Gene Budig has seen baseball teeter on the edge of disaster and says the game's latest steroid scandal will pass with time.

Budig, 68 and a resident on the Isle of Palms, was named president of the American League back in 1994, just nine days before the infamous players' strike that shut down ballparks and broke baseball hearts all across America.

It was a sad time. The future of baseball was in peril. A season was lost. So was that imaginary thing called innocence.

And yet, amazingly, baseball bounced back, bigger and better than ever. A testament, Budig says, to the grand old game itself.

"America loves baseball. The Mitchell Report has not changed that," he said in the wake of last week's revelations of extensive steroid use by some of baseball's biggest names. "I will predict that Major League Baseball will draw more than 80 million people next year. That will be another record for the game."

Is that because Americans simply don't care about the steroid issue?

"No," says Budig. "That's because baseball is America's game. It has been for generations and it continues to be."

Surprised, embarrassed

Budig represents one of the things we've come to love about the cultural renaissance of Charleston and the Lowcountry. He is just one of many nationally known figures who chose pluff mud over snowplows for their retirement years.

This after serving as a general in the Air National Guard, president of Illinois State University, the University of West Virginia, the University of Kansas, the American League and writing several books, the latest of which is titled, "Grasping The Ring," due out in the spring.

Moreover, Budig is now one of the local owners of the Charleston RiverDogs, our Class A minor league baseball team.

And like most baseball people, he was saddened by the latest scandal that points fingers at everybody in the game for letting steroids become such a dominating, damaging factor on and off the field.

"As for the Mitchell Report, I was surprised, I was embarrassed, I feel terrible about the revelations," he said. "It was not the best of days for those of us who care about the game. But at the same time, it was a rewarding day to be able to stand up and say to the world that Major League Baseball has the most rigorous of the drug testing programs and that we have the leadership now to make it work."

Rich past, sobering future

That, of course, is hindsight. The most damning thing former Senator George Mitchell's report exposed, other than a few big-name players, was the way baseball's owners, leaders and players ignored the problem and let it fester into what it finally became, a generational black-eye on the sport.

"I agree with Senator Mitchell when he said baseball moved too slowly," Budig said of the game's resistance to implement testing in the 1990s. "The same can be said for all the major professional sports. I think we have learned a painful lesson, but it's one the public can embrace and say we're headed in the right direction."

That pain may not be noticed at the ticket windows where Budig predicts fans will still flock to see baseball games in the future. It will, however, manifest itself in other ways.

"There are tremendous issues of credibility that the commissioner (Bud Selig) faces," Budig said. "Case in point, Hall of Fame entries. Case in point, the use of the asterisk. That troubles me."

Budig, however, says he's prone to forgive and feels the game must look ahead and plan for the future.

"The drug problems that plague baseball are the very same that the NBA and NFL face," Budig said. "And many of those same problems are seen at the college level and many fear we're beginning to see it at the high school level.

"Major League Baseball must now begin to look far out into the future. It has never done that because of its rich past. It had always assumed continued good will. But I think the owners have been sobered by this and they will be very, very vigilant in the next couple of years."

Reach Ken Burger at 937-5598