As more baseball players have built overmuscled bodies using the advanced biochemistry of steroids and other drugs, they have been suffering severe—and costly—injuries in ever greater numbers. "We're seeing more and more injuries you used to associate with a violent contact sport like football," says Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella, referring to tears of muscles, ligaments and tendons.
Noted sports orthopedist James Andrews, of Birmingham, says he "seldom used to see these muscle-tendon injuries" in baseball. "It was always the sport for the agile athlete with the small frame," he says. "Over the last 10 years, that's changed. You'd have to attribute that—the bulking up and the increased injuries—to steroids and supplements."
According to figures obtained from Major League Baseball, big league players made 467 trips to the disabled list last season, or about 18 per week. Those players stayed on the DL for an average of 59 days, which was 10 days longer than the average stay in 1997—a 20% increase.
Major league teams last year doled out $317 million—or 16% of the game's total payroll—to players physically unable to play. That cost for DL players was a 130% increase from only four years earlier.
"I see so many body changes—one season they're average, the next season they're massive—that [steroid use] is obvious," Andrews says. "More athletes are carrying more muscle than their frames can support, and therefore the trauma is greater. You wouldn't believe the Achilles tendon ruptures, the quadriceps ruptures, the hamstring tears, the massive rotator cuff tears, the tearing of the biceps muscles at the elbow joints. There's just too much mass for the body to handle. And more and more of these injuries are career-threatening.
"The dangers of these drugs—and even the supplements—aren't fully known yet," Andrews continues. "But from an anecdotal perspective, I'm seeing four to five times as many of these injuries as I did just 10 years ago—and I'm seeing them in younger and younger athletes. If the pros are doing it, the college kids aren't far behind, and the high schools and junior highs are right behind them. I try to counsel some of them, but it is a secret box that they find themselves in, and they don't want to talk to me about it."
San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers says suspected steroid use and the economic fallout of related injuries have become important factors in how general managers evaluate players. "It matters when you're doing contracts or when you're looking to acquire a player from another team," he says. "It's a factor whether you're going to open discussions on a long-term contract or go year-to-year. It's become a key issue because a lot of small-market clubs can't continue to insure players. The cost of insurance has gone so high that it's more and more difficult to insure these contracts." According to Pro Financial Services president Brian Burns, who specializes in such policies, the cost of player salary insurance has risen more than 200% since 2000.