Posted: Tuesday January 18, 2005 12:43PM; Updated: Thursday January 20, 2005 11:07AM
Being the all-time home run king doesn't make Hank Aaron an expert on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in today's game.
Walter Iooss Jr./SI
I like the step forward baseball took last week with its drug-testing policy. I don't understand, however, why the sport has to get to a true zero tolerance policy incrementally. And you must know, no matter what Bud Selig says, MLB is not there yet, with a player having to test positive four times before getting a year-long ban.
I knew baseball would do nothing about amphetamines. The owners floated the idea that they would ask for them to be banned negotiations with the players, but they did so only to cover their butts. They won't do anything about amphetamines because baseball fans don't care about them, and baseball moves only when it is politically in its best interest.
In May 2002 I wrote a special report in Sports Illustrated about steroid use in baseball. As part of that report I quoted players on the record talking about the rampant use of amphetamines in baseball. I spent the week doing television and radio interviews. Do you know how many questions I received about amphetamine use in baseball? Zero.
The questions were all about steroids. I knew then that players, owners and fans had come to accept amphetamines as "part of the game."
Since MLB's new testing policy was announced last Thursday, people have been moved to say some very nutty things about performance-enhancing drugs. Yes, it's a murky, underground world, but I'll help you sift through some of the nonsense that's been shoveled around since last week.
The Quote: "If you tell me steroids help you hit major league pitching more often and farther, I see no evidence whatsoever. None ... There never has been any kind of decent testing of the same player. For example, with and without steroids, over a stretch of time so you can judge his performance. None. And until we get some evidence of a concrete nature instead of someone's opinion, that's my view." -- Marvin Miller, former executive director of the players association, to the Boston Globe.
What you should know: Oh, Marvin. I really like the guy. He should be in the Hall of Fame. He was a brilliant union leader. But, come on. Do you really want a control group of steroid users? They'll be lining up around the block when baseball asks for volunteers.
There is a reason why athletes take steroids: they work. They would not take them if they didn't. Don't take it from me, Marvin. You could study Jason Giambi if you like. But here's another steroid user -- think of it as a little control group of one guy who played without steroids and then with them. It's the voice of the late Ken Caminiti in SI:
"It's still a hand-eye coordination game, but the difference [with steroids] is the ball is going to go a little farther. Some of the balls that would go to the warning track will go out. That's the difference."
And more Caminiti: "My body was torn up and broken down but it felt good [on steroids]. I felt like a kid. I was running better. I'd be running the bases and think, 'Man, I'm fast!' And I had never been that fast. But I was. 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. I felt strong, 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."
The quote: "A guy can take steroids, drugs, whatever. He still has to be able to hit that Roger Clemens 96-mile-an-hour fastball. Steroids don't help you hit that fastball." -- Hank Aaron to the Los Angeles Times.
What you should know: OK, I don't expect Aaron to be an expert on steroids. There is no evidence of steroid use when he played. So let me help him out a little here -- and everybody else who throws out this lame argument that steroids don't help you hit a baseball, because if they did, the big leagues would be stocked with muscleheads from your local gym.
See, we're starting with a subset of athletes who already have world-class hand-eye coordination. We're not turning Joe Dumbbell into an MVP. Steroids enhance the gifts these players already have. How? They make players stronger than they naturally would be, providing increased hand and bat speed through the hitting zone. The faster your hands and bat, the longer you can wait on pitches. The longer you can wait on pitches, the more you can decode their trajectory and spin. And as Caminiti explained, increased strength can add distance to balls put into play.
Moreover, steroids and human growth hormone allow a body to recover faster and better and to train harder than otherwise would be possible legally and naturally.
Need further explanation? The SI report included the story of a minor league center fielder who was 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. His game was about contact and speed -- and he was a steroid user. Why? They helped him hit that fastball. Let him explain: "I'm not looking for size. 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."
The quote: "There's not a problem with it at all." -- Detroit Tigers catcher Vance Wilson to the New York Times on amphetamine use in the big leagues.
What you should know: I can't imagine Wilson said this with any seriousness. If he did, he ought to be embarrassed. Greenies have been in the game since the 1950s. They are rampant today.
Here's what Caminiti told SI about greenies: "I would say there are only a couple of guys on a team that don't take greenies before a game. One or two guys. That's called going out there naked. And you hear it all the time from teammates, 'You're not going to play naked, are you?' And even the guys who are against greenies may be taking diet pills or popping 25 caffeine pills and they're up there [at bat] with their hands shaking. So how good is that? This game is so whacked out that guys will take anything to get an edge. You got a pill that will make me feel better? Let me have it."
Former outfielder Chad Curtis agreed with Caminiti: "You might have one team where eight guys play naked and another team where nobody does, but that sounds about right. Steroids are popular, but quite a lot more guys take [amphetamines] than steroids. I'm talking about illegal stuff. Speed ... ritalin, which is legal only with a doctor's prescription ... sometimes guys don't even know what they're taking. One guy will take some pills out of his locker and tell somebody else, 'Here, take one of these. You'll feel better.' And the other guy will take it and not even know what it is."
Curtis added that amphetamine use is so prevalent that non-users are sometimes ostracized as slackers.
"If the starting pitcher knows you're going out there naked, he's upset that you're not giving him more than what you can," Curtis said. "The big-time pitcher wants to make sure you're beaning up before the game tonight."
An AL manager told me last month greenies are so prevalent with old and young players alike that baseball would have to shorten the season if they banned them. No problem at all? Give me a break.
The quote: "I think the difference is amphetamines aren't necessarily performance-enhancing. They might give you a lift, but they're not going to make you go from hitting the ball 420 feet to hitting it 460 feet. That's the big discrepancy between [amphetamines and steroids]." -- New York Yankees pitcher Mike Stanton to the Times.
What you should know: Uh, OK, so if they are not "necessarily" performance-enhancing, why are players taking them? They taste good?
Here's Caminiti again about reporting to work lethargic after a night of drinking: "You take some pills, go out and run in the outfield and you get the blood flowing. All of a sudden you feel much better."
The quote: "The purpose of these negotiations was to address steroids and muscle-enhancing matters." -- Donald Fehr, executive director of the players association, dismissing any action on amphetamines.
What you should know: There you have it. Let's limit ourselves to "muscle-enhancing matters," gentlemen. Illegal amphetamines that are rampant in the game? Ah, why bother? They've got nothing to do with muscles.
Did you know the first known doping deaths occurred from amphetamines, involving cyclists in the 1960s? Did you know, as San Diego GM Kevin Towers told SI, that the chemical hit from amphetamines often becomes addictive and often leads to dependency on a form of "downers," such as tranquilizers and alcohol, to come down from the high? Did you know that baseball moved to ban ephedra because of the death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, but ephedra is a milder form of the amphetamines -- which are controlled substances -- that baseball does allow?
It made no sense for Rob Manfred, baseball's chief labor negotiator, to tell us with a straight face that the issue of amphetamines will be reviewed by a health policy committee. Baseball already bans them in the minor leagues, so now you're going to "study" them to see if they should be banned in the majors? And what kind of health policy committee will come back and say, "Amphetamines? You mean those addictive, controlled substances for which we have reams of medical information over many years telling us about their dangers? Pop 'em all you want, boys!"
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.