls who are under a tremendous amount of pressure to succeed, to compete at the next level, to earn a college scholarship and to live up to the enormous expectations of everyone around them.
“They’re so eager for information,” said Mike Gimble, director of substance abuse education at Sheppard Pratt Hospital who helped create the "Powered By Me" program last year. “They want to know the facts. They want to play safe, fair and sober. This is a model for what can be done in the future, and having Brian here to talk about his experience is fantastic."
"We're trying to set an example for the entire country," Cummings said. "I get phone calls from all over the country asking about this program and how they can implement it. It's very important that these types of events happen all over the country."
Cummings has been at the forefront in trying to educate the nation’s high school athletes about the dangers of steroids and human growth hormone use through the U.S. House Oversight Committee’s investigation on performance-enhancing drugs. The committee's work exploded on the national scene in March 2005 when Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Curt Schilling were brought to Capitol Hill to discuss the steroids issue. Since then, the committee has interviewed Roger Clemens, his former trainer Brian McNamee, baseball commissioner Bud Selig and Donald Fehr, MLB Players Association.
"I saw players come before our committee in Washington, and I didn't feel they were always honest with us," Cummings said. "Brian came forth early on and has been very upfront and honest."
"This is the first time we've seen someone like Brian come out and do this type of thing, and we want to thank him," Frank Merrero said. "It really shows a lot of character."
Frank and Brenda Merrero also attended the "Powered By Me" conference to talk to the student-athletes about their own, horrifying and first-hand experience of the devastation the abuse of steroids can cause. Their son Efrain used steroids while playing football at the College of Siskiyous in North California, not exactly Michigan or Ohio State, but a school with players who commonly used steroids to get bigger and stronger.
Frank Merrero found steroids in his son's room and flushed them down the toilet. Efrain Merrero shot himself in the head less than a month later, and his parents have been on a mission since to educate anyone who will listen.
"My son told us flat-out he was influenced by pro players who used steroids," Frank Merrero said. "Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire. For Brian to come forward and talk about it, someone of his stature, is very, very powerful. We want other players to come out as well."
Roberts grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C. His father Mike was the Tar Heels’ baseball coach. Brian Roberts was anything but a little league superstar growing up.
“I’m 5-foot-9, 175 pounds now," Roberts said, “In high school I was the same height but 140 pounds. I was always told I was too small. I was always told I was too slow. Our high school wasn’t very good in baseball, and I wasn't even the most valuable player of my team.”
But he worked at his game, overcame a serious lack of confidence and ignored the temptations of what has crippled more than its share of talented high school players to earn a spot on his dad’s team at North Carolina.
“There were so many temptations other than steroids,” Roberts said. “I didn’t know anything about steroids then. It was drugs and alcohol that I had to stay away from. I lived through fears back then.
“I was going through a major struggle playing for my dad and being the coach's son. How was I going to make them believe I wasn’t going to run and tell the coach what was going on? I lived through the pressure, and that was very, very difficult.”
Roberts not only survived but thrived and was selected by the Orioles in the first round of the 1999 draft. Two years later, he made his major league debut at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, getting his first major league hit off Mets pitcher Steve Traschel, now one of his teammates.
“That’s the first time I knew anything about steroids, first time I knew people who attempted to use them," Roberts said. “I moved in with a couple of my teammates who were using them, but that’s not the way I was raised. I accepted that for two years.
“Then one day, a day I wish I could take back, it happened. I fell into temptation. It’s something that will stay with me for a long, long time. But what you have to realize is we all make mistakes.”
The athletes and coaches who sat in the ballroom at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Timonium were silent when Roberts talked about the first time he used steroids. Players such as Rafael Caldwell of City College and coaches such as Randy Dase of Towson, Guy Pritzger of Owings Mills, Leonard Hart of Woodlawn and Kelsey Twist of Roland Park hung on Roberts' every word.
"Through that whole process," Roberts said, "I realized I don't need this. Where I need to go is hard work and dedication, and so I began training in Arizona in a whole different light. I spend about five hours a day weight training, speed and agility training. I have my blood tested for my diet. I didn't want to look back 10 years from now and say, 'I was lazy, and I took the shortcut.' When all is said and done, you want to look back and say, 'I gave it everything that I could. I did it the right way.'"
"Very impressive," said Bob Wade, the coordinator of athletics for Baltimore City public schools. "A young man of his stature to come here and talk to these kids about drug abuse and steroids is just fantastic."
“It was very powerful,” Caldwell said. “He proved he’s human like the rest of us."
Roberts spoke to the athletes for 30 minutes and urged them to seek counsel when faced with the temptations of using drugs or alcohol, steroids or HGH.
"I would certainly recommend when you deal with these battles or see your friends doing something that you know isn't right, talk to somebody," Roberts said. "Your coaches, your parents, a friend, a teacher. We're all dealing with something. You may feel like you're alone but you're not. You may feel like a sore thumb sticking out, but when you look back, it will be one of the best decisions you ever made."
"Again, this about how to live life," Cummings said. "Certainly the ultimate goal for some of these kids is that they go to the pros. But it's more than that. It's about life lessons. I don't care who you are, you're going to make mistakes. Then the issue is how do you deal with the mistakes? And to help someone else not make those mistakes, that's what will take this program to a new level."
"It is hard," Roberts said. "You don't want people to know you've made mistakes. It's hard enough to look yourself in the mirror and say 'I screwed up.' To look young people in the eye who you know are watching you on TV, wearing your T-shirts, it's difficult.
"I also realized it happened for a great reason. For me to stand up there and give some sort of hope and ways to battle those temptations and struggles. We're not going to win all the battles, but if we can say, 'Hey, we all make mistakes.' If we can turn them around and make something good out of it, then this has all been worth it."
Issue 3.17: April 24, 2008