With a federal indictment looming over Barry Bonds, the steroids issue casts a cloud over the game that continues to grow darker with each passing home run.

Was it real, or was it enhancements?

Larry Starr, a trainer for 30 years with the Cincinnati Reds and Florida Marlins, was among those who tried to warn baseball almost two decades ago that trouble was brewing. Retired from the game and currently an assistant athletic director at Nova Southeastern, he laments if only those in charge had listened.

"Here's the thing that really bothers me," Starr said in a recent interview with FLORIDA TODAY. "They sit there, meaning the commissioner's office, Bud Selig and that group, and the players' association, Don Fehr and that group . . . they sit there and say, 'Well, now that we know that this happened we're going to do something about it.'

"I have notes from the Winter Meetings where the owners group and the players' association sat in meetings with the team physicians and team trainers. I was there. And team physicians stood up and said, 'Look, we need to do something about this. We've got a problem here if we don't do something about it.' That was in 1988."

A Starr witness

Today, a lot of people in baseball are very interested in listening to what Starr and some others have to say. The committee investigating the steroids issue headed by former Sen. George Mitchell has interviewed Starr four times, and he expects to be called again. Starr told FLORIDA TODAY there were some players on the Florida Marlins' team that won the franchise's first World Series in 1997 that used steroids.

While fans hear the names McGwire, Sosa and Bonds when the steroids issue is discussed, Starr's name is actually a very popular one with the committee trying to figure out just how rampant the problem is in baseball.

"I'm in a neat position after being in baseball for 30 years and not being involved in it now," Starr said.

He said he's very familiar "what elements came into the game" while he was in baseball.

While Starr won't name players' names, he did estimate to FLORIDA TODAY there were "some teams that had a high percentage" of players using steroids while he was still in the game.

"By high percentage, meaning 30 to 40 percent of the team might have been using," Starr said. "(But) some teams had maybe only one or two."

Starr was one of the most admired and respected trainers in baseball during his career. Through the years, he watched the steroid problem grow worse and worse. By the late '80s he was concerned.

Since baseball did not have drug testing, Starr said he felt frustrated. He didn't feel like he could protect the players from themselves or those pushing steroids on the athletes. So he took a different stance. He tried to help them as much as he could when they had problems with the performance enhancers some experimented with.

Tried to help

"My whole thing is, I don't totally blame the players," Starr said. "They didn't abuse the system. They used the system. The system was such that there was no testing so . . . the bad thing was it really put the medical people in a bad situation. If we couldn't test, there was no way we could accuse somebody point blank that they were using some type of performance-enhancing substance."

Starr said he first realized a player was using steroids on the Reds in 1984.

"Here's the position I took," he said. "If I can't test, if I can't do anything objective with them, what I told my players was come on in (the training room). If you've got any questions, we'll close the door, close the blinds, there will be no papers, no pencils and what do you want to know. And I'd tell them everything I knew."

Several players came to Starr after their bodies had strange reactions to steroids, and he tried to guide them. With so much money in the game, it was only logical there would be a lot of experimentation. And it continued when he left Cincinnati to join the expansion Marlins in the 1990s.

"When Mark McGwire was discovered taking androstenedione, when that hit ESPN, four players walked into my office within an hour and asked, 'Where can I get androstenedione,' " Starr said.

By the late '80s, he estimates that "20-30 percent" of the big-league players were using steroids.

"If Mark McGwire's hitting home runs out of the stadium, wouldn't you want to do the same thing?" Starr said. "Especially when this stuff came from GNC, and they weren't told they couldn't use it. They weren't told they couldn't use steroids. So why not? Especially when people that were selling it to them were telling them there were no harmful effects."

Starr has refused to give the Mitchell committee the names of any players who used steroids, but he's been asked many times in subtle ways, "What about this guy?"

Lamenting failures

Starr remembers one player who ended the season in 1989 weighing 171 pounds. In the spring, the same player reported to camp weighing 205, and his body fat had actually dropped from eight percent to 5.8. That was one of the moments that frightened him the most -- a player who was obviously loaded with performance enhancers to a dangerous point.

He still thinks about some of those players he tried to help when they were in the middle of all the experimenting that has gone on in the past 20 years or so in baseball and worries about the possible long-term ramifications -- both to the game and the individuals' bodies.

"One year, we did a little survey (among the big-league trainers), and we got 20 names of players who gained anywhere from 35 to 50 pounds, and their body mass index went down," Starr said. "That's almost impossible. . . . My job was to keep people healthy, my job was to keep people from injuring themselves. I couldn't do that. I wasn't able to do the things I could do to protect these guys."