Culture of chemicals

Originally Published: October 11, 2004
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

There was a buoyant cheeriness in the visitors' clubhouse at Angel Stadium after the Red Sox beat Anaheim in Game 1 of the Division Series. Some players still smudged with eye black chatted at their lockers, while others finished interviews with the last stragglers from the media. But then steroids came into the room and everybody seemed to freeze.

Bonds
Bonds

Sheffield
Sheffield

The performance-enhancers appeared in the form of quotes. Splashed across the mounted TV in the center of the room, as part of SportsCenter segment, were the comments that Gary Sheffield made to Sports Illustrated about Barry Bonds and some substance Sheffield rubbed into his skin. Unknowingly, Sheffield said. The conversation around the TV ceased and everybody listened. Pedro Martinez, passing by, stopped and tilted his head upward to watch. Everybody in baseball is keenly aware of steroids. It's just rare that any one actually speaks of them publicly.

After a stormy spring, when BALCO allegations festered and the first penalty phase of the testing were implemented, steroids seemed to disappear from the headlines this summer. In fact, this was just the quiet eye of the hurricane passing over baseball; there is more to come, inevitably. Steroids now have a permanent place in the game, like the infield fly rule, the designated hitter and salary arbitration. For the foreseeable future, there will always be debate and controversy around the testing, and there will always be players looking for a competitive edge and opportunistic chemists trying to provide that for them.

"I guess we just have to wait and see what happens," an All-Star player said this summer. "We're being told by the union that we need to let the testing take effect. I guess that's what we'll do, but I'm not sure if that's the right thing to do."

The questions of steroids and testing will undoubtedly be discussed in the aftermath of the death of former NL MVP Ken Caminiti, who was the first to admit to using steroids on the record. Caminiti was an addict with a substance-abuse habit, and for someone with that kind of problem, a life in Major League Baseball can be the worst possible place.

There are players who take nothing. For others, part of the preparation to play every day is the use of some kind of upper -- greenies. It is said that if you don't take a greenie before a game, you are playing naked. Some players finish night games still wired and need some kind of downer to get to sleep, and for some, the quick and easy solution is alcohol. The tough travel schedule and irregular life cycle only exacerbate the problem.

Ken Caminiti
Ken Caminiti, an admitted steroid-user, estimated 50 percent of players indulged in performance-enhancing drugs.

Caminiti handled the baseball part of the game well, his internal fire apparent every time he dove after a grounder, every time he made a throw or ran out a grounder. His stare oozed in intensity, especially when he looked directly at you.

But somewhere along the way he started drinking too much, he took drugs, and he took steroids. We may or may not find out exactly what contributed to his death, mostly, but this we know: A young man blessed with the body of an athlete died at age 41.

Steroids is an intensely personal issue for the players, affecting choices which may impact their short-term ability to compete for jobs against steroid-users -- in some cases, they realize, some close friends have been users -- and choices that may affect their long-term health, as it might have affected Caminiti.

For many players, maintaining the integrity of the competition might be more important than any damage done to liver and kidneys. "If the guy hits a home run off me because he's better than me, I can deal with that," said a long-time pitcher. "But if he's beating me because he's getting something out of a bottle, I've got a problem with that. Anything they accomplish when they're on that stuff, that's a joke."

Some players believe that the testing implemented at the outset of the 2003 season has initially discouraged some users, despite the fact that baseball's steroid testing and penalties are considered weak, relative to the testing done in other sports. The bodies around baseball have gotten smaller, players and scouts say. Pitchers who had once bulked up seem to have shrunk, the velocity on their fastballs noticeably diminished. The uniforms of some square-jawed sluggers seem to hang off them. "I passed this one player at a restaurant and I barely recognized him," said a scout. "He was so small he looked like he was still in high school. I couldn't believe it." Said another scout of a prolific home run hitter: "He looks like he can't fill out his helmet any more."

But there is a wariness among some players, a lingering anger that the problem infected the sport as deeply as it did and created suspicion that they were all possible users. There is concern that it might become a serious problem again, as the science accelerates beyond the testing that was half-heartedly pushed by baseball owners and reluctantly approved by the Players Association leadership, under congressional pressure.

Baseball in the late 1990s was syringe-rich, by all appearances. The weak system of testing and enforcement put into place is an improvement over nothing, but it came with Ruthian loopholes. Players could have conceivably tested positive four times before they were subject to suspension -- and then only at the discretion of Commissioner Bud Selig. To repeat: Multiple test failures do not guarantee suspensions. Any cynic who has heard Selig's pronouncements that we are in a golden era of baseball would have to wonder if Selig would actually bring himself to temporarily smear the image of his sport with a steroid bust. If a popular star player failed steroid tests repeatedly, Selig could choose to warn the player privately, an administrative slap on the wrist -- and the fact that no one was suspended during the season has only fed the suspicion.

On the other hand, Selig would have much to lose in protecting the steroid-users, because if word ever leaked out, he would be viewed a conspirator to a larger problem and presumably face the greatest scrutiny of his time as commissioner. And in any event, the real power in the issue rests in the hands of union leaders Don Fehr and Gene Orza, who must approve of any change to the collective bargaining agreement, and to date, they have refused to embrace a tough testing system.

Players continue to say privately that the rank and file would overwhelmingly support rigid testing aimed at eliminating the use of performance-enhancers. But Fehr and Orza do not appear to be interested in sponsoring a vote among the brethren. Last March 10, Senator Gordon Smith, Gordon Smith, R-Oregon, asked Don Fehr, the head of the Players Association, if he would poll his players on the issue. Fehr replied, "We don't submit to a vote -- ideas in the abstract. It comes up in connection with bargaining."

Weeks later, union representatives did, in fact, hold meetings in which they disseminated ballots to the players -- to ask for their All-Star selections. In between the nominations for the best shortstop and outfielders, they might have slipped in a question such as, "Would you support a rigid testing policy?" They didn't.

Steroids remain an inconvenient issue for the union leadership at this time, because the next labor agreement won't be negotiated for two more years and the matter of steroid testing can't be swapped, at optimal price, until then. And even then, baseball executives believe the concessions will have to be pulled out of Fehr and Orza, like extracted teeth, perhaps only with a lengthened list of illegal substances and more pressure from Congress.

Players say they have been told to be patient, to wait, to allow the current testing system to run its course. There is no vigilant enforcement in sight, all but ensuring that steroids will continue to be volcanic for baseball -- mostly underground, out of sight, rarely spoken of, but with the threat of a major eruption perpetual.

We had a minor tremor with Sheffield last week, and something much more serious with the passing of Ken Caminiti.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine