SI Flashback: Totally Juiced (cont.)
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.