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September 1, 1998

Homers and Hormones

Mark McGwire and Androstenedione

by Rany Jazayerli

A funny thing happened on the way to 62. In the midst of all the superfluous attention and asinine questions sent Mark McGwire's way, some reporter decided to bring up a topic that hadn't already been beaten to death: the issue of nutritional supplements other than creatine. McGwire innocently confirmed that he took a little-known (to the average fan) over-the-counter "power source" named androstenedione - and national controversy ensued.

It is true that the pursuit of the most recognized record in sports has produced a spotlight of such intensity that any topic along its path is going to reflect the white-hot glare of a media frenzy, which is why this issue has generated so much debate. But it is also true that most of the debaters - from national columnists to talk-show hosts to most talk-show callers - wouldn't know testosterone from a tetanus shot. This isn't so much a baseball issue as it is a medical and legal one, and arguments about the sanctity of the home-run record from people who know as much about medicine as they do about astrophysics (or, to quote Montgomery C. Burns, "This isn't rocket science, Smithers, it's brain surgery!"), is rather pointless.

I can't hang the M.D. after my name until next June, but by then the record will either be broken or it won't be, and no one will particularly care about androstenedione. So here is my not-so-expert-but-a-hell-of-a-lot-more-informed-than-Dave-Campbell opinion:

1) What is androstenedione? Is it a steroid?

Probably the easiest question of them all. Androstenedione is a steroid, it is obviously a steroid, and anyone who says it isn't is being, to be kind, disingenous. There are several kinds of steroids, but the ones most relevant to athletics are the sex steroids. Androstenedione falls into that category.

It has been well reported that androstenedione is converted by enzymes in the body to testosterone, which is obviously the most common sex steroid. But what seems to be left out is that androstenedione is also manufactured by the body, and by itself is a sex steroid, albeit a mild one.

That being said, androstenedione isn't nearly as potent as, say, some of the synthetic junk Ben Johnson was taking (or the late Lyle Alzado). But it does have an effect similar to its more notorious brethren.

2) What effects are those?

Well, the obvious one - and why everyone takes them - is to increase muscle mass. The word being spread is that andro helps athletes "recover" quicker after workouts. I don't know about that; if anything, steroid use seems to be associated with higher injury rates. But if used judiciously, the increase in muscle mass may protect an athlete from attempting a workout their bodies can't handle, which may (I repeat, may) protect against injury to some extent.

The other effects - those side effects no one wants to talk about - are plenty. Male hormones, not surprisingly, accentuate the "male" side of the individual - and from a health standpoint, that's not always a good thing. Male pattern baldness is an annoying, if harmless, side effect. Not so harmless is the cardiovascular impact they have. As a guy I don't like to admit it, but the testosterone levels associated with simply being male increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and the like significantly. Women live 5-8 years longer than men, in large part because women have estrogen - which protects the heart - and men have testosterone. Taking steroids just exaggerates that difference. Steroids, at least in massive quantities, also have more dreaded - and more unpredictable - side effects, like the cancer which took Alzado's life.

There is the emotional impact - the "steroid rage" of increased irritability and aggressiveness - that affects users. Quite frankly, the fact that McGwire hasn't been particularly aggravated despite the monotonous questioning and intense scrutiny of a constant media crush, is the best evidence we have that McGwire isn't overdoing his andro dosage.

Then there's the dreaded "I" word, and I'm not talking about the first word in most of Ray Knight's sentences. The body measures its own testosterone level constantly, and when the testosterone is too low it tells the testicles to increase production - and when testosterone is too high, the testicles are told to hold back a little. So when testosterone is added artificially, the body shuts down the testicles in order to keep too much testosterone from building up. The problem is, the testicles are involved in a lot more than making testosterone; there's also the matter of species-saving activities like sperm production. Too much testosterone, and things most people take for granted, like starting a family, may become difficult if not impossible.

3) So you're saying McGwire's just a steroid-popping hulk, and any record he sets deserves a big fat asterisk?

No, not at all. The effects steroids have can be significant, but 1) andro is a weak steroid, and 2) the potential dangers steroids have are more of a concern than any strength-enhancing effects.

4) Well hold on a second. If andro is a steroid, and steroids have such bad side effects, why can you just buy the pills at any nutritional store?

For once, we can't blame the owners - but we can blame Congress. The Federal Supplementation Act of 1994 has received more airtime on sports radio than any federal act in recent memory, but frankly, it's an incredibly important topic - and not just for sports. The Act states, basically, that "natural" food supplements are 1) legal and 2) not subject to the jurisdiction of the FDA. Which means that any nutrient derived from a natural plant or animal source can be marketed without the FDA checking its safety - leading to the possibility of a medical nightmare much like what happened with the Fen/Phen diet pill last year. Also, it means that any "natural" substance can be marketed with claims that it improves health, without any tests being done to prove those claims. The claims can't be too specific - you can't say Ginseng "cures cancer." You can say Ginseng "helps the body's natural defenses fight against aging" or whatever cool phrase comes to mind.

5) But given that steroids are so dangerous, isn't it wrong for McGwire to take them?

Well, "wrong" is a very loose term, and in a society as dedicated to preserving civil liberties as we are, it would be hypocritical to condemn McGwire while ignoring dangers far more pervasive than steroids. Cigarettes are absolutely, positively known to kill people years before their time, often in an excruciatingly painful manner - but Virginia would probably try to secede from the Union again if tobacco was outlawed. Alcohol kills thousands of people on the road each year and ruins the lives of millions more, but just mention the word "Prohibition" and see how many people still take you seriously.

Steroids put Mark McGwire at an increased risk of medical complications - but so does eating at McDonald's every day. If you believe that America protects the right of the people to decide how important their health is to them, then you have to up hold McGwire's right to make his career a higher priority than his health.

6) Then why are guys like Ben Johnson and Randy Barnes punished for doing the exact same thing as McGwire?

Ben Johnson was taking synthetic anabolic steroids with much greater potency - and much higher danger - than andro. Randy Barnes, on the other hand, was banned from the Olympics for taking andro itself. Why would he be banned while McGwire's use is okay?

To paraphrase Bill James talking about why Pete Rose is banned from baseball while Steve Howe kept getting another chance: Randy Barnes isn't banned from the Olympics because he did something "wrong." He is banned because he broke the rules. Every organization - whether it's a sports league or a government - has to be guided by rules specific to that group - there is no grand set of rules applicable to every situation.

To put it another way: when Randy Barnes took andro, he knew that his actions violated the rules of the IOC. McGwire has been very upfront about his use of andro from the beginning. There's every reason to believe that, had steroid use been explicity banned by Major League Baseball, McGwire would never have taken it. Punishing McGwire for actions which were not previously a violation of the rules would be tantamount to changing the rules mid-stream.

7) Fine, so maybe taking andro isn't "wrong" and McGwire shouldn't be punished. But doesn't the fact that he used a form of steroid taint his home run chase this year? Should there be an asterisk if he breaks Maris' record?

Saying the use of androstenedione taints McGwire's exploits is like saying that the use of andro represents the most fundamental change in the game in its history. I mean, think about where this line of thinking leads to. Should there be an asterisk besides Orel Hershiser's career win total because he had rotator cuff surgery, which wasn't available when Dizzy Dean blew out his arm? Should Ted Williams' .406 not really count because he didn't face many closers? Should Babe Ruth's 60 homers be disqualified because he didn't face a single black player - a crime far greater than anything steroids can do?

Let's face it - the game of baseball is constantly evolving. The curveball, the bunt, platooning, the slider, relief pitching, the DH - these were all fundamental changes in the way the game is played. Tack on changing ballpark dimensions, integration, expansion, and night baseball - these were all changes in the context that the game was played. Have better nutrition and exercise techniques changed the way baseball is played? Absolutely - but no more than dozens of other changes in the game since the National League started in 1876. Every other sport has been revolutionized by modern training ideas, in some cases dramatically - swimming comes to mind.

Keep in mind, it's not like McGwire wouldn't be challenging the record anyway. The man hit 49 homers as a rookie - back when nobody had heard of creatine and any whispers of steroid use in Oakland were only directed at Jose Canseco. This isn't a fluke year - this is a three-year record of power that no one in history has come close to attaining.

And one last thing - can we stop this terrible habit of attributing "asterisks" to every record that gets set in a way we don't like? Only one record in the history of American sport has ever been given a "distinctive mark" (as Ford Frick called it). And baseball's disservice to Roger Maris (led by Frick, who just so happened to be the ghostwriter of Babe Ruth's autobiography) is a disgrace we should do our best to avoid ever again.

8) So where does creatine come into this?

Good question; I'm glad you asked. While there's no real evidence either way, I am of the opinion that creatine has had much more to do with the power explosion in recent years than andro - or any other substance. Creatine is hard to classify as a substance - it's a protein, and not a steroid, but it has properties that help promote the generation of the short-acting muscle fibers - in other words, it can have an impact on a player's ability to bench press or run a short sprint - but it has little impact on, say marathon running. Unlike andro, it is an extremely popular supplement and its widespread use is a factor in why so many hitters have been able to increase their home run totals.

It has none of the side effects associated with steroids, but one potentially nasty side effect is dehydration. Used cautiously it is safe enough, but it can (and has been) lethal in more than one instance. At least three college athletes have died using creatine; in most cases it was related to college wrestlers who were trying to sweat out a couple of pounds of water in order to meet their weight class. As for other, more long-term side effects, quite frankly, no one knows - which is why caution is still urged at this point.

9) So the issue should be dropped and McGwire should be left alone, right?

Well, again, it's not that simple. Here, let me know summarize what we know at this point:

  1. Androstenedione is a weak steroid, and can be converted by the body to stronger steroids.
  2. Steroids can increase muscle mass. They can also cause cardiac disease, impotence, emotional instability, and a whole bunch of other problems.
  3. Steroids are also - in the form McGwire takes them - completely legal, both by the law of the land and the rules of Major League Baseball.
  4. McGwire's assault on 62 is not be compromised by andro, unless we are willing to evaluate every baseball record in the complete context in which it was set.
But there's one other factor here:

Mark McGwire is a fan favorite and looked up to - and emulated - by kids everywhere.

He might not like it, he didn't ask for it, he might say to the press - and rightly so - that parents, not athletes, should be their kids' role models. But he is in that position, and knowing how much the welfare of children means to McGwire, he has to realize that his actions are going to be imitated by teenagers everywhere. And while McGwire is free to take risks with his own health, the health of thousands of others - and still-developing adolescents are at much greater risk of side effects from steroids than adults are - should be enough to convince him to do the right thing.

It doesn't have to be now, not in the middle of a historic chase and with half the nation's sports reporters already following him every night. But after the season is over, McGwire needs to take the responsibility upon himself to announce, very publicly, that despite the inconclusive evidence of the side effects of androstenedione, he is no longer willing to take the potential risks. McGwire has won the entire nation over with his sense of priorities, his awareness of the relative value of his historic actions in the scheme of life. Now he has to be aware of his own significance in the lives of others, and accept both the power and the burden of his fame. Already a hero to millions, he can be so much more - he can accept responsibility for his own actions, and in doing so be an athlete with a quality as rare as 62 homers: he can also be a man worthy of the term "role model."

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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