February 18, 2004
Can Of Corn
By now, you've no doubt heard that Barry Bonds' trainer has been arrested after federal agents raided his home and found anabolic steroids on the premises. What's perhaps more noteworthy is that agents also seized Greg Anderson's computer files and a certain manila folder, both of which reportedly contain the names of Anderson's litany of high-profile clients and their supplement regimens. Without a doubt, months of legal sword-crossings are to follow before the contents of Anderson's records are ever released, but that fact in tandem with his close association with Bonds means a growth economy for wild speculation.
I've written elsewhere about how the dangers of steroids have been wildly exaggerated and how any actual detrimental side effects are likely due to its being illegal in the first place. I think the war on drugs is as feckless and dangerous as anything our government has ever attempted. There are unexamined penumbras of the DEA and our log of federal drug laws that are inherently racist and have led to a gradual erosion of our fourth amendment safeguards. But that's not my concern today. My concern is the idea--one that seems to be gaining traction in the mainstream sports media--that notable increases in body size are prima facie evidence of steroid use. This couldn't be further from the truth.
I have no inkling as to whether Bonds is using or has used anabolics. Personally I don't care whether he has or not, but I do allow that reasonable people can disagree over the importance of this fact. What I do know is that drastic increases in body weight and muscle mass are perfectly attainable without the use of hormone manipulation. I'm no one's idea of an Ed Coan, but I have been an intermittently and modestly dedicated lifter for quite a while. Emphasis on "intermittently" and "modestly."
In lifting, things have changed drastically over the last decade, both in terms of knowledge and of legal supplementation. If were born in 1970s or before, and at anytime played a competitive sport that entailed weightlifting, you probably performed some variant of "pyramid training." Pyramid training involves decreasing the reps of each set while increasing the weight, often lifting to near failure in the early sets and thus overtaxing the muscles in what should be the warm-up portion of the exercise. Turns out pyramid training is one of the least efficient ways to add strength and mass, but that was S.O.P. for high school athletes for decades. We've learned a lot in the intervening years. The Periodization program, particularly Russian style, with an emphasis on plyometrics, is probably the most important development in sports training in a quarter century. There's also Max-OT style weight training, which corrects many of the flaws found in traditional pyramid programs and is also highly effective at increasing strength levels.
An athlete who's never ventured beyond casual or traditional lifting can respond dramatically to one of these programs tailored to his needs and focused on building power or muscular strength (which, incidentally, are not the same things). There's also a whole world of strength supplementation that doesn't involve illegal anabolic steroids. There's glutamine, which increases tissue concentrations of the most common amino acid found in skeletal muscle. There's whey peptides, the protein found to be most effective at building muscle. There's creatine, a naturally occurring substance found to increase the energy-storage capacity of muscles. There's testosterone boosters and estrogen blockers. There's anti-catabolic supplements and zinc-magnesium blends. And you get them all at your local vitamin counter. This is to say nothing of the specialized diets that are out there and adhered to unfailingly by many elite athletes.
Anyway, you get the idea. The point is that there are a number of perfectly legal ways to create a biochemical environment that's highly conducive to making tremendous strength, power and muscle-mass gains. Just because Bonds or Bret Boone has a head-slappingly different body shape than he did a few years ago doesn't mean he's "juicing."
The leap to conclusions in the media is inevitable. Many mainstream writers would rather pander to and incite Joe Fan rather than take a cold-eyed look at the implications of modern training and supplementation. It's easier for Rick Reilly and his ilk to yuk it up with testicle jokes or broadly dismiss the statistical bestowals of Bonds than to do something as arduous and exacting as, say, a Google search. Again, I haven't the faintest idea whether Bonds is using, but it's entirely possible--likely, even--that his Stretch Armstrong build has been achieved by means that most would consider to be "legitimate." No amount of histrionics will change that. That players like Todd Helton, Eric Chavez and Derek Lowe have put on pounds and pounds of muscle this winter despite the looming presence of steroid testing is also interesting. Does it prove that star players are flouting the mandates of the CBA and that baseball's testing program is a farce? Maybe. But it might also demonstrate that you don't need illegal steroids to reshape your body (it can also be achieved by megadoses of tacos and sloth, but we're talking about positive reshaping).
Time and innovation march on. Unless you advocate an open-ended, ever-growing laundry list of banned substances, superior training methods that in all likelihood confer some kind of advantage upon the contemporary ballplayer are part of the game nowadays. But that doesn't mean we should start dishing out the asterisks. At least, not unless we're willing to more seriously discount the accomplishments of those who toiled in--and benefited from--the pre-integrated game.
The profluence of muscled ballplayers doesn't necessarily mean the profluence of steroid use. It does mean that athletes and their trainers know more about effective exercise regimens and that the supplement industry makes highly efficacious products these days. For now, that's all it means.