To Cheat or Not to Cheat
A look at steroids in baseball a decade after Ken Caminiti admitted he used them
Ten years later, those who played in dirty era wrestle with decision to use or not
In the steroid era, using could be difference between majors and minors for some
This story appears in the June 4, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
The 1994 Fort Myers Miracle, a Class A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, included four pitchers of similar attributes. They each threw righthanded, with average velocity, and were either 23 or 24 years old and had been drafted out of four-year colleges in no higher than the fourth round. All would become good friends as they shared the torturous bus rides and even worse food through multiple rungs on the minor league ladder. All clutched the little boy's dream of becoming a big leaguer. Only one of them made it. Only one of them used steroids. Only one of them considered taking his own life. Only one of them harbors enormous regret. The big leaguer, the juicer, the near suicide and the shamed are one and the same.
This is a story about the real cost of steroids in baseball -- not the broken records, not the litigation, not the talk-show drone about the elite players who juiced and how to weigh their Hall of Fame candidacy. This is a story about the hundreds, even thousands, of anonymous ballplayers whose careers and lives were changed by a temptation that defined an era. It is also a story about the secrets we keep and the casualties we create when we allow the corrupt to go unspoken -- especially when the corrupt is something far more horrific than steroids.
On June 18, 2002, Donald Fehr, then the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, was asked a simple question by Sen. Byron Dorgan about steroids in baseball: "Is there a problem?"
Dorgan knew there was, because three weeks before that, a recent National League Most Valuable Player had defined the problem. In an SI cover story, not only did Ken Caminiti become the first prominent player to admit using steroids, but he also described steroid use in baseball as being so prevalent that he held no regrets about his usage. About as many major leaguers were juicing as playing it clean, Caminiti said. Other players confirmed to SI the massive scope of the problem. The unspeakable had been spoken.
Senator John McCain quickly called for a Senate subcommittee hearing, a procedure that Dorgan opened by citing the SI story as a call to action, a reason to decide whether any "legislative action is necessary." Two months later the union, after resisting the idea of steroid testing on invasion of privacy grounds, reversed course and agreed to random drug-testing protocols for the first time in its history. It was the beginning of the end of the Steroid Era.
This season marks the 10th anniversary of the biggest reformation in baseball since commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned eight members of the 1919 White Sox in what stood as the denouement of an era dirtied by gambling. In the past decade the game and the bodies of those who play it have lost their cartoonish outrageousness, as have the statistics they produce. In the nine seasons before steroid testing, players crashed the 50-home run threshold 18 times, the 60-home run barrier six times. In the nine seasons with testing, there have been only six 50-homer seasons. Nobody has hit 60.
But in many ways, the cleanup came too late. Too late to save the record book and the bodies of ballplayers reshaped to grotesque proportions. And too late to do any good for the four Miracles. By 2001 all of them were out of baseball -- each, in his own way, a victim of steroids. Lost in the noise about home run records and Cooperstown and federal prosecutions are the hundreds of everyday casualties of the Steroid Era. What performance-enhancing drug testing has wrought is at least the hope that what happened to the four Miracles will not happen again.
Dan Naulty was the tall, skinny Miracle, a 14th-round pick out of Cal State Fullerton in 1992 who stood 6' 6" but didn't throw hard. Twins scout Larry Corrigan clocked him early in his senior year at 87 miles per hour and never again at even that modest speed.
Brett Roberts looked a lot like Naulty: tall (6' 7") with a slightly better fastball. The Twins drafted Roberts, a two-sport star who also played small forward at Morehead State, in the fourth round in 1991, the summer before he won the NCAA basketball scoring title. (A year after the Twins took him, Roberts was drafted by the NBA's Sacramento Kings.) Keith Linebarger was a big, strong kid out of Columbus (Ga.) College. The Twins took him in the sixth round in 1992 largely because his 6' 6", 220-pound frame suggested there was still plenty of upside to his 87- to 89-mph fastball. Kevin Legault was a happy-go-lucky control pitcher from Seton Hall. He threw a fine curveball and a fastball that topped out at 88 mph. He was drafted by the Twins in the 33rd round in 1992.