Baseball finally brings amphetamines into light of day

Updated: November 15, 2005, 4:37 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Wait: Are they really going after the greenies?

Is baseball really acknowledging its historic association with amphetamines and beginning an attempt to turn the tide of their use? This is, after all, a sport so steeped in speed that a whole host of its players might not even think they're doing anything illegal when they "bean up" before a game.

Baseball and greenies go together like hot dogs and apple pie, assuming the hot dogs come flying off the grill at Warp Seven and the pie sort of jitters and sweats slightly as it is removed from the oven. They've been together for a long, untouted while, is the thing.

Are Bud Selig, Don Fehr and the boys serious about wanting the greenies out of the grand old game?

It was hard to tell from Tuesday's news exactly how deeply Major League Baseball wants to delve into that topic. The new agreement between players and owners calls for nothing more than "mandatory additional testing" the first time a player gets popped for using speed, which is sort of like going on double-secret probation. Even down through a fourth positive test, there is no lifetime or even season ban.

But the mere fact of amphetamines' inclusion in this new drug policy is news. Why? Because, from a letter Selig sent to Fehr in April asking that amphetamines be banned to Tuesday's announcement, this marks the first time in the history of the sport that its leaders have actually acknowledged the grizzly bear in the kitchen.

The new, tougher steroid penalties announced in the policy are bound to dominate the headlines, and understandably so. Although steroid use isn't necessarily epidemic among players -- and it either is or it isn't, depending which sets of numbers or interviews you choose to rely upon -- it has the highest profile. Canseco, McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Palmeiro ... steroids are the hot-button cheating and health issue of the day.

But amphetamines are so old school that many observers just assumed they'd never be addressed. Baseball people have long declared that most fans don't care what a player uses to get himself "ready" to play, and the notion that guys have been popping wide-awake pills for decades, going back well into the Willie Mays say-heyday, carries with it some implied grandfathering in of greenies as an accepted form of game preparedness.

In truth, amphetamines are classified by the federal government as a controlled substance, it has been a federal crime since 1970 to use them without a prescription, and people in and around baseball have been trying -- almost routinely without success -- to drag their use out into the light of day for years and years.

Shoot, greenies got mentioned at least as far back as the Pittsburgh drug trials of the 1980s, when players testified they received the stimulants from Willie Stargell, Bill Madlock and even Mays. All three men, who denied either using or supplying, later were cleared of wrongdoing by the commissioner's office. (The current commissioner, Selig, has said he first heard about greenies in the old Milwaukee Braves clubhouses of the late 1950s.)

The stimulants have been steadily mentioned ever since, too -- but almost never by anyone in the midst of his career. A retired Tony Gwynn spoke openly of baseball's amphetamine problem in 2003, estimating for The New York Times that 50 percent of position players were using them routinely, many of them before almost every game. (Gwynn subsequently was blasted by those in uniform at the time for, in their opinion, speaking out of school.) Chad Curtis spoke after his retirement about the pressure on fielders not to play the game "naked" -- that is, not to play without speed.

This is, on some levels, a straight-up medical concern for MLB and its policymakers. Amphetamines are widely understood to be much more commonly used in clubhouses than steroids, and "they are way, way more dangerous," professor -- and stimulant expert -- Charles Yesalis told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in May. "They can stone-cold kill you on the spot."

Yet baseball routinely has ignored their existence in the sport. In hindsight, it's amazing that MLB would move to ban the herbal stimulant ephedra in 2003 (after the death of Baltimore pitcher Steve Bechler) but leave amphetamines untouched.

As of Tuesday, that's no longer the case. And though it's still uncertain how truly committed Selig and Fehr are to ridding the sport of its decades-old addiction to speed, it is astonishing all the same to see the worst-kept secret in the clubhouse finally given a public airing.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.

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