If there was one question that I would say I’ve been asked more than any other, or, if there was one question that I wish could be answered once and never again, it would be the eternal steroid question. It comes in many forms, but it amounts to a question of faith:
“Do you think (insert favorite player’s name) is on steroids?”
“Mickey Mantle never used steroids.”
“How many players are using steroids?”
No one wants to look at a baseball game and see the WWE break out. We like our players strong, bulging with muscles, fast, injury-proof, laser-armed, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…but we also want to believe that they’re “one of us.” We want to project ourselves into the bottom of the ninth, two outs and the bat on our shoulders as the lights of Yankee Stadium bear down. We want to believe that “our guys” are playing on the same level with “those guys” and that the only advantages they have are those we allow in our hearts.
Since the beginnings of sport, probably as far back as the real Olympic games, athletes have sought some advantage. If accepted, it’s called innovation; if not, it becomes cheating. From the apparent to the sublime, from the ingenious to the bizarre, there are few if any lengths that athletes and their coaches will not go to win. Given that fact, it should come as little surprise that ethics and morals–or even a reasonably thorough and well-conducted drug testing plan–aren’t enough to keep a percentage of athletes from doing things that are both illegal, unhealthy, and that might potentially break that bond of faith between athlete and fan.
The recent case involving Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) has brought the word steroid back to the forefront in a post-World Series baseball community. In a case that involves not steroid-trafficking, but tax evasion, a number of high-profile athletes, including five MLB players and a heretofore unknown anabolic steroid called THG (tetrahydrogestrinone), is perfect for the media but tells the fans nothing they shouldn’t already have known. The sexy sheen of a steroid probe involving Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi is a story that lays itself out on a silver platter for a lazy journalist that will not allow the thought to cross his or her mind that there have been no accusations of usage by these athletes or any other baseball players. Worse, by putting the word “steroid” and “Bonds” or “Giambi” in the same headline, the color of impropriety is almost impossible for these athletes to overcome. There is simply no way to ever give either a fair trial or even a reasonable testing, but there’s nothing wrong with this fact. Innocent until proven guilty is not a doctrine in American athletics; we’ve moved to a tabloid-style stoning by innuendo and rumor.
According to Dr. Lewis Black of Aegis Sciences Corp., one of the leading drug-testing facilities in America, it is impossible to detect any drug that is not known. This sounds like common sense, but is in fact widely misunderstood. A drug test is something like a police lineup, where the tested urine, hair, or blood is broken down and compared to certain known substances. When there is a match, red lights flash and horns sound. However, much like a lineup, if the substance is unknown or if there’s the chemical equivalent of reasonable doubt, the test is “passed.” Add in masking agents, diluting substances, and even prescribed drugs and the testing becomes even harder. THG, is in fact, designed to be just slightly different from two known anabolic steroids. “The molecule is just different enough,” said Dr. Black in a Baseball Prospectus Radio interview, “to not cause a failure.”
The theory is that while adding a molecule would fool the testers, it wouldn’t fool the body, and the steroid would have its full effect. Thing is, we don’t know. Imagine being handed a syringe filled with a liquid that at first glance resembles urine. No one knows anything about this liquid. It’s an anabolic steroid to be sure, engineered to be self-masking. We know that steroids, used in the typical, near-veterinary doses of athletic abusers, have serious side effects. Those effects, from the so-called minor ones like gynocemastia, liver problems, and loss of hair, run to kidney failure, tumors, and death. While many adult athletes may be willing to take this gamble in return for hoped athletic excellence, it is the trickle-down effect of performance-enhancing drugs that is most chilling.
According to some studies, as many as 4% of American high school student-athletes have used steroids. Often given as a reason is that they see others doing it and feel they need to ‘keep up.’ Others realize that they are falling behind and in order to find some edge, they are willing to take steroids or other substances. Recent estimates of steroid use in baseball have been as high as Jose Canseco‘s laughable 80% to as low as a reported 2% failure rate in 2003 drug testing. Dr. Black, when asked, didn’t believe the high estimates. “It’s a rationalization on some part,” he said. “If they do it, they want to believe everyone is doing it. I’ve tested broad populations and never found results approaching that. Not even half that. I’d say maybe 15% are doing something, whether that is steroids or some other substance.”
Another expert, Dr. Charles Yesalis of Penn State, author of several books on performance-enhancing drugs, feels that the number is probably higher. “We have to assume that there are more designer steroids out there,” he said in a phone conversation, “because THG is the fourth such drug found.” Three other designer drugs, one a steroid and two that were stimulants, were developed in the Soviet Union and East Germany during the 1970s and 1980s. “Just like THG, they were only found because some brave soul stepped forward,” he said. “Without something to match against, any drug is essentially undetectable.”
Asked if he thought there were many more out there, Dr. Yesalis said: “I’m no chemist, but I’m told this isn’t difficult. Pharmaceutical companies do similar tricks all the time and the amount of money available to those that can do this is staggering. It’s a secret culture, one not unlike child pornographers, where the desire to prevent detection is paramount.”
While the BALCO saga has brought the discussion back to anabolic steroids, this is hardly the only drug that is a problem in sports in general or baseball in particular. On ESPN Radio, former pitcher Milt Pappas said: “We used to take greenies (amphetamines) by the handful.” The use of amphetamines and other “uppers” is widely known, from the tales of Jim Bouton‘s Ball Four to multiple stories of players who can drink more coffee than a Starbucks can brew in an hour. One player I spoke to said he used a caffeine pill rather than coffee because “I’m out in the bullpen and I can run in to [use the facilities] every five minutes.” Rampant cocaine use in the late ’70s and early ’80s was an offshoot of the amphetamine acceptance and popular culture.
Today’s acceptance of bodybuilding supplements such as creatine and androstendione among thousands of others leads athletes on a path from mild to strong. “Creatine, on a scale of 0 to 100,” said Dr. Yesalis, “is about a 15. When someone comes out and puts on 15 or 20 pounds of lean body mass in a very short period of time, that’s just not possible with creatine.” Beyond steroids are things like recombinant erythropoietin (rEPO), a drug used by long-distance athletes to induce the body to create more oxygen carrying red blood cells, human growth hormone (hGH), and IGF-1, an insulin-like growth factor that is favored by power athletes and sprinters. Add in the expanding “therapeutic” practice of prolotherapy–using medical-grade insulin to induce healing and recovery in muscles–and the dangers are not only apparent, but frighteningly available.
Is baseball, perhaps, being less hypocritical by de-emphasizing a detection program doomed to failure? Is there any way to maintain the faith that fans need in the integrity of the game without intruding on the basic rights of the players?
A well-run, professionally-conducted drug-testing program in the mold of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency would serve both the owners and players well. Players desperate enough to go to any lengths and continue risking their health may still sometimes slip through the cracks. But it’s a start.