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 testosterone, "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 man 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."