February 26, 2013
Surviving Professional Baseball in the Steroid Era
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Eric Knott is a former big-league pitcher who threw a combined 24 innings in the majors for the 2001 Diamondbacks and the 2003 Expos. While he was there, he struck out Chipper and Andruw Jones, Luis Gonzalez, Scott Rolen, Jim Thome, Chase Utley, and Miguel Cabrera (twice). He had an 11-year minor-league career from 1997-2007, pitching for four MLB organizations, as well as the Pericos de Puebla of the Mexican League. You can follow him on Twitter @eknott11.
I have never looked back and been disappointed in the career I put together. I was never a legitimate prospect, never a shoo-in to reach the big leagues, and never someone who was penciled in for a future opening day roster. I was a guy who was drafted to fill a roster and made the most of the opportunities I was given. To this day, I brag to my friends about my 24 innings in the Show and remind them that I got to sleep in until noon and never work a real job until I was 33 years old.
But these days, I sometimes wonder: What if I hadn’t played in the Steroid Era? What if I had made the decision to use steroids? What if no other players during that time had been using? Would my career have turned out differently? Would I have pitched longer in the big leagues? Would my statistics have been better? Would my 87-91-mph sinking fastball from the left side have been more impressive to the scouts, player development personnel, and general managers who made the decisions that determined whether I was major-league material and how long I would stay there?
Before I start looking back at what I observed and how I think steroids changed the game back then, I must admit that I used PEDs from time to time myself. I popped greenies occasionally before a start or a game. I also took Adipex, a prescription diet drug that I learned from my current personal physician is extremely powerful and a controlled substance. So I wasn’t perfect. Far from it. However, the clubhouse culture then was different. The training staffs, coaches, and veteran players I tried to pick up the game from regarded these drugs as a normal, accepted as part of baseball. Their use was sometimes encouraged and always accepted throughout baseball. They were there to help you get through the rigors of the long, grueling season.
However, the decision about whether to use or not to use steroids was a moral one, in my opinion. I never really ever gave it serious consideration. I was scared of the long-term consequences, mostly to my health. Deep down, I didn’t want my father to think I cheated my way up the ladder to the big leagues. I wanted to do it the right way. That was my choice. Players boasted to each other about what steroids did for them, but no player or coach ever pressured me to or suggested that I take steroids to gain an edge or for the betterment of the team or organization.
Sometimes I think about whether I made the right decision purely from a financial perspective, not for reasons having to do with glory on the diamond. I never obtained great wealth playing the game. I wonder now whether I would I have spent more time in the big leagues or gotten there sooner if I’d used, and whether, as a result, I’d have more money in the bank right now for my family. That’s the only thing that bothers me about having played when I did. Did other players take money away from me because they used and I didn’t? Would I still be scuffling now to make mortgage payments or put money away for my kids to go to college?
I will never look down on those who made the choice to use steroids during that time. Some players openly complained that it wasn’t fair that guys were gaining an advantage by using steroids. I never did. I always regarded it as an available option, and it was up to the individual to decide if it was right for them. At that time, it wasn’t the right option for me. However, I will always question whether I made the right decision or not.
I don’t hold any resentment toward Major League Baseball for its actions—or inaction—as it allowed steroid use to get out of hand. No, you can’t convince me that MLB thought things were completely normal when Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds were blasting balls out of the park at an unprecedented rate and people with long track records as average players suddenly began to eclipse personal bests in home runs and velocity by significant margins. MLB had to notice that trips to the disabled list were increasing and that the types of injuries players were suffering were changing. It would have had to be naïve to think that the public didn’t notice. We all did. I remember sitting in the clubhouse in 1998 and discussing the McGwire/Sosa home run chase and speculating about what they had to be using. Players were hitting balls out of the ballpark that five years earlier hardly anyone was able to hit out.
But while MLB was late in recognizing or addressing the problem, it appears to have made up for lost time. Yes, players still use. Some get away with it. Some don’t. Those who get caught pay a penalty for it that they knew they would receive if caught. I’m okay with that. I do wish that I could have played under the current rules, and wonder how my career would have been different if I had. But I didn’t, and I have to remind myself of that when those thoughts creep into my mind.
Observations on the PED Culture in Minor League Baseball, 1997-2003: Stimulants
At that time, I had been in professional baseball for less than a year and had already heard all about greenies from the older players and coaches I was around. They rarely spoke negatively about their effects on performance. I can’t remember any coach or player ever describing them in a negative light, and I never attended a meeting in spring training that went over the dangers of “greenie” use. We did, however, have to attend meetings where team officials spoke to us about how recreational drug abuse could negatively impact your performance, and the negative side effects associated with the use of anabolic steroids. I do recall some coaches saying that greenies weren’t for everyone, and I never heard a coach encourage their use.
The chatter associated with greenies stayed in the clubhouse between players, and away from the coaches’ room. I will say that I have seen a coach ask a player for one, and I have seen club trainers carry them in their medicine bags and give them out under the table. I remember a daytime doubleheader we played in Omaha where the trainer made two pots of coffee: one with greenies and one without. That never seemed wrong to me, and even those who didn’t take them never complained when the trainer labeled them with athletic tape so that no one would get them mixed up.
Getting “beaned up” was something that had been going on since the pills were introduced to the game. I heard that Latin players brought them over to the States at some point, and that that’s when their use took off. Latin players were usually the go-to guys to obtain them, just because they were not available in the United States. They were great for playing with a hangover, necessary to get going for a day game after a night game, and gave a player the stamina necessary to grind through six months of essentially a seven-day-a-week work schedule.
A minor-league baseball season is a grueling test of endurance. You play 140 games in about 155 days. Off days are rare. The travel sucks, even if you fly (which happens mostly in Double-A and Triple-A). Long bus rides and 6 AM flights are the norm. A game called because of rain before you even get to the yard is a gift from God.
The average fan comes to the ballpark for a 7 PM game and doesn’t realize that the players have been there since 1:30-2:00 in the afternoon putting in the work necessary to get better and advance up the ladder. The visiting team may have flown in that morning after playing a game the night before, or arrived in town after a 10-hour bus ride and gotten into their hotel beds at 7 AM. The starting pitcher might have gotten four hours of decent sleep and spent the rest of the travel time in the middle seat of a crowded flight or crammed into a bus seat that isn’t big enough for the average professional baseball player. All of these factors make it easy for a player not to feel like he’s in the optimal position to perform at his best, and that’s why players sometimes look for a little assistance. This was where a “greenie” could help.
I got my first greenie from another starting pitcher who had obtained them from a Dominican veteran reliever on our team. At that point, I was scared to use one in a game situation and didn’t think I needed one to pitch, no matter how I felt. I did want to know what greenies did, though, so another starter and I took one before we went into the stands to chart pitches.
In retrospect, it was incredibly stupid and a waste of a good pill. My heart rate increased, and I didn’t go to the concession stand for a snack like I usually did. I was energized and alert, and I didn’t rest one minute on the trip back to High Desert from Lancaster. From then on, I wasn’t afraid of what greenies could do to me. I had broken the seal.
I didn’t take a greenie during a game situation or before a start until the following season, in Double-A. I don’t remember having superior stuff or being better in any facet of my pitching. My fastball wasn’t sharper, my location wasn’t better, and my breaking pitches weren’t breaking more. What I do remember is that I was more alert and more focused on getting the ball to the catcher. The pills locked me in. They gave me the ability to stay focused on the pitching and forget about the peripheral distractions around the ballpark.
On greenies, I didn’t hear the chatter from the other dugout or notice what was going on in the seats during the game: my intensity was ramped up, and nothing could stop me from pitching my ass off that night. The only times I ever snapped a bat in the dugout, got into verbal confrontations with an umpire, or popped off to an opposing player was while I was playing under the influence of a greenie. I was ejected from a Dominican Winter League game for mother-fucking an umpire and once threw an empty five-gallon water bottle onto the field in a Mexican League playoff game. I did things that were out of character under the influence, and I didn’t mind.
Once I reached Triple-A, “beaning up” was part of my pre-start routine. I would open the capsule and pour the contents onto my tongue, enjoying the taste of the medicine and waiting for its effects to kick in. I probably made 60-70 percent of my starts in Triple-A on greenies. For the others, I either didn’t have access to one or didn’t feel like I needed one on that particular day. I tried not to take one if I was pitching on the night of a long bus ride or if we had an early wake-up call for a flight the next morning. I never took more than one at a time or more than one every five days, but I knew position players who took them daily and saw some players take two or three at a time.
For awhile in Triple-A, some players on my team started ordering Adipex online and would have it delivered to the clubhouse via FedEx. These pills were completely different: they wired the heck out of you. Your hands would shake, it was impossible to eat, and good luck trying to get to sleep after the game. One night after making a start on Adipex, I lay awake for a long time and stared at the ceiling. When I got up the next morning, my hands shook while I tried to eat cereal. When I could no longer get access to Adipex, I went back to the greenies. I never wanted my name on one of these prescriptions and wouldn’t order anything for myself, since I didn’t want to be identified if there was ever an investigation or someone in the organization went looking around. Plus, it was illegal to obtain a prescription fraudulently. I wasn’t overweight and didn’t have any legitimate medical condition that would have necessitated their use.
Greenies’ effects were also known to kick back in after a couple of beers. I hit the town hard in visiting cities several times after a good performance and had no problem shutting down a bar with my teammates. You couldn’t get to sleep right away anyway, so you might as well head out and have some fun. I knew some guys who would “bean up” just to go out after the game.
It might seem inconsistent that I had a moral objection to steroids but took greenies and Adipex often, but I never considering taking greenies cheating to gain an edge. I looked at it as a way to get through a long season and offset some of the fatigue that arose from traveling, working odd hours, and playing 20-plus days in a row. It seemed normal to me to take one, and no one was condemning it. My velocity didn’t increase, and I didn’t throw more innings or prevent fewer runs in games when I took one. If there hadn’t been a culture of acceptance, if their use had been discouraged, and if they hadn’t been widely available in the clubhouse and distributed by trainers at times, I most likely never would have taken one.
Observations on the PED Culture in Minor League Baseball, 1997-2003: Steroids
Home run power and high-velocity pitchers were taking over the game. Those were the tools that got you to the big leagues. If you didn’t have them, you were often overlooked and had to watch players who did continually get called up. Playing premium defense or throwing a darting sinker that got ground balls wasn’t enough to make the majors. There were exceptions, but it wasn’t the norm. Many of my teammates put up numbers every year but couldn’t get an invite to camp or a place on the 40-man roster because they lacked those coveted tools. There’s no doubt that some of them would have gotten a shot today.
Of course, velocity is still a premium tool to have. Pitchers have become better athletes, and advancements in the science of pitching mechanics have led to great gains. It seems like every member of a MLB bullpen comes into the game throwing 90-plus. You don’t see 7-8-hole hitters hitting 10-15 jacks a year anymore in the minors, though.
In the short term, I think steroid use helped pitchers and hitters equally. However, I think pitchers broke down and were injured more frequently as a result of steroid use. The small ligaments and tendons in the elbow and shoulder couldn't handle the rapid increase in strength in the muscles that surrounded those areas. For all players, the increased torque produced as a result of greater strength and faster muscles caused breakdowns in the core and back area. Many users didn’t know how to take steroids correctly and neglected to strengthen the areas that supported the major muscle groups
Steroids weren’t discussed openly in the clubhouse. There was still a stigma about them that kept the talk about them among players under the table and away from coaches, trainers, and player personnel people. Away from the field, they were discussed freely. Players would talk about where they could get them, what so-and-so from another team was taking, what was good and bad for your body, and what specific mixtures of steroids were the best for gaining strength, building stamina, or increasing velocity. Some players were more bold in their admissions, and others would deny use no matter how much their body changed or their power increased.
I was never in the inner circle of players who used, so I can’t give specifics of what types were used most frequently or the easiest places to get them. When I played in El Paso, I heard rumblings that the visiting clubhouse manager would cross over to Juarez to buy steroids for the opposing teams. Those players would then keep them for themselves or ship them to friends on other teams and in other organizations. It seemed easy to order them over the internet and have them shipped directly to you. I never saw shadowy figures hanging around the ballpark and selling their goods in the parking lots after games.
I remember hanging out and discussing steroids in our spring training apartments before the 2002 season. Most of the players in camp had been around for 4-5 years, as I had, and most had either been called up already or were knocking on the door to the big leagues. I had been a September call-up with the Diamondbacks the year before, but I didn’t get a good look. We were in a pennant race, for which I got a front-row seat. I pitched in three games that September.
We had all just watched Barry Bonds hit 73 homers the year before, and it was obvious that steroid use was rampant. I vividly remember players talking about what they took in the winter, how much weight they gained, and how much better they felt heading into the season. I remember wondering at that time whether I was foolish for not joining the party. The steroid users looked great and were confident that it was their time to get to and stay in the big leagues.
I felt like I wasn’t as prepared as they were. I didn’t use and came in looking the same as I had the year before. Even though I’d busted my ass that offseason, I’d brought nothing new to the table. Players talked about their increased strength and size like a golfer would talk about a new set of clubs. They were tools they used to get better and gain an edge. I didn’t have any new toy to show off, and that bothered me. But it never bothered me enough to cross that line.
I witnessed a lot of things those few years that wouldn’t have happened before the Steroid Era. I saw a guy who was embarrassed to take off his shirt in the clubhouse because his breasts had begun to soften as a result of the estrogen that was included in some mixtures of steroids. He started out as a power-hitting prospect but never hit with the power people thought he would have. To his credit, he stuck around in the bigs as a backup and made a decent career for himself after the new policy took effect.
Another teammate showed some of us a chunk that was missing in his ass as a result of an infection he got after injecting steroids in the same spot for too long. He was a dumbass, in my opinion, and he probably never studied up on them enough to know better. But he showed us that chunk like it was a badge of honor. He was one of the top rookies at his position and was in the top 10 of a major statistical category one year, but coincidentally or not, he didn’t do anything after the time that MLB began to test for and punish steroid use.
I was around when an organization swept under the rug a situation where a player and his friend were pulled over and steroids were found in his car. This guy was overlooked by everyone, got an invite to minor-league camp, and for a time kept putting up numbers at whatever level he played at. He put together a couple incredible years, got a contract, and then fizzled out quickly due to injuries and steroid testing. He avoided trouble because he could hit, parlayed it into financial security, and was dumped to the curb when he couldn’t produce anymore.
I have a friend who played minor-league baseball for seven seasons before he made it. He’s in the Mitchell report. Pitched full seasons in the majors in 2003 and 2004. He’s a tremendous athlete with or without steroids, and he put up numbers in Triple-A and elsewhere after testing took place. He never talked about steroids, and he was such a good athlete beforehand that you couldn’t tell if he was using or not. I’m not sure what he was taking when I played with him, if anything—I first heard of his use in the Mitchell Report, like everyone else. He earned over two years of service time and banked over $700,000 in those two seasons.
The Mitchell Report means nothing to him and his bank account. He continued to get opportunities after the report came out. Were steroids the extra edge he needed to finally get there?
I played with a player who cried in the clubhouse after being part of blowing a nine-run lead late in a game. The guy was soft. He was more dedicated to pulling chicks after the game than getting hitters out, and he was traded because the organization didn’t like that some of its young prospects were hanging out too much with him after games. When he took steroids, his performance changed, but so did his confidence and demeanor. He was one of the players who wasn’t afraid to let everyone know what he was doing. He was proud of how he’d changed. He went from being someone who couldn’t handle pressure to a key contributor for a time, before he was injured and never got his velocity back.
I saw players go from being fringe prospects to everyday big leaguers while I spent most of my time in Triple-A waiting to get a decent look. I was focused on doing what I could do for myself, and not on what others were doing. I never lay awake at night pissed off that other guys were getting chances when I wasn’t, and I still considered myself blessed to play professional baseball.
I had my best season in 2003, the year that Major League Baseball began anonymous testing to determine if steroid use was a problem in the game and whether it would be necessary to implement a comprehensive plan. It hadn’t occurred to me, until now, that the best professional season I put together might have been the result of a more level playing field. I had an excellent camp with the Expos that year and was one of the last cuts of the spring. I was sure I’d made a good impression on the coaching staff, and I flourished under the tutelage of Randy St. Claire during spring training and Tommy John during my time in Edmonton. I pitched fairly well out of the bullpen for a couple of months and was moved to the starting rotation. After a string of strong, confidence-boosting starts, I was called up in early July.
When I arrived in Montreal, I was sent right into action against the Marlins. I punched out a 19-year-old Miguel Cabrera that day. It felt good to be back on a big-league roster. When I was called up to Arizona in September of 2001, I didn’t really get an opportunity to contribute. The D-Backs were in a pennant chase and would eventually win it all, without me. This time I was in the majors as a member of a 25-man roster, and it meant a lot to me.
I thought I pitched well. I mopped up quite a bit but was also getting opportunities to throw in late-inning, high-leverage situations. I remember coming into the clubhouse in Dodger Stadium after pitching to Shawn Green and Jeromy Burnitz. Livan Hernandez was in there already and asked me about my career and where I had been before. He told me I belonged at the big-league level, to keep doing what I was doing, and that I could pitch for a long time. I threw a scoreless ninth and 10th in a tie game in Philadelphia and a scoreless ninth against my former team. Even though I went out for the 10th and gave up a walk-off homer to Raul Mondesi, I was happy to be coming into key situations. The Expos were playing well. They had confidence in me. Everything was going well.
I don’t think there was much steroid use in the Montreal organization. I knew a few pitchers in the organization who weren’t shy about letting it be known that they used, but it didn’t seem as prevalent to me as it was in other places. I do remember players talking about how anonymous the tests would actually be and hearing about how some guys were rolling the dice and still using.
I was convinced that if I could stay with the club until September 1st, I would actually finish the season with the team. I thought I was going to make it. It was late August, and we had just swept the Phillies in a nationally televised game to move into a tie for the Wild Card. The clubhouse was energized. We were headed to Florida to play the Marlins, and then to Puerto Rico after that.
Then it all came crashing down for me. I was already on the bus, ready to fly to Miami, when I was called off and sent to Frank Robinson’s office. I was being sent down the day before every other team in Major League Baseball was adding guys to its roster. Frank told me that it was completely out of his control and that he’d do his best to get me and a couple of other guys back as soon as he could, but I could tell by his expression and the stoic look given to me by General Manager Omar Minaya that he was pretty sure that that wouldn’t happen. I heard later that some players were upset about it on the bus.
I’d felt like I was finally a legitimate member of and contributor to a major-league team, but I never made it back. That was my last big-league moment. I later received a letter from Bud Selig’s office expressing their regret that they were unable to bring me and some others back up when the rosters expanded due to the economic hardship of running the Expos. Terrmell Sledge hit 30 home runs that year in Edmonton and didn’t get called up. It wasn’t fair. Big-league teams weren’t supposed to operate like that, but the Expos did. I still have that letter somewhere in my papers and mementos from my career. I should burn it.
Over that offseason, I signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a non-roster invite. (I’d had the opportunity to re-sign with Montreal, but for considerably less money.) I was having a great camp and getting noticed by Jim Coburn, the pitching coach, and I felt like I had a chance to contribute at some point during the year. During a spring training game in Fort Lauderdale, I blew out my knee covering first base on a ball hit by Jon Gibbons—I have a picture of the moment it happened. The initial MRI showed no tear of the ACL, or so they say. I never received a second opinion.
I rehabbed in Vero Beach, experiencing a couple of setbacks along the way. Finally, I was fitted with knee brace and sent to Las Vegas. I pitched out of the pen for a few weeks and pitched my ass off. I remember Roger McDowell bitching at me one day for not running conditioning at the level he thought that I should. We were running pass routes and catching baseballs, and I couldn’t handle the cutting. My knee was shot, but I was giving it my all.
We were in Salt Lake City when the knee finally went. Before the game, I’d told my former coach and friend, Ty Van Burkleo, that my knee was hanging by a thread and joked that it was only a matter of time before it blew out. With a knee brace on, I fielded a swinging bunt and turned to throw to first, and my knee finally let go. I heard the same pops and was operated on a week later. My season was over.
I didn’t receive a call that offseason from another team. My agent arranged for me to play in the Mexican League, and I ended up leading the circuit with 14 wins. I was offered an opportunity to finish the year in Columbus with the Yankees organization, but my knee was sore, and I felt I needed the rest more than a month in Triple-A with an organization that had no plans to give me a good shot. I was certain that I’d put enough on paper to get an opportunity next spring with a club and didn’t want a subpar month to ruin what I’d already achieved.
Not accepting that offer turned out to be the worst decision of my career. The only time I made it back to play in the States was a month I spent with Oklahoma City in the Rangers organization at the end of 2006. I pitched well in five starts and thought that I might be re-signed. But that winter, both the GM and the major-league manager (Buck Showalter) were fired, and the new regime never called me.
I went back to Mexico in 2007 and tore my meniscus running sprints in the outfield before a game. I worked hard to rehab, but the knee never improved. While I was rehabbing and the team was on the road, my stomach began to hurt. I thought I’d caught a severe stomach bug from eating bad Mexican food, but the pain persisted for at least 10 days. The team trainers tried everything to relieve it until one day when I couldn’t handle it anymore. The team doctor came to my house, and he pressed on my stomach as I lay on the bed. The pain was excruciating.
We went directly to an ultrasound clinic. The technician who performed it freaked out in front of me. My appendix had ruptured. We went straight from there to a hospital that I never would have stepped foot in under other circumstances. I writhed on the emergency room floor, not caring whether I lived or died. I was wheeled into an emergency room with equipment that looked like it was from the 1950s, but even that didn’t faze me. I knew relief was on its way. Our team doctor was there with his cell phone camera, documenting the entire procedure.
It was a gift from God that I survived that ordeal. The surgeon, who had been practicing medicine for over 50 years, saved my life. He told me that he’d scrubbed out my insides with a sponge for over an hour, and that weaker people had died from what I’d just endured. I stayed in that hospital with no air conditioning for two and a half days, and the doctor left the wound open for a couple of weeks. Every day, I took a taxi to the hospital, where he cleaned the wound and changed my dressings. I didn't play again that season, and I hung them up not long after.
Moral objections aside, players who used steroids proved they would do whatever it took to get to the big leagues, and I didn’t. I could have ordered them and learned how to use them just as easily. Maybe I would have jumped from 87-91 to 90-93. That would have been enough velocity to get the ball by hitters from the left side. Control was never an issue for me, and neither was keeping the ball on the ground and in the park. Would that extra velocity have gotten me more swings and misses, more time in the bigs, and therefore more career earnings? As I sit here and reflect on it frankly, I think the answer is probably yes.
But I couldn’t let myself do it. I was scared of the long-term effects, and so was my wife. I didn’t want my father to label me a cheater. My wife knew about and hated my greenie use, but I haven’t told my Dad. I won’t tell him now, either—he can find it on Google if he wants to look. I didn’t think of it at the time as a performance-enhancing drug or as cheating the game. I think I made the right choices. I think I left it all out on the field. But I’m not sure.