When baseball was on life support, it took an epic home run race to resurrect the enthusiasm of its fans. With some of the game's biggest hitters implicated in the continuing steroids saga, how should the league, its players and the rest of us respond?
What would you do? Sure, it's a rhetorical question, but it still needs to be asked. What would you do if, say, on your job, you could take a magic pill that gave you an edge over your co-workers? What if you could use a special scalp treatment every morning that seeped into your brain, and increased your intelligence and aptitude? It's safe to assume that the average working man would quickly head to their neighborhood pharmacy to order a lifetime supply.
But wait a minute ... what if it was against the law to use those substances and the penalty included a pocket-emptying fine and potentially the loss of your job? And, what if the substances were linked to serious health risks such as heart and liver damage, high cholesterol, strokes, aggressive behavior and sexual dysfunction? Would you do it then?
"No" would be the immediate and proper response. But what if it meant a pay increase to the tune of thousands per year? Would that make a difference?
Perhaps the following story will hit closer to home: A new employee--much younger, more energetic and better educated--has been climbing the ladder at an unnatural pace. You secretly wonder if maybe he's taking performance enhancers because he can't be that good. And the bottom line is, it doesn't matter how he does it. If you don't do something fast, your career will evaporate, leaving you choking on his dust, standing there vulnerable, expendable and ... unemployed.
Would the fear of losing your job cause you to risk it all?
It sounds far-fetched, but professional baseball players face scenarios like this every day. The only difference is, for them, the stakes are higher ... astronomically higher. Instead of thousands of dollars of pay increases, we're talking millions.
You see, for the professional baseball player, taking anabolic steroids, human growth hormones (HGH), precursors, amphetamines or any other performance-enhancing drug available to them can make a huge difference in performance. Steroids might just provide the edge a player needs to set up shop in the big leagues, where he can earn a league minimum of $315,000 a year (the average annual salary is actually close to $2.5 million). Without the drugs, a player could wind up trolling minor league purgatory and scraping by on roughly $1,000 a month over a five- to six-month season. Or, worse yet, they could find themselves out of baseball altogether.
"If it's something that they believe they will benefit from to help their career, it will be a temptation because that's the way athletes are wired," former Major Leaguer Bryan Hickerson says. "They're looking for any possible way to be better on the field."
Ironically, some observers claim that performance enhancers may have "saved" America's pastime as much as they have tarnished its image.
During 1994's strike-shortened season, the unthinkable happened--the cancellation of the playoffs and the World Series. Baseball was in serious trouble. Attendance took a nose dive, and the game's cash flow was drying up. Even worse, die-hard fans were getting fed up with millionaires squabbling with billionaires over money. But that was nothing a spectacle of historic proportions couldn't fix.
Enter Mark McGwire and his home run race with slugger Sammy Sosa. In 1998, McGwire was in his first full season with St. Louis. He flirted with 60 home runs before, and he was noticeably bulkier than when he first entered the league 12 years earlier. But why ask questions when everyone was starting to love baseball again? Gary Smith, a 20-year staff writer at Sports Illustrated (SI), took Major League Baseball (MLB) to task over the whole steroids controversy in a March 28, 2005, cover story. Admittedly, he found himself caught up in "the home run race that saved baseball."
"Everybody was feeling so good about Sosa and McGwire in '98 that nobody wanted to stop and bum out too much over the Andro that was in McGwire's locker," Smith told New Man. "It was being discussed. There were columns written about it. It was like a buzz kill that no one wanted to dwell on too much that year. He got taken to task a bit for it, but he could always fall back into the safe harbor of the fact that Andro wasn't on the banned list."
At the time, Androstendedione (which "acts like a steroid once it is metabolized by the body, and can pose similar kinds of health risks as steroids," according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) was perfectly legal, and McGwire had no problem displaying his stash prominently in his locker for the media and the entire world to see.
McGwire did stop using Andro the next season but not before crushing Roger Maris' 1961 record of 61 home runs with 70. Sosa trailed not far behind with 66. The two were named SI's "Sportsmen of the Year" in 1998. Smith authored that cover story, retelling every detail of the slugfest.
In 2002, retired player Ken Caminiti told Sports Illustrated that he was taking steroids during his 1996 National League MVP season. His bombshell accusations claimed that at least 50 percent of all players were using the stuff. Tragically, Caminiti died October 10, 2004, of a heart attack at the age of 41.
Things really heated up after the 2003 season when slugger Barry Bonds told a U.S. grand jury that he unknowingly used undetectable steroids known as "the cream" and "the clear," which he received from personal trainer Greg Anderson during the 2003 season. According to Bonds, the trainer told him the substances were the nutritional supplement flaxseed oil and a pain-relieving balm for the player's arthritis.
The legitimacy of the historic 2001 season in which Bonds blasted a record-breaking 73 bombs was suddenly called into question. He finished the 2004 season with 703 career homers with just Babe Ruth (714) and Hank Aaron (755) standing between him and baseball immortality.
As records continue to fall, it's hard to understand why it has taken Major League Baseball so long to catch on. Surely they've seen the same signs as the rest of us. Surely Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, noticed the sharp increase in home runs and the mind-blowing distances they traveled.
And what about the physical evidence? Exploding arms, necks and thighs don't develop that quickly or that naturally. And the severe changes in the athletes' facial structures? Anabolic steroids don't just build muscle tissue, you know, they build skeletal tissue as well.
Smith gets it. He knows that the game has undoubtedly reaped the benefits of the long ball. "Baseball doesn't bother reconciling too much," he says. "They just keep moving on and hoping that everybody will forget."
Major League Baseball contends that as an organization, it has always been concerned about the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
"The commissioner [Bud Selig] has been clear that he thinks this is an issue on which we need to continue to evolve and improve," Executive Vice President of Labor Relations & Human Resources Rob Manfred says. "Having said that, I think if you take into account where we were in 2002 and the fact that this is a topic over which we must bargain with the union; we have made tremendous progress on this issue."
Certainly positive changes in baseball's drug policy have been made of late. On April 30, 2005, Bud Selig issued a statement to the MLB Players Association asking for a "three strikes and you're out policy," by far the strongest language from the MLB office to date.
But Smith and other critics point to the game's anemic attempts at stopping the problem in its tracks years earlier. While the problem dates back at least two decades, baseball didn't fully address the issue by banning anabolic steroids and testing for them until just three years ago. HGH, which works just like a steroid, is still untested.
"[Baseball has] been forced at every step," Smith says. "They've not taken a voluntary step or a strong step. They've been forced to this point. It's been a shabby response."
And while fans were soaking up the home run showers, steroids were allegedly becoming more of a problem in the clubhouse. That is, if you believe Caminiti, Jose Canseco and the handful of other players who have been bold enough (or maybe just plain crazy enough) to air out the locker room's dirty laundry.
Canseco, known for his boorish behavior, released his tell-all book, Juiced, earlier this year. He confessed his own involvement with steroids and implicated several others including McGwire, a former Oakland teammate. Canseco's egocentric tirade was enough to stir up a strong, if not nauseating, stink.
Yet, sadly, too many players have become accustomed to the stench. It's hard to find anyone still active who will speak freely about the health-related and integrity-related dangers of steroids. The clean players are afraid of alienating the users and, in general, most would rather the topic just go away.
"If players are involved, it's obvious why they don't want to discuss it," Manfred says. "For those players who are not involved, you're talking about teammates and people that you live with for 200 and something days a year. I think that people are reluctant to get into indicting others."
Smith agrees but still wonders how long the nonusers will remain silent. "It's a pretty natural response," Smith says. "But I would think that more and more of the guys who aren't doing it and never have done it would really want to start to step forward and put pressure in the opposite direction."
Back in March, the U.S. government decided to force the issue. Canseco, McGwire, Sosa, Curt Schilling, Rafael Palmeiro and Frank Thomas were among several witnesses subpoenaed by the House Government Reform Committee to testify about the presence of steroids in baseball. McGwire, who has been estimated to be 30 to 40 pounds lighter than at the end of his career, appeared on the verge of tears at least twice as he read his opening statement. The first time came as he referred to some of the participants of an earlier panel--the parents of two amateur baseball players whose suicides were attributed to steroid use.
Smith said that the hearings "served a real purpose in stigmatizing behavior. You can squabble about whether Congress should be involved or not, but if you stigmatize the behavior, the better chance you have of beginning to change it."
Bottom line? Players who use steroids, growth hormones, and so on, are cheaters, plain and simple. They are also abusing their own bodies. The increased muscle mass might bring immediate strength and endurance, but the long-term repercussions include heart problems, mood swings and, perhaps the greatest deterrent of them all, shrunken testicles.
Even worse, players who use steroids are setting horrible examples for the young athletes who look up to them and quite literally want to be them.
"It's leading young people to that dark corner," Smith says. "You follow the dream and that's where you end up with your dream. You've got to make that choice whether to give up your dream or ruin yourself physically."
So, what can baseball do to take care of this problem once and for all? Sports psychologist Dr. David Cook has a few suggestions, the first being a serious attempt to find cheaters through comprehensive testing. "They should test often and everyone," he says.
One of the arguments against massive testing is the issue of cost. The tests are expensive, and there are 750 Major League players alone. Perhaps fines assessed against players can go back into testing. Talk about your poetic justice. And speaking of fines, Major League Baseball needs to dig deep into the player's thick, well-stocked wallets.
"The penalty has got to be stiff," Cook says. "The players union has got to decide to agree with that. The players will have to say, 'Yeah, steroids is cheating.' If they don't, then they're protecting and they're the problem."
Smith supports the idea of fines, but thinks harsh suspensions and, ultimately, lifetime bans are the most effective tools that baseball can use to police itself.
"To me, it should be the first time you're caught, then you're out for the year," he says. "The second time, you're gone for life."
And if you really want to hit the players where it hurts the most, aim for the ego. With the strong possibility that steroids have tainted our modern home run records, Smith submits that a simple grammatical tool will suffice.
"I've got no problem with asterisks," Smith says. "I've got no problem with not even honoring records. Not only should [steroid users] get much stronger suspensions but [baseball should] make it clear that anyone who gets caught with steroids, their records won't count."
But for baseball to truly clean up its act and restore integrity to its hallowed halls, the league, the players and the fans must come together in an act of solidarity.
Unfortunately, Americans don't have the same moral backbone they once did. In researching for his article in Sports Illustrated, Smith was hard pressed to find anyone who was adamantly against steroid use. Most people were conflicted at best.
"I was kind of surprised, but I had done a little research and read some things that indicated that there are a lot of fans who thought that [steroid use was OK]," Smith explains. "I was aware of it on an intellectual basis, but, still, when you keep hearing it over and over, it's always troubling."
But what about us puristsyou know the ones that don't make seven-figure salaries and don't cheat to get ahead at workwho view baseball as a cherished American institution? How do we justify watching so many boys of summer allegedly sacrifice those last few shreds of innocence at their own personal altars of greed, pride and selfishness? What's a devoted fan to do?
Is nothing sacred? Sure, it's a rhetorical question, but it still needs to be asked.
Baseball and Steroids Timeline
November 1988 The sale of anabolic steroids for non-medical purposes is made illegal by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988
September 1989 The National Football League begins testing for steroids.
November 29, 1990 The Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990 makes the sale or possession of anabolic steroids without a prescription illegal.
August 12, 1994 Major League Baseball players go on strike. The remainder of the season is called off, including the playoffs and the World Series.
September 8, 1998 Mark McGwire breaks Roger Maris' 1961 home run record (61) by hitting his 62nd of the season.
September 27, 1998 McGwire hits his final home run of the baseball season, ending his record-breaking total at 70. His home run derby competitor, Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, finishes with 66 home runs.
December 21, 1998 McGwire and Sosa grace the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing ancient Greek attire. The two were named 1998's "Sportsmen of the Year."
October 5, 2001 Bonds hits his 71st home run of the season, breaking McGwire's record.
October 7, 2001 Bonds hits his 73rd and final home run of the season, establishing a new single-season record.
May 28, 2002 In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Ken Caminiti admits using steroids during his MVP season. He claims that at least 50 percent of all players also use steroids.
August 30, 2002 Major League Baseball officially bans the use of steroids.
March 2003 Survey testing begins to determine the percentage of players using steroids.
March 2004 Random testing of players begins.
April 12, 2004 The U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans the sale of Andro, the substance McGwire openly used during his 1998 record-breaking season. Major League Baseball follows suit the same day by adding Andro to its list of banned substances.
September 18, 2004 Bonds hits his 700th career home run, becoming only the third player in MLB history (behind Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron) to accomplish the feat. He ends the season at 703.
October 10, 2004 At 41, Caminiti dies of a heart attack.
December 2, 2004 Jason Giambi's grand jury testimony from the fall of 2003 is released. He testified that he injected himself with human growth hormone in 2003 and used steroids during the 2001-2003 seasons.
December 3, 2004 More testimony from the 2003 grand jury investigation into San Francisco-based drug company BALCO is released. Bonds testified that he unknowingly used substances (given to him by personal trainer Greg Anderson) that he believed were flaxseed oil and arthritis cream.
December 7, 2004 The MLB Players Association gives baseball union head Donald Fehr the authority to negotiate a tougher drug policy.
January 13, 2005 A new collective bargaining agreement is reached. The owners and players agree to include out-of-season testing, discipline for first-time offenders and the public naming of players that test positive for banned substances.
February 14, 2005 Jose Canseco's tell-all book, Juiced, is released. In it, he confessed his own involvement with steroids and implicated several others including McGwire, a former Oakland teammate.
March 17, 2005 Canseco, McGwire, Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Frank Thomas and Curt Schilling are among the host of baseball representatives called to testify about steroids before the House Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill.
April 3, 2005 Tampa Bay outfielder Alex Sanchez is suspended 10 days for violating baseball's new policy on performance-enhancing drugs, the first player publicly identified under the major league's tougher rules.
April 4, 2005 38 minor league players test positive and are suspended 10 days, according to Major League Baseball's Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
April 30, 2005 Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig sends a memo to the MLB Players Association suggesting a "three strikes and you're out" substance-abuse policy.
Chad Bonham is the contributing editor to New Man magazine. This article was originally published in the July-August 2005 issue of New Man.