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August 20, 2013
Giving Up the PED Guessing Game
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Gabe Kapler spent parts of 12 years in the major leagues from 1998-2010, playing for the Tigers (1998-99), Rangers (2000-02), Rockies (2002-03), Red Sox (2003-06 – with a brief interlude in Japan), Brewers (2008) and Rays (2009-10). He also spent a year managing the Red Sox’ Single-A affiliate in Greenville. Follow him on Twitter @gabekapler. You can read his first article for BP here and listen to his recent discussion of advanced stats on Effectively Wild with Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller here.
I admit that my relationship with weight training was born out of insecurity. My bloom was tardy and the pictures of a minuscule, undeveloped, preadolescent me juxtaposed with my Little League teammates haunted me through the 10th grade, when I finally began to expand physically in both directions.
While I certainly sprouted in high school, I am to this day attempting to shake the association with that tiny 12-year-old boy. And it's that mindset that ingrained insanely regimented and admittedly neurotic eating practices as a young adult, like taking a bite of ice cream and, if I deemed the taste unworthy, spitting it out into the bushes so as not to ingest the fat content.
That was the tip of my idiosyncratic iceberg related to food. For years I survived on a diet of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and rice and beans, without a vegetable or berry in my repertoire. I learned to eat fast food in the minor leagues by throwing away buns before it was sexy to wrap a burger in a piece of lettuce.
Those echoes of childhood neuroses drove me to an obsessive quest for muscle; I did pull-ups on dugout ledges, always leery of the former absence of size in my back. And that muscle, in the era in which I played, meant that I would be suspected, without evidence or reason, of using steroids.
I graduated from high school as a 17-year-old in 1993 at 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, rocking a lean, wiry frame like my dad and my grandpa had at the same age. I didn't hit a single home run in high school but had extraordinary eye-hand coordination and could square the ball up at will. Unfortunately for me at the time, the baseball didn't go anywhere when I did find the sweet spot. Still, someone at Cal State Fullerton must have noticed that I possessed good bat-to-ball skills and a frame that would fill out, and offered me a scholarship.
The Titans won the College World Series the following year, but I wasn’t on that team. I didn’t even make it to the spring semester at CSUF in 1994. Among other things, I hadn’t acquired my “man strength,” and in the end, I simply wasn’t emotionally or physically ready for the program. I took the year off and arrived in the fall semester of 1994 at Moorpark College, where I told my coach, Mario Porto, that I was coming from Fullerton.
“Congratulations,” he responded sarcastically. “If you’re good enough, you’ll play here.”
The fall from grace and loss of a scholarship coupled with my new coach’s hard-line stance was a blessing in disguise and offered the motivation desperately needed by a directionless teenager. In addition to a strict offseason lifting program, I took a nutrition course at Moorpark that changed my life in a way that no other educational experience had before. I learned how to replenish calories and how much protein was needed after a workout for appropriate tissue recovery and muscle building. I fully absorbed and embraced the concept of eating for fuel, not for taste.
In congruence with my newfound sustenance awareness, I was gradually maturing physiologically. It was the perfect storm of a 19-year-old finally receiving the hormones that blessed his peers years earlier, a passionate love affair with heavy weight training, and a mind infinitely opened by a junior college nutrition textbook that boosted me down a path of minor league baseball success and outrageously unfair, but in some ways understandable, accusations.
I was drafted in the 57th round in 1995 at an incredibly lean 190 pounds. By the time I reached my second year in the minor leagues, I was more muscular at 205 pounds than the first-round picks in the Detroit Tigers organization, and as strong as anyone selected in between. Those well-struck baseballs that had once landed safely in the gloves of shallowly positioned outfielders in my high school days were now screaming into the gaps and bouncing off walls.
I remained my own interpretation of Rain Man with my routine. I vividly recall being on a South Atlantic League road trip in 1996 and walking miles from our team motel to a gym in Savannah, Ga., in the dead of summer so as not to miss a workout (I was squatting nearly 500 pounds at this point). God forbid I stray from my lifting schedule. I found that gym buried in the Yellow Pages, a common practice for me in those days. The Comfort Inn didn’t have a treadmill back then, but I could count on a Bible and a phone book.
My teammates deemed my eating habits and training regimen psychotic and busted my balls about it, but they consistently asked for advice on training. They were intrigued (and, I’m guessing, suspicious), but I always felt that deep down, regardless of their outward behavior, they respected my sacrifice. Could be wishful thinking, but I’ll roll with that.
As my performance improved, so did the hotels. Better access to gyms on road trips spared me the toe blisters, but my inflexible approach to training and eating didn’t waver until many years into my major league career. (Full disclosure: I still have strict eating and training habits, but they are far healthier, and center on well-being rather than strength and size. My relationship with blueberries long ago passed the honeymoon phase.)
I was at my heaviest (around 215 pounds) and strongest, but not my leanest, during my first two seasons with the Texas Rangers at ages 24-25. I remember the batting practice session in which I blasted a ball into the second deck in left field at the Ballpark in Arlington, and later in the same session hit a ball onto the grassy section in center well beyond the wall that I knew instantly would go out. My power was always to the pull side, and the significance of hitting a ball right of the “400” sign with the certainty that it would leave is not to be discounted. I never again in my career felt that powerful or even close.
In the offseason before 2002, when I was 26, I played a flag football tournament that I participated in annually. Granted, it was physical, but I was used to bouncing back the next day and hitting and throwing in preparation for the upcoming season. But this time, instead of my usual seamless physical recovery, I was extraordinarily stiff for several days.
This was the first sign that I was in physical decline. From that point on, my body cooperated less and less. When I got to camp in 2002, I noticed that the ball wasn’t exploding off my bat quite as much as it had been the previous year. In fact, in one spring training game in Port Charlotte, I hit a walk-off home run that I confidently anticipated would land in the water beyond the left-field fence and was shocked to see it narrowly sneak out of the park, crashing against the second wooden wall.
Frustration permeated my being to the point that I took hours of swings off a tee on the field at Charlotte County Stadium the following day, bloodying my hands in the process. My mechanics were not sound, but it didn’t make sense that even when squaring the baseball up, the velocity off the bat was noticeably diminished. In hindsight, I can forcefully squish the puzzle pieces together.
My body was producing less testosterone. I was very slowly and quite naturally shrinking. Every year after that, I carried less and less muscle mass while working just as hard in the weight room and continually improving my eating habits. Each year I came into camp a little lighter: 208, then 205, then 202. By my last year in Tampa I was having trouble maintaining 198. My body without weight training naturally carries a lean 175 or 180, as it did when I graduated from high school. So the progression was natural for a guy who wasn’t getting fatter.
I never again experienced the strength or productivity that I had at 24 and 25, but found subtle ways to make adjustments when appropriate and have success, albeit limited, throughout my career. I am grateful for the natural gifts I was given to do so.
Realizing that I’d begun to decline was my moment of truth, the perfect opportunity to step across the threshold from the red to the black (or vice-versa) depending on moral compass. I was about to lose my role as a major league starting outfielder and slide gracefully into my role player/“good teammate” archetype.
Fame and fortune were still mine for the taking if the devil on my shoulder had a loud enough voice. He did not. PEDs have been the topic of a plethora of philosophical conversations at home with my wife. She was the one person in my life with whom I could safely and whimsically fantasize about what might be if ever I were to open Pandora’s Box (600 plate appearances, 30 homers, millions of dollars?). Despite the potential fairytale, I never really got close to the decision to use PEDs.
I made the choice to play clean for a myriad of reasons. Most importantly, I have an obnoxiously loud conscience. I knew I wouldn’t be able to rest while cheating. When I do something, anything, of which I’m not proud (and I’ve displayed my fair share of selfish behavior), I experience guilt. I carry it around like a ton of bricks and was able to anticipate my inability to live with the decision to take the shortcut.
I was also able to predict future conversations with my more mature children. I figured that ultimately I would be in a position in which I’d be forced to impart one of two lessons: “don’t do it like dad” or “follow in my footsteps.” I chose the latter.
I can fully comprehend the spell cast on my peers. Fame, power, and the financial security of generations all contribute to an irresistible scent. It’s like the episode of Survivor in which the contestants have to give up the long-term advantage in a challenge for the instant gratification of a giant slice of chocolate cake and an ice-cold glass of milk while in a state of starvation and dehydration.
Had I been unable to resist the temptation, I believe I would have maintained the strength that I had at my peak, or perhaps increased it. As I became better mechanically and through experience, that power would play up. The ripple effect of that would lead to confidence, which would in turn lead to improved performance. There is a school of thought that PEDs don’t help your eye-hand coordination; that they won’t make you a better player because you still have to hit the ball. That’s a debatable topic, but I reckon that bigger, stronger, faster, more powerful men will hit the ball harder and throw the ball faster. That’s nearly indisputable. In baseball, there isn’t a factor more responsible for success than confidence. I’ve never in my life had a player tell me different. If a man is stronger on the field and can recover more quickly, he’s inherently going to believe in his ability more. I submit that if anything, the value of PEDs to a player has been drastically underpublicized as opposed to overblown.
At every turn, I handled accusations, conversed with skeptical teammates, and did public interviews because of my build. If you start to Google my name, you’ll likely be greeted with the suggestion to type “Gabe Kapler Steroids”. I alone am responsible for this unsavory link. After all, had I not been the subject in the farcical but priceless images that you’ll also find in a web search, one might make less of a connection between me and PEDs based on my body type. My naiveté led me astray when I thought it a good idea to supplement my minor league salary with a few bucks for taking shirtless pictures. It’s entertaining to me that many years later I’m still trying to shake the image of my youth and restore credibility. (Are you listening, Johnny Manziel?)
At one point in 2000, HBO Real Sports came to Chicago during a series with the White Sox in a sleazy attempt to ambush our Texas Rangers team. The network was there in part because that group included since publicly indicted players Ken Caminiti, who was open with his teammates about his steroid abuse, and Rafael Palmeiro and Alex Rodriguez, who both tested positive, as well as others with strong ties to rumors, speculation, or positive tests. Grievously for me, if you fight beside gang members, it’s assumed you are in a gang. HBO asked for volunteers to be tested.
“Who would be willing to take a PED test, right here and right now for our show?”, the producers asked.
I raised my hand. I was extraordinarily proud to do so, and still hold that moment in my life in high regard. I’m grateful to have the incident documented.
In my private moments of frustration stemming from accusations related to body type, I mentally appraised the men in the other dugout, or in my own. I went through them one-by-one and judged them based on size and muscularity. It was a worthless exercise, but entertaining nonetheless.
Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa are the fuel to America’s fiery game of “Who Done It?” Baseball has become a B movie, and the stars are a cast of characters with a wide variety of physiques residing on both sides of the ethics spectrum. What’s a good script without a conflict between good and evil?
The men who have tested positive for PEDs include Ryan Franklin (skinny), Bartolo Colon (not skinny), Melky Cabrera (not muscular), Neifi Perez (skinny) etc. Do bodybuilders use steroids? Of course. Like the American population, users come in all shapes and sizes. Men in major league baseball who don’t use also vary greatly in body type.
In the aftermath of the Biogenesis mushroom cloud, I've joined the chorus of people in the industry who have spoken publicly about the noticeable change taking place. The players are finally speaking up, standing shoulder to shoulder and emphatically proclaiming their desire for a clean sport. There is a growing crack in the once-private dam of player opinion, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Mike Trout, Matt Kemp, Skip Schumaker, Aaron Rodgers and many more have emphatically taken a stance on the “clean” side of this issue. That doesn’t make them better than anybody else, but if a PED-free game is what the players desire, there must be an authenticity to our public stance, and it has to be loud and unified.
It’s unfortunate, but players, fans, and the media are still analyzing PED use like a 1950s baseball scout rather than using the mounds of data at our fingertips to appropriately measure what has occurred and is occurring. Phrenology was once a widely accepted science, but it was based on mainly false assumptions. The nature of the current quest to identify potential users seems just as misguided.
From my perspective, assuming and sharing publicly that because a man is muscular he's used steroids, HGH, or any other PED is irresponsible and reckless. It may indeed be part of an overall picture, but it’s akin to looking at a pitcher’s wins and losses and determining his value based on those flawed statistics alone. The detective work necessary to accurately assess the likelihood of a player's PED use is above the pay grade of the average fan, and therefore it’s rarely done.
Earlier this month, Jack Clark threw a blindfolded haymaker at Albert Pujols, stating publicly on his (now former) radio show, “I know for a fact he (Pujols) was (using). The trainer that worked with him, threw him batting practice from Kansas City, that worked him out every day, basically told me that’s what he did.”
I cringed along with the baseball world when I heard that, not only because a player whom we all hold in high regard was unreasonably facing an attack on his integrity, but also because your buddy lobbing you an anecdote is not enough data for you to kick another human being in the nuts.
The following day, Brian Kenny and I chatted on his radio show. He asked me to address Pujols in particular, and in doing so vehemently stated, “Anybody that comes into camp 25 pounds lighter, I wonder about.” BK was clearly emotional, and rightfully so after the Ryan Braun and A-Rod deceptions. I get BK’s sentiment, but wondering is all we can justly do. We certainly have no business making a reasonable case based on hearsay and weight loss alone.
Until we have a positive test, an admission of guilt, an accepted suspension or some other unequivocally accurate anecdotal evidence, we’d be wise to assume innocence so as not to unjustly jeopardize the reputations of undeserving human beings.
But that doesn’t mean we should put our heads in the sand and ignore the possibility of guilt. Clearly, players are still trying to get a chemical edge in the world of penalties. And it would be irresponsible to ignore evidence that at least raises yellow flags.
Pujols is an interesting example of a guy who absolutely should be and is experiencing a natural decline in strength, durability, and performance. The average male’s testosterone levels begin declining at age 20. By 30, the same man is producing 25 percent less testosterone, and the decrease in production continues through his 30s. By the time he reaches 40, he has 50 percent less testosterone production than at his peak in his early 20s.
So now Albert is truly out of luck, and he owes it, at least in part, to Jack. If he picks up his performance, the world will throw the book at him. He’s similarly screwed if he speaks out, given the recent sentiment that the guy who screams the loudest, e.g., “I’ll sue you!”, is guilty. And we all know that a player who won’t publicly deny PED use MUST be hiding something.
The players who have publicly humiliated themselves by desperately proclaiming their innocence, only to later admit guilt (or be deemed guilty), were not just slicing their own wrists but muzzling and, in some cases, strangling the men and women wrongly accused.
At this point, players are damned in the court of public opinion no matter what they do or say. In many ways, this is the collective responsibility of the players. Our most important figures lied to our faces, and now we don’t know who to believe.
Speaking of our most important figures, a recent edition of The Washington Post contained a piece on A-Rod’s recent decline and cited Yale economist Ray C. Fair’s mathematical model of how hitters age, derived using the stats of every batter who played at least 10 full seasons between 1921 and 2004. He uncovered that the typical peak is around age 28, even with a selective sample of hitters who aged gracefully enough to make it in the majors for a decade or more. By 29, such hitters are already in a decline. It’s worth noting that pitchers are at their best even earlier (around 26, which is when I noticed my own descent).
If we are to start somewhere in our quest to understand PEDs, it’s most likely by examining performance. Scientifically, it’s difficult to fathom players aging in reverse, as they have so often in recent years. What we see in terms of physique—muscle gain or weight loss—is far less useful as an indicator of potential use than statistics that make a mockery of the aging curve.
And here I am stepping into the same razor-sharp trap that I’m trying to direct you away from. I’m exposing my own bias and speculating along with the rest of America. Shame on me.
So is the lesson not to judge a book by its cover? Perhaps. There are numerous takeaways from the madness and scandal of 2013. This season (and the entire PED era) will forever stick us with a skeptic’s view of our beloved sport.
But skepticism should not be used as a justification for ignorant discourse and speculation. Instead, it should compel those of us who care about the game to identify meaningful, measurable indicators of potential PED use.
If we talk about the topic openly enough and study the science with ferocity, rather than viewing the PED discussion as juicy gossip and tabloid fodder while wildly pointing fingers, we have a chance to see things as they are. That kind of methodical approach to the PED conversation may be the best way to leave the ugly drama of scandal in our wake and bring our focus back to the striking beauty of the game itself.