By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - It was the summer of 1998 and America was caught in the grips of a home run duel for the ages, watching in awe as St. Louis Cardinals Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs Sammy Sosa slugged it out in Major League ballparks across the nation.
That summer, with the use of performance-enhancing substances not yet illegal in Major League Baseball (MLB), a jar of androstenedione, a steroids precursor, sat brazenly in McGwire's locker as he continued his drug-fuelled assault on one of American sport's most revered marks - the single-season home run record.
Across the Atlantic, the Tour de France was being plunged into its own doping scandal sparking widespread outrage over the black eye brought to one of the sporting world's great events.
But at the same time, baseball fans and officials in the United States were celebrating, having turned a blind eye to any suggestion of doping as a new Home Run King was crowned, McGwire blasting 70 homers to smash Roger Maris' all-time record of 61.
No sport in America has produced more mythical figures or heroic feats than baseball.
Home runs and the men who hit them have always held immense fascination for baseball fans but some of the most dazzling moments ever witnessed on the ball diamond have been dimmed forever having unfolded during one of the sport's darkest periods, now known simply as the 'Steroid Era'.
The door to Hall of Fame effectively remains closed to McGwire and other drug cheats, their place in the Cooperstown shrine out of reach for bringing shame on the great American pastime.
No firm date has ever been established for the start of the Steroid Era but during the 1990s the Major Leagues saw an unprecedented power surge at the plate as home runs flew out of stadiums in historic numbers.
In baseball's long storied history only 25 men have ever slammed more than 500 homers, 10 joining the elite group between 1998-2009 and six of those - McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield and MLB's all-time home run king, Barry Bonds - have been linked to drugs.
In 2003, BALCO, the little laboratory on the outskirts of San Francisco, became the epicenter of a massive doping scandal that shocked the sporting world.
BALCO head Victor Conte, a former bass guitarist who switched careers and opened the laboratory, used a gregarious personality and self-taught knowledge of nutrition to gain access to some of the top names in sport including baseball sluggers Bonds, Sheffield and Jason Giambi supplying them with the latest in performance-enhancing drugs.
The names announced on Monday following MLB's exhaustive investigation into Biogenesis, a non-descript Miami-based anti-ageing clinic, were no less sensational with Rodriguez, baseball's highest paid player, headlining a list of 13 players, including All-Stars and MVP's, alleged to have use performance-enhancing drugs.
Rodriguez, the New York Yankees third baseman who has yet to play this season during his recovery from hip surgery, was hit with a 211 regular season games suspension by commissioner Bud Selig, sending a message that MLB will no longer tolerate drug cheats.
Once considered the player to lead baseball out of a Steroids Era by overtaking Bonds at the top of the career home run list, Rodriguez's legacy is now tarnished and his career in disarray.
MLB's did not always approach the challenge of ridding baseball of drugs with such zeal.
When the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was founded in 1999, president Dick Pound set his cross-hairs on North America's sport leagues and immediately labeled MLB's anti-doping efforts "a joke".
Indeed, compared to testing and sanctions faced by Olympic athletes, MLB penalties were barely a slap on the wrist with first time offenders handed a 10-day suspension, 30 days for the second, 60 days for the third, and one year for the fourth positive test.
WADA gained a valuable ally in their fight when the U.S. Congress used its muscle to force MLB to confront the doping issue.
"Baseball didn't care, until the U.S. Congress forced them to care," said Pound. "By organizing WADA, we have the professional leagues on the defense.
"My job is to deal with people in their faces."
Under threat from U.S. Congress to clean up the 'national pastime', MLB brought in highly respected Senator George Mitchell to conduct an independent investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the Major Leagues.
The result was a 20-month probe and an explosive, 409-page document known as "The Mitchell Report" released in 2007 that detailed a deep-rooted drug culture within baseball, identifying 89 players, including pitching great Roger Clemens, as alleged users of performance-enhancing drugs.
Selig termed the report "a call to action" and vowed to clean up baseball but six years later MLB continues to be battered by doping scandals.
In 2011, Los Angeles Dodgers Manny Ramirez retired from baseball rather than face a 100 game ban after a second positive test.
The following season San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera, the All-Star game most valuable player, was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for testosterone while the reigning National League most valuable player Ryan Braun became the first major-leaguer to win an appeal of a positive test as his 50-game suspension is overturned.
Braun, however, was eventually snared in the MLB drug net accepting a 65 game suspension for his involvement with the Biogenesis investigation.
"We continue to attack this issue on every front - from science and research, to education and awareness, to fact-finding and investigative skills," said Selig in announcing the suspensions.
"Major League Baseball is proud of the enormous progress we have made and we look forward to working with the players to make the penalties for violations of the Drug Program even more stringent and a stronger deterrent."
(Reporting by Steve Keating; editing by Julian Linden)