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Swallow This Pill
Jack McCallum
August 31, 1998
Big Mac's super-sizing supplements shouldn't taint his super season
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August 31, 1998

Swallow This Pill

Big Mac's super-sizing supplements shouldn't taint his super season

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In the relentless search for an asterisk, sportswriters have come upon a bottle of pills that your Uncle Barney can buy without a prescription, pills that Mark McGwire keeps in plain view of America, which these days means on a shelf in his locker stall. Get this straight: McGwire's use of androstenedione, which he may not have advertised but didn't try to hide, should not taint his achievement if he breaks Roger Maris's single-season home run record (page 28). For one thing, androstenedione, classified by the FDA as a nutritional dietary supplement, is legal, not just in the real world, where McGwire lives for five months of the year, but also in the baseball world, where he lives for the other seven. For another, it's not as if McGwire's home run prowess is purely a product of androstenedione, which he says he began taking last year. As a relatively skinny rookie in 1987 he hit 49 dingers. Two years ago he clouted 52.

Brute strength isn't the only factor in hitting home runs. Last Thursday night McGwire laid off five straight tempting sliders from New York Mets pitcher Rick Reed to work the count full. Then he hit the sixth pitch off the foul pole in left for number 51. At week's end he was batting .292 and led the majors in walks. Androstenedione had nothing to do with those stats. Finally, it's not as if McGwire is alone. He says at least nine or ten St. Louis Cardinals teammates use andro (as it's known to muscleheads), and Houston Astros star Jeff Bagwell told The Houston Chronicle, two weeks before the McGwire storm erupted, that he had taken it. Logic says that at least a few other major leaguers have it in their lockers.

A caveat: Andro is banned by, among others, the NFL, the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee. Its classification as a supplement rather than an anabolic steroid is largely semantics. The body metabolizes androstenedione into testosterone, so it's often referred to as a "precursor to an anabolic steroid." Experts say that androstenedione may, like many hormones, have deleterious side effects, among them disruptions in heart and liver function. That's a big reason that some organizations have banned it—and that Big Mac-mad youngsters should not try to buy a baseball career in a bottle.

But McGwire is an adult who, as far as we know, is playing within the rules. If baseball were to ban androstenedione, then he could be faulted if he kept on using it. To hold McGwire to a higher standard than his sport does is unfair.

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