Bill Wilder, the medical director for the Cleveland Indians, couldn't believe what he was hearing. As baseball's physicians and trainers gathered for their annual meetings at Nashville's Opryland Hotel on Dec. 12, 1998, the Tribe's chief doc and many
others in the room knew their game had developed quite a drug problem. At least half a dozen physicians would later admit to increasing concern about a growing number of players ingesting anabolics and gobbling stimulants. Team employees handed out everything from amino-acid shakes to greenies. Supplement companies put players on their payrolls: 1995 AL MVP Mo Vaughn hawked a company called MET-Rx, while All-Stars Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez endorsed Champion Nutrition. Ripped personal trainers and "nutritionists" -- guys the Reds doctor, Tim Kremchek, called Klingons -- infiltrated clubhouses.
Wilder knew from talking to players that most of them didn't fully understand the effects of what they took. More were getting hurt (the number of players on the DL jumped 31%, from 266 in 1989 to 349 in 1998) and hurt badly (time spent on the DL per injury increased 13% over that span). And injuries that were rarely problems before all the bulking up were now almost common: patellar tendinitis, strained rib cages, torn hamstrings -- the kind of stuff that happened when oversize muscles ripped away from bones that could no longer support them.
Most doctors had neither the time nor strong incentive to bring the steroid fight. Wilder, for example, had been with the Indians since 1970 while maintaining an office at Cleveland's Lutheran Hospital and a busy private practice. But he and the others also knew it was against baseball's rules to take steroids, and had been for years.
Updating the memo Fay Vincent had issued in 1991, Bud Selig had sent out a new policy with only minor revisions in May 1997. In contrast to their enforcement of baseball's rules against gambling, though, many teams were casual about the drug policy. Some GMs lost track of it amid other edicts from the commissioner's office. Others didn't know for sure if, as required, it had ever been posted in their clubhouses at all. The union didn't even think the policy applied to its members because it wasn't collectively bargained.
Now, after the publicity Mark McGwire and andro generated in 1998, Wilder hoped drug use would be taken more seriously. And he had been heartened to see Selig put on the Nashville docket a seminar called New Drug Policy for Major League Baseball.
Then he listened to a presentation by the doctors who'd recently been commissioned by MLB and the union to study supplements. Joel Finkelstein and Benjamin Leder, two Harvard endocrinologists, were talking, but not about andro; they said it was too early to draw conclusions. Instead, they lectured on testosterone. Testosterone increases muscle mass and endurance, they told the room. No kidding, the doctors thought. They teach that in high school.
Wilder was surprised by the scientists' equivocations about andro -- he and others already had concluded it was an anabolic steroid. But he was shocked by what they weren't saying about testosterone. What about testicular tumors? What about liver damage? What about discussing whether athletes should be using anabolics at all?
It dawned on Wilder: Baseball wasn't about to embrace any "new" policy. In fact, Selig and his deputies were just coming to the idea that their drug rules needed changing. But they were unwilling and unable to move without the union and knew reform would require a long-term political effort. Studying andro was as far as they were willing to go.
At the previous year's winter meetings, Bill Bryan, the Astros doctor, had offered a list of various supplements and substances, safe and unsafe, with advice about which ones players should avoid. His colleagues voted to recommend giving the list to players. But when they made the recommendation to Robert Millman, Selig's top medical adviser, Wilder heard him say, "We'll think about it." (Millman has declined comment.)
"Blithe" was the word that came to Wilder's mind when he heard Millman's reaction. Wilder had expected him to be the doctors' advocate in the commissioner's office, as Dr. Bobby Brown had been during his term as American League president from 1984 to 1994. Instead, Millman seemed to be an advocate for baseball's drug policy.
Wilder says he tried again in July 1998, at a meeting of team human resources officials at O'Hare Airport. When he asked Millman about distributing the information, Millman was noncommittal. The message wended its way to the commissioner's office, but the subject became one more Ping-Pong ball in the endless match between MLB and the players union.
So in Nashville, the doctors made one more attempt to sound the alarm, this time going directly to the union. After Finkelstein and Leder concluded their presentation, Wilder questioned one of the men who had introduced them, Gene Orza. Why can't we give players standardized, comprehensive information about the substances they are swallowing and shooting into their bodies, he asked.
Orza replied with circular logic: not enough was known yet about the substances to
endorse such a proposal. The doctors' bewilderment curdled into frustration. Over the past four years, they'd spent more time in meetings talking about smokeless tobacco than anabolic steroids. They continued to advise individual players who asked for help, but not one ever went public with his worries.
On Jan. 21, 1999, Wilder walked into his home office, strode past a photo of ex-Indians pitcher Dennis Martinez wearing one of Wilder's stethoscopes, sat down at his computer and, as he always did after the winter meetings, typed a memo to GM John Hart.
"There is no reason that some preliminary literature can't be sent out to the players concerning the known and unknown data about the performance-enhancing substances," he wrote. "I would like to get something like that out to all players, but when I asked Orza, he said wait 'til we have more information. That will be never! Orza and the players association want to do 'further study' -- so nothing will be done."
That wasn't quite true. Change would come. But not before Wilder retired after the 2000 season.