- Tom Farrey, Writer, Reporter
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Editor's note: In November 2005, Congress released the results of its investigation into steroid use by Rafael Palmiero. The report described reckless and illegal use of prescription drugs in the Baltimore Orioles' locker room. In 1999, a similar scene was unfolding in the New York Mets' locker room, as Tom Farrey reports in this bonus coverage from ESPN The Magazine's examination of steroid abuse.
The drugs arrived with the fan mail, delivered in little packages indistinguishable from the letters sent by kids asking for autographs. At his sparsely decorated locker beneath Shea Stadium, Brian McRae would open the envelope and take out the brown plastic bottle of painkillers a pharmacist had sent him without a prescription. He would remove two of the small, white pills, pop them into his mouth, take a few gulps of water and continue to prepare for that night's game.
It was early in 1999, his 10th season in the majors, and he was hardly the only Met with a rogue pharmacist.
"We didn't feel like we were doing anything illegal," he said. "It just felt like circumventing the system."
McRae, who played with five major league teams from 1990-99, tells ESPN The Magazine that the Mets of the late 1990s can be added to the list of drugged-up teams.
McRae knew drugs were everywhere in baseball, but in New York, he said, everything seemed easier to get. High-octane painkillers that he obtained illegally from a local pharmacist were McRae's tonic, but the clubhouse was awash with amphetamines, and the veteran center fielder has never heard more talk about steroids. No one spoke openly about shooting up, but it wasn't hard to guess who was on the juice. And no one was pointing fingers. Instead, the same question was often asked on planes, in bars, in card games: Would you take something that gets you a $20 million deal but eventually kills you? The usual answer: Sure, if I could help my family.
It had always been so. McRae grew up in the clubhouse of the Kansas City Royals, where his father Hal starred and later managed, fetching bats, shagging balls, getting to know Amos Otis, George Brett and Willie Wilson. He watched catchers dab pine tar on their shin guards to help pitchers get a better grip on breaking balls. After he was drafted by K.C. in 1987, he knew A-ball teammates who hardened their bats with polyurethane. To McRae, steroids were just the latest form of cheating, and most players didn't object.
"On the Mets, you were a definite outcast if you didn't do amphetamines," said Turk Wendell, McRae's teammate on the Mets, who also pitched for the Cubs, Phillies and Rockies. "I was an outcast. There was a player on the Mets who fell down on the field with what they called an irregular heartbeat. Just fell down while playing his position.
"I had one player on another team talk to me about steroids and how great they were," he said. "He gave me the whole ins and outs and how you do it. He said you get addicted because you see the direct results. There are some pitchers I know who did steroids. One guy I know told me that was the only reason he got drafted. He went from 85 to 92 or 94 [mph] by taking steroids. These guys love it because of the instant results."
On Friday, the U.S. Attorney's office in San Francisco released a plea agreement reached last week with a former clubhouse attendant with the New York Mets who admitted to distributing anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs to Major League Baseball players. None of the players or their associated teams was named, but Kirk Radomski, who was with the Mets from 1985 to 1995, admitted to providing anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and amphetamines to players on teams throughout the majors in the decade after he left the Mets.
Steroids had been banned in baseball since 1991, although few players knew about the policy. But there was no drug-testing agreement in place between ownership and the union providing the mechanism to catch cheaters. McRae, a union rep at the time, said few players were eager to add one, as well.
"My attitude was, guys are going to cheat, whether they're testing or not," McRae said. "I just did my thing and didn't worry too much about it. That was one issue I didn't have an opinion on. You know, it's your body; if you want to destroy it, you destroy it. There are people who destroy their bodies with pain pills, overeating, tobacco, all kinds of things. They're grown men."
Without testing, Steve Phillips, the Mets' GM at the time and now an ESPN baseball analyst, said he was reluctant to patrol his clubhouse like a vigilante cop.
"I had suspicions about individual players here and there, but it was one of those situations that you didn't ask about [because] there was nothing you could do if they said no," Phillips says. "My attitude as a GM was, I want a level playing field. If other teams were doing it, I wasn't going to go through my clubhouse and look in every shoebox. I wasn't proposing that my guys use it, but I also wasn't going to propose that the Mets be the only clean team in baseball. I couldn't go back to my owner and say, 'We tried to beat these teams full of big guys with our little skinny guys.'"
Eventually, McRae began to research steroids. He liked his job. So after games, he would bring his questions into the workout room at Shea, where Barry Heyden, the team's strength coach, could often be found tapping away on his desktop computer. McRae didn't want to juice up, but creatine and other EAS-brand supplements hadn't given him the muscle gains of other players with apparently more clandestine methods. Early in his career, it had taken McRae five years to add 15 pounds to his frame, less than what some players around baseball were picking up over one winter in the late '90s.
"What's the difference between taking them orally and injecting?" McRae asked Heyden. "I hear it's safer to take them orally."
And Heyden, he said, gave him answers. Honest answers. Yes, they work, but the long-term health effects could be harmful.
"He wasn't trying to turn you on to things," McRae said. "He was trying to educate guys."
Heyden, who left the team in 2001 and no longer works in baseball, told ESPN The Magazine that he "just told them about the side effects" of steroids and never condoned their use.
McRae was intrigued but ultimately opted against steroids. He stayed away from "greenies" (amphetamines) out of fear of his family history of heart problems. All along, his plan was to play 10 years in the big leagues and get out with his body intact.
But by midseason of '99, his body was no longer responding the way it once had. All the games, all the flights had taken a toll. He'd hit 20 home runs and stolen 22 bases in '98, but both his bat and his legs had slowed, and there was nothing the painkillers could do about that. With his batting average slipping to the .220s and flyballs falling out of his reach, he knew the end of his time with the Mets could be near.
It came on an August road trip against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, when he was pulled aside during the game and told he had just been traded to the Rockies. McRae changed into street clothes, gathered his belongings and, in lieu of goodbyes, wrote a message on the board to his teammates: "Have fun and good luck. Don't forget me when playoff time comes."
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine
The Mets of the late 1990s can be added to the list of drugged-up teams in the major leagues.