SI Flashback: Totally Juiced
With the use of steroids and other performance enhancers rampant, according to a former MVP and other sources, baseball players and their reliance on drugs have grown to larming proportions
By Tom Verducci, With Reporting By Don Yaeger, George Dohrmann Luis Fernando Llosa And Lester Munson
Arizona Diamondbacks righthander Curt Schilling thinks twice before giving a teammate the traditional slap on the butt for a job well-done. "I'll pat guys on the ass, and they'll look at me and go, 'Don't hit me there, man. It hurts,'" Schilling says. "That's because that's where they shoot the steroid needles."
The Texas Rangers were packing their gear after the final game of a road series last year when a player accidentally knocked over a small carry bag by his locker. Several vials of steroids spilled out and rolled on the clubhouse carpet. The player, hardly embarrassed or concerned, gave a slight chuckle and scooped them up. No one else in the room showed any surprise.
Steroid use, which a decade ago was considered a taboo violated by a few renegade sluggers, is now so rampant in baseball that even pitchers and wispy outfielders are juicing up--and talking openly among themselves about it. According to players, trainers and executives interviewed by SI over the last three months, the game has become a pharmacological trade show. What emerges from dozens of interviews is a portrait of baseball's intensifying reliance on steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. These drugs include not only human growth hormone (hGH) but also an array of legal and illegal stimulants, ranging from amphetamines to Ritalin to ephedrine-laced dietary supplements, that many big leaguers pop to get a jolt of pregame energy and sharpen their focus (box, page 38). But it is the use of illegal steroids that is growing fastest and having a profound impact on the game.
The surest sign that steroids are gaining acceptance in baseball: the first public admission of steroid use--without remorse--by a prominent former player. Ken Caminiti, whose 15-year big league career ended after a stint with the Atlanta Braves last season, revealed to SI that he won the 1996 National League Most Valuable Player award while on steroids he purchased from a pharmacy in Tijuana, Mexico. Spurred to try the drugs by concern over a shoulder injury in early '96, Caminiti said that his steroid use improved his performance noticeably and became more sophisticated over the next five seasons. He told SI that he used steroids so heavily in '96 that by the end of that season, his testicles shrank and retracted; doctors found that his body had virtually stopped producing its own testosterone and that his level of the hormone had fallen to 20% of normal. "It took four months to get my nuts to drop on their own," he said of the period after he stopped taking the drugs.
Yet Caminiti, a recovering alcoholic and former drug user, defended his use of steroids and said he would not discourage others from taking them because they have become a widely accepted--even necessary--choice for ballplayers looking for a competitive edge and financial security. "I've made a ton of mistakes," said Caminiti. "I don't think using steroids is one of them.
"It's no secret what's going on in baseball. At least half the guys are using steroids. They talk about it. They joke about it with each other. The guys who want to protect themselves or their image by lying have that right. Me? I'm at the point in my career where I've done just about every bad thing you can do. I try to walk with my head up. I don't have to hold my tongue. I don't want to hurt teammates or friends. But I've got nothing to hide.
"If a young player were to ask me what to do," Caminiti continued, "I'm not going to tell him it's bad. Look at all the money in the game: You have a chance to set your family up, to get your daughter into a better school.... So I can't say, 'Don't do it,' not when the guy next to you is as big as a house and he's going to take your job and make the money."
Anabolic steroids elevate the body's testosterone level, increasing muscle mass without changes in diet or activity, though their effect is greatly enhanced in conjunction with proper nutrition and strength training. Steroids are illegal in the U.S. unless prescribed by a physician for medical conditions, such as AIDS and hypogonadism (an inability to produce enough testosterone). Studies have shown that the side effects from steroids can include heart and liver damage, persistent endocrine-system imbalance, elevated cholesterol levels, strokes, aggressive behavior and the dysfunction of genitalia. Doctors suspect that steroid use is a major factor in the recent increase in baseball injuries, especially severe injuries such as complete muscle tears.
Unlike the NFL and NBA, both of which ban and test for steroid use--the NHL does neither--Major League Baseball has no steroid policy or testing program for big leaguers. (Baseball does test minor league players, but violators are neither penalized nor required to undergo counseling.) Any such program would have to be collectively bargained with the Major League Baseball Players Association, which traditionally has resisted any form of drug testing but now faces a division in its membership over this issue (box, page 42). "Part of our task is to let a consensus emerge," says Gene Orza, the associate general counsel for the players union.
"No one denies that it is a problem," says commissioner Bud Selig. "It's a problem we can and must deal with now, rather than years from now when the public says, 'Why didn't you do something about it?' I'm very worried about this."
But it is also true that fans have become more accepting of steroids as part of the game. Fourteen years ago the crowd at Fenway Park in Boston chided Oakland A's outfielder Jose Canseco during the American League Championship Series with damning chants of "Ster-oids! Ster-oids!" The game had never before seen a physical marvel such as Canseco, a 240-pound hulk who could slug a baseball 500 feet and still be swift enough to steal 40 bases. Upon retiring last month after failing to catch on with a major league team, Canseco, while not admitting steroid use himself, said that steroids have "revolutionized" the game and that he would write a tell-all book blowing the lid off drug use in the majors. Canseco estimated that 85% of major leaguers use steroids.
Heavily muscled bodies like Canseco's have now become so common that they no longer invite scorn. Players even find dark humor in steroid use. One American League outfielder, for instance, was known to be taking a steroid typically given by veterinarians to injured, ill or overworked horses and readily available in Latin America. An opposing player pointed to him and remarked, "He takes so much of that horse stuff that one day we're going to look out in the outfield and he's going to be grazing."
Steroids have helped build the greatest extended era of slugging the game has ever seen--and, not coincidentally, the highest rate of strikeouts in history. Power, the eye candy for the casual fan, is a common denominator among pitchers and hitters, as hurlers, too, juice up to boost the velocity of their pitches.
Schilling says that muscle-building drugs have transformed baseball into something of a freak show. "You sit there and look at some of these players and you know what's going on," he says. "Guys out there look like Mr. Potato Head, with a head and arms and six or seven body parts that just don't look right. They don't fit. I'm not sure how [steroid use] snuck in so quickly, but it's become a prominent thing very quietly. It's widely known in the game.
"We're playing in an environment in the last decade that's been tailored to produce offensive numbers anyway, with the smaller ballparks, the smaller strike zone and so forth," Schilling continues. "When you add in steroids and strength training, you're seeing records not just being broken but completely shattered.
"I know guys who use and don't admit it because they think it means they don't work hard. And I know plenty of guys now are mixing steroids with human growth hormone. Those guys are pretty obvious."
If steroids are the cement of body construction, then human growth hormone is the rebar, taken in an attempt to strengthen joints so they can hold the added muscle mass produced by steroids. Human growth hormone can be detected only in specific blood tests, not the standard urine test used for other performance-enhancing drugs. It is prescribed to treat dwarfism in children, but it can also change a mature person's body structure and facial characteristics. Players joke about the swollen heads, protruding brows and lantern jaws of hGH users. "And they talk like this," Caminiti says, pushing his tongue to the front of his mouth and stammering, "because the size of their head changes." One major league executive knows of a star player whose hat size has grown two sizes in his late 30s.
Says Chad Curtis, an outfielder who retired last year after 10 seasons with six clubs, including three (1997 to '99) with the Yankees, "When I was in New York, a player there told me that hGH was the next big thing, that that's the road the game's heading down next. Now you see guys whose facial features, jawbones and cheekbones change after they're 30. Do they think that happens naturally? You go, 'What happened to that guy?' Then you'll hear him say he worked out over the winter and put on 15 pounds of muscle. I'm sorry, working out is not going to change your facial features."
"Here's one easy way to tell," says a veteran American League infielder who asked not to be identified. He grabbed a batting helmet and put it on the top of his head without pushing it down for the proper fit. "They can't get their helmet to go all the way down. It sits up on their heads. You see it all the time. You see this new culture of young players coming in, caught up in the vanity of getting big. They're bloated and ripped, and they shave their chests [to accentuate their physiques]. It's gotten to the point where more guys use [steroids or hGH] than don't use."
The infielder says that last year he asked a star teammate, whom he suspected of steroid use, why he used. The star replied, "It's a personal decision. It's like taking aspirin. Some people choose to take it and some don't. I respect somebody's choice one way or the other."
Clearly, the players who choose to use steroids do so because they believe the drugs work. "It's still a hand-eye coordination game, but the difference [with steroids] is the ball is going to go a little farther," Caminiti says. "Some of the balls that would go to the warning track will go out. That's the difference."
The improvement steroids have made in some players has been striking. Says one veteran National League general manager, "You might expect the B player to become an A player with steroids. But now you see the C player go to an A player. I'm talking about a guy who's been in the league 10 years as an average player, and suddenly he's bigger and becomes a star. That's very troublesome."
Another National League G.M. tells a story about an overweight, lumpy backup player who had kicked around the fringes of the major leagues. "We signed him, and two years later the guy looked like someone in a muscle magazine," he says. The player, by then in his 30s, won a starting job for the first time and, with a decent season, earned a multiyear contract. He subsequently suffered a series of muscle tears and ruptures and was quickly out of baseball. "He was gone that fast," the G.M. says. "But the contract probably set up him for life. Other guys see that."
Says Texas lefthander Kenny Rogers, "Basically, steroids can jump you a level or two. The average player can become a star, and the star player can become a superstar, and the superstar? Forget it. He can do things we've never seen before. You take a guy who already has great hand-eye coordination and make him stronger, and without a doubt he'll be better."
Steroids might even help a player become an MVP.
Caminiti was playing third base for the San Diego Padres in a series against the Houston Astros in April 1996 when Derrick May hit a flare into short leftfield. Caminiti dived for the ball, landed hard on his left elbow and shoulder, and tore his rotator cuff. "For the next six or seven days I couldn't lift my arm," he says. "I played for a month and a half in pure pain." Finally, he says, he decided to do something "to get me through the season." Caminiti had heard of players taking steroids to help them through injuries. He knew where to go.
"When you play in San Diego, it's easy to just drive into Mexico," he says.
Anabolic steroids are readily available in parts of Latin America as an over-the-counter item at farmacias that, in Mexican border towns such as Tijuana, cater to an American trade (box, page 46). Caminiti says he purchased a steroid labeled testosterona "to get me through the second half of the season." Then 33, he was playing in his 10th big league season. Never had he hit more than 26 home runs. He exceeded that in the second half alone, belting 28 homers after the All-Star break. He finished the year with 40 home runs, 130 RBIs (his previous best was 94) and a .326 batting average (24 points better than his previous high). He won the MVP award unanimously.
"There is a mental edge that comes with the injections, and it's definitely something that gets you more intense," Caminiti says. "The thing is, I didn't do it to make me a better player. I did it because my body broke down.
"At first I felt like a cheater. But I looked around, and everybody was doing it. Now it's not as black market as when I started. Back then you had to go and find it in Mexico or someplace. Now, it's everywhere. It's very easy to get."
Steroids are taken in what users call "cycles"--several weeks of use followed by several weeks of nonuse to allow the body to recover. Caminiti, a novice, never stopped using during the 1996 season. He wound up injecting twice as much steroids as was considered normal for ballplayers at that time. "I was just experimenting on my own," he says. "I did it wrong. My body shut down and stopped producing testosterone."
After a slow start the next season, Caminiti says he returned to steroid use, this time with the help of a friend in California who supplied the drugs. He says he continued using at various times through his career, learning from his supplier how to do cycles. "I felt like a kid," he says. "I'd be running the bases and think, Man, I'm fast! And I had never been fast. Steroids made me like that. The stronger you get, the more relaxed you get. You feel good. You just let it fly.
"If you don't feel good, you try so hard to make something happen. You grip the bat harder and swing harder, and that's when you tighten up. But you get that edge when you feel strong. That's the way I felt, like I could just try to meet the ball and--wham!--it's going to go 1,000 mph. Man, I felt good. I'd think, Damn, this pitcher's in trouble, and I'd crush the ball 450 feet with almost no effort. It's all about getting an edge."
Though he kept using steroids--in 1998, he says, "I showed up at spring training as big as an ox"--Caminiti never again approached the statistics he generated in 1996, partly because he never played another season without going on the disabled list. His injuries were mostly muscular, including a strained hamstring, a strained quadriceps, a strained calf muscle and a ruptured tendon sheath in his wrist.
"I got really strong, really quick," he says. "I pulled a lot of muscles. I broke down a lot. I'm still paying for it. My tendons and ligaments got all torn up. My muscles got too strong for my tendons and ligaments."
Caminiti was released twice last season, by the Rangers and the Braves. Upon his second release, Caminiti, who had used cocaine in the past, says he drove into a notorious section of Houston, rolled down his window and asked a man on the street where he could score some coke. Four days later Caminiti woke up in a drug-strewn motel room wearing the same clothes. Police showed up, and he was arrested for cocaine possession. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years' probation and 200 hours of community service.
Caminiti lives on the outskirts of Houston, where he is tested regularly for drugs, attends support meetings three times a week and meets with his probation officer once a month. He visits often with his estranged wife and three daughters, who live about 45 minutes from him. He spends his time working out, customizing vintage cars and riding his motorcycles. He suffers from bulging disks in his back, underwent surgery last month to remove bone fragments in his right ankle and is scheduled to have surgery on his right ankle and right foot this month. He eats dinner at a pancake house near his home so often that the cooks know just what he likes: 10 egg whites. He still appears close to his playing size of six feet, 200 pounds.
"I don't think this puts an asterisk by my name," he says, referring to his 239 homers and .272 career average. "I worked for everything I've got. I played the game hard, gave it everything I had. Nothing came easy. I could sit here and lie and try to make myself look like a better person, but I'm not going to do that. I take responsibility for what I've done. I'm guilty of some bad behavior. It's embarrassing, some of the things I've done. But like I said, I don't consider steroids to be one of them."
That's not to say that Caminiti hasn't paid a price for his steroid use. He is now legally prescribed weekly shots of testosterone because of his body's continuing inability to make the hormone in sufficient quantity. "My body's not producing testosterone," he says. "You know what that's like? You get lethargic. You get depressed. It's terrible."
He is 5'11" and 190 pounds. He is not a home run hitter. Pete is a speedy minor league outfielder. He is also a steroid user who has been juicing up for five years, hoping all those needles in his buttocks will finally get him to the majors. His wife knows about it. Sometimes she's the one who sticks the needle in.
"I'm not looking for size," says Pete, who asked that his real name not be used. "I do it for my fast-twitch muscles. If I don't feel good that week or if my hands don't feel good, if they're a little slow, I'll take a shot or get on a cycle. It helps immediately. I notice the difference. My hands are quicker, so my bat is quicker."
Pete began his steroid use through a familiar gateway: Latin America. He was playing winter ball in Venezuela in 1997 when, after hearing other players talk about the easy availability of the drugs, he decided to purchase a steroid, Winstrol, at a farmacia. A year later he was introduced to a female bodybuilder in California who made steroid runs to Mexico. Pete would place orders with her or an intermediary.
While making contacts in the steroid subculture, Pete eventually found a supplier, his current source, in the U.S. Pete places his orders by telephone with the supplier, who ships the steroids and needles to him in a FedEx package. A user of Winstrol and Sustanon, Pete says 10-week cycles of steroids cost him $300 to $400, or about $12 a shot. He says steroids obtained in Mexico are cheaper, but the quality of the foreign product is not as reliable.
"You pay a pretty good price for the U.S. stuff, but it's worth it," Pete says. "The guy I have runs a fair business. He's got the needles, which are not always easy to get. And he cares about his guys. He's not just about making money. He wants you to use the stuff right. He's got just baseball players--a bunch of them."
According to Pete, steroid use is discussed so openly among players that everyone knows who's using and who's not. He says one player can walk up to another in batting practice, bring the subject up, and tell by his answers whether he's using. "There are code words or street names that everybody knows," Pete says. "Listen, this is not my choice. I'd rather not [use]. I discussed it with my wife, and she understands. When you want to get to a higher level of competition, it's pretty obvious that it's worth trying."
Last year Pete tested positive for steroids under the program administered by Major League Baseball. So did several other players on his team. Here's what happened to them: nothing.
Major League Baseball randomly tests minor leaguers during the season. The best prospects, those on the 40-man major league roster, cannot be tested because they fall under the protection of the collective bargaining agreement. (Pete was not a 40-man-roster player.) That exemption explains why players in the Arizona Fall League, which is filled with top prospects, are notorious, one scout says, for driving by the carload into Mexico to stock up on steroids for the winter.
According to two highly placed baseball sources, physicians for Major League Baseball reported at an internal meeting among doctors and trainers last December that 10% to 15% of the minor leaguers tested came up positive for steroids. The sources acknowledged that the number of users is probably significantly higher than that because baseball does not test in the off-season, when many players follow the traditional steroid training regimen: They shoot up in November, December and January, then get off steroids to start a four-week flexibility program before spring training. Two minor leaguers told SI that they attempt to cheat the tests by gulping water and diuretics when a test administrator arrives to take urine samples.
Virtually all of the 20 or so minor leaguers interviewed by SI described the use of steroids and other drugs (including amphetamines and marijuana) as rampant in the minors. They said that testing is spotty. A Class A player in the Kansas City Royals system says he was not tested at all last season. One former pitcher in the Detroit system even says, "Two coaches approached me and suggested I do steroids." Two players say they easily obtained steroids from contacts at their local gyms. "When you were in college, everybody knew someone who could get them pot," says one minor leaguer. "In baseball everyone knows someone who can get them steroids."
Pete says the follow-up to his positive test was familiar to any minor leaguer on steroids: A club employee told him he had tested positive, warned him about the danger of steroids and sent him on his way.
When asked why baseball doesn't crack down on steroid users, Pete replied, "I've got an easy answer for that. I'd say, You've set up a reward system where you're paying people $1 million to put the ball into the seats. Well, I need help doing that."
It may not be so easy in the future. Robert Manfred, baseball's executive vice president for labor relations and human resources, says baseball will suspend and fine repeat minor league offenders this season. The Padres have administered their own three-strikes-and-you're-out steroid policy for the past five years, though they do not test in the off-season, either. "The word's out in our organization, but the trend we're seeing is that most of the players who tested positive were in [Class] A ball," says San Diego general manager Kevin Towers. "That tells me the problem is spreading fast. I think it's prevalent in college and high school--even before we get them."
Kenny Rogers made his major league pitching debut with the Rangers in 1989. He was taught in the early years of his career that the safest place to throw a pitch was the low-outside part of the plate. Nobody was going to hit that pitch out of the park, coaches told him. "It's not true anymore," Rogers says. "Now you've got 5'7" guys built like weightlifters taking that down-and-away pitch and hitting it out to the opposite field. No one thinks it's unusual because it happens all the time."
And steroids are not just for sluggers anymore. They're used by everyone, from erstwhile singles hitters to aging pitchers. Says Rogers, "Just look around. You've got guys in their late 30s, almost 40, who are throwing the ball 96 to 99, and they never threw that hard before in their lives. I'm sorry. That's not natural evolution. Steroids are changing the game. You've got players who say, 'All I want to do is hit,' and you have pitchers who say, 'All I want to do is throw 97. I don't care if I walk [everyone].'" Steroids have helped even mediocre pitchers turn up the heat. "The biggest change I've seen in the game," says a veteran major league infielder, "is seeing middle relievers come into the game throwing 91, 92 [mph]. Those guys used to be in the mid-80s or so. Now everybody is throwing gas, including the last guy in the bullpen."
The changes in the game are also evident in the increasingly hulking physiques of the players. The average weight of an All-Star in 1991 was 199 pounds. Last year it was 211. "We're kidding ourselves if we say this problem is not happening," says Towers. "Look at the before and after shots, at the size of some of these players from the '90s to now. It's a joke."
Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants is often cited as a player who dramatically altered his size and his game, growing from a lithe, 185-pound leadoff hitter into a 230-pound force who is one of the greatest home run hitters of all time. Bonds's most dramatic size gains have come in the past four years, over which he has doubled his home run rate. Bonds, who insists he added muscle through diet and intense training, has issued several denials of rumors that he uses steroids, including one to a group of reporters in April in which he said, "You can test me and solve that problem [of rumors] real quick."
But there is no testing in baseball, and everyone continues to speculate. What's a little speculation and innuendo these days anyway? Mark McGwire was cheered in every park on his march to 70 home runs in 1998 by fans hardly concerned about his reluctant admission that he'd used androstendione, an over-the-counter supplement that reputedly has the muscle-building effects of steroids.
"If you polled the fans," says former outfielder Curtis, "I think they'd tell you, 'I don't care about illegal steroids. I'd rather see a guy hit the ball a mile or throw it 105 miles an hour.'"
Says Caminiti, "They come to the arena to watch gladiators. Do they want to see a bunch of guys choking up on the bat against pitchers throwing 82 miles an hour or do they want to see the ball go 500 feet? They want to see warriors."
It is a long way from 1988, when Canseco lost a prospective national endorsement deal with a major soft drink company because of unconfirmed suspicions that he used steroids. Many players, too, are showing more acceptance of steroids, especially when users and nonusers alike believe the health risks can be minimized if the drugs are used in proper doses. Today's user, they claim, is more educated about steroid use than Caminiti in 1996 or NFL lineman Lyle Alzado, who died in 1992 at age 43 from brain cancer he believed was caused by grossly excessive steroid use.
Pete, the minor league steroid user, says, "I've talked to doctors. They've studied [steroids], and they know if you don't abuse them, they can help you. As long as you don't go crazy with them, like Alzado, you should be fine."
Says Curtis, who estimates that 40% to 50% of major leaguers use steroids, "There are two things that might stop a person from using steroids: a moral obligation--they're illegal--and a fear of the medical complications. I was 100 percent against the use of steroids. But I must tell you, I would not fear the medical side of it. I fully agree you can take them safely."
Rogers also opposes steroid use on ethical grounds, but understands why it is so tempting. "My belief is that God gave you a certain amount of ability, and I don't want to enhance it by doing something that is not natural and creates an unfair advantage. I'm critical of guys who do it," he says. "On the other hand if I were 22 or 21 and trying to make it in baseball, I can't say for sure that I wouldn't try something when I plainly see the benefits other guys are getting. I can't say I'm 100 percent positive I wouldn't resort to that."
The first generation of ballplayers who have grown up in the steroid culture is only now arriving, biceps bulging, chests shaven and buttocks tender. The acceptance level of steroids in the game may very well continue rising until...until what? A labor deal that includes a comprehensive testing plan? Such a plan, unlikely as it is, given the union's resistance, might deter some players, but even baseball officials concede that the minor league testing program in place gives players the green light to shoot up in the off-season. And athletes in other sports subject to testing have stayed one step ahead of enforcement with tactics such as using so-called "designer drugs," steroids that are chemically altered to mask the unique signature of that drug that otherwise would show on a urine test.
So even with testing, will it take something much darker for steroids to fall from favor? Renowned sports orthopedist James Andrews recalled the impact of two prominent deaths on the drug culture in football. "Major League Baseball can't continue to leave this door open," says Andrews. "Steroids became a big deal in football after Lyle Alzado [died] and ephedrine became a big deal after Korey Stringer. You don't want to see it get to that [in baseball] before someone says stop. But, unfortunately, that's what it seems to take to wake people up."
Rogers has a nightmare about how it might end, and that is why he does not always throw his fastball as hard as he can. It is the thought of some beast pumped up on steroids whacking a line drive off his head. "We're the closest ones to the hitter," he says of the men on the mound. "I don't want the ball coming back at me any faster. It's a wonder it hasn't happened already. When one of us is down there dead on the field, then something might happen. Maybe. And if it's me, I've already given very clear instructions to my wife: Sue every one of their asses. Because everybody in baseball knows what's been going on."
For continuing coverage of the subject of steroid use in baseball, including more analysis from Tom Verducci and video interviews with Ken Caminiti and Kenny Rogers, plus your chance to react to this issue, go to cnnsi.com/steroids.
"It's no secret what's going on in baseball," Caminiti says. "At least half the players are using steroids."
"The fans would tell you, 'I don't care about steroids. I'd rather see a guy hit the ball a mile,'" Curtis says.
"Guys look like Mr. Potato Head," says Schilling, "with six or seven body parts that just don't look right."
"You've got 5'7" guys built like weightlifters hitting low-and-away pitches out all the time," says Rogers.
Issue date: June 3, 2002