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"I've become such an ugly hitter, it's embarrassing," my brother, Scott Bradley, would tell me during our daily phone conversations. "Punch and Judy." And then he'd say for the millionth time, "I just need some at-bats."
When they didn't come, he started hearing voices, people saying that he was a lightweight, that pitchers could just lay it over the plate because he couldn't hurt them. But like any ballplayer, he swore he'd prove those voices wrong. As the season passed him by, he started talking about what he was going to do in the winter to add some power. Maybe change the position of his hands. Maybe try to work a little more coil into his swing. Maybe he'd just start swinging the damned bat harder.
Then one day, he was approached by a former player who wanted to share some wisdom. Not looking my brother in the eye, this person said, "There are things available now that weren't available when I played. With all the money at stake in the game today, I know I'd be looking for any edge I could find. If I were playing today, I'd definitely be taking steroids."
I remember my brother scoffing. It was the early 1990s, and big-time muscle was just making its way into baseball. "Steroids? Yeah, right," he said. "Like I'm gonna watch my 'nads shrink into BBs. The game's not that important, dude. I'll lift harder. I'll change my diet. I'll get bigger." And he did, but too late to change anyone's mind, because the at-bats never came. Soon he was trying to hang on in Triple- and Double-A. And not long after that he was done. By 1993, there wasn't much room left in the game for a 5'10", 185-pound contact-hitting catcher like Scott Bradley. He was lucky to break in when he did, in 1984, lucky to play almost nine years in the major leagues -- with the Yankees, White Sox, Mariners and Reds -- before the big boys took over the game.
As my brother's playing career was coming to an end (he's now the coach at Princeton), my career as a baseball writer was just beginning. I started covering the Yankees in 1992, right at the beginning of the Power Age, just about the time a guy who could hit eight to 10 bombs and drive in 80 was changing from a "nice plus" to an "offensive liability." It was also just about the time the players' snack of choice changed from a Snickers bar to a Pure Protein Bar. Just as their postgame beverage changed from a Budweiser to a MET-Rx shake. In the past eight years, I've seen stadiums add state-of-the-art weight rooms. I've seen players build gyms in their homes that would put your local Bally's to shame. And I've seen the number of hard bodies in a clubhouse increase tenfold.
There is no doubt that players are more conscious of their training and their diet. But I've also seen some things that don't make sense. Guys who don't seem to be putting in the hours in the weight room getting abso lutely huge in no time at all. Guys who hit for zero power in the minors suddenly putting up 20 or 30 jacks in the big leagues. I want to believe it's all hard work. Or evolution. Or nutritional supplements. But I can't believe that's all there is to the power game. Not when players sit in the dugout during BP playing a guessing game called "Who's on 'roids?" Not when a pitcher gives a slugger a hug behind the cage, then comments about the guy's ever-expanding upper body, "Is that b.s. or what?" Not when my brother was told -- nearly a decade ago -- that 'roids were worth considering. So, yeah, I'm suspicious. In fact, whenever I'm asked if I think the ball is juiced, my answer is: "I think some of the players are."
Is it speculation? Of course it is. No major league player, past or present, has ever admitted to using anabolic steroids. These drugs are, after all, illegal in the U.S. without a prescription. And "lack of pop" doesn't quite cut it as a legitimate medical condition. Talking to dozens of players on the subject this spring, the most I could get was one, who requested anonymity, to say, "I've never used them, but one time I wanted to see how easy it would be to get some, so I went to Mexico. You can walk into a drugstore and a pharmacist will draw it into a syringe right in front of you."
So what do we know for sure about steroids in the major leagues? Well, only that no one's testing for them. The only players in the majors who are subject to random drug-testing are those who've admitted using street drugs like coke and pot and those who've been detected using them. Steroids wouldn't even show up on the tests they're taking. The only deterrent for a player who wants to use steroids, other than anecdotal evidence that there are health risks, is that he can't buy them at GNC. But that doesn't mean they're hard to get.
At any serious weight-lifting gym, you can find someone who could get steroids to your door in 48 hours or less. A pro ballplayer? Less. Baseball's de facto policy is "don't ask, don't tell." Even the study Harvard is currently conducting at the request of MLB and the Players Association on androstenedione -- the over-the-counter prohormone that Mark McGwire made famous in 1998 -- is just grandstanding. What was it MLB released recently -- that if the study showed that andro enhanced performance, they'd ban it? If there's no testing, so what?
"I guess that would mean guys couldn't display it in their lockers anymore," says Braves reliever Mike Remlinger. "The truth is, with all the money at stake for home run hitters, it would be naive to think that some guys aren't using steroids. It's just part of the game." "Steroids are everywhere," agrees Indians left fielder Richie Sexson. "If you want them, you can get them -- no problem. The only thing that scares a lot of guys is that no one seems to know what the long-term consequences are." No one seems to know. And as you'll see, the player's decision is only getting more difficult.
When Jose Antonio, an assistant professor of exercise physiology at the U. of Nebraska at Kearney, traveled to Anaheim last January to speak to the Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Coaches Society (PBSCCS), his main topic was supposed to be andro, since he had recently concluded a study on the product and is considered an expert on ergogenic aids and prohormones. What he told the coaches was that andro didn't work. Says Antonio, "There's a good enough data base, four or five studies, to show it is not a per formance enhancer. We used a well-conditioned bodybuilder, gave him pretty good doses of androstenedione, and he actually got fatter."
So, Antonio told the coaches, if you've got guys who are showing big, sudden gains in the weight room and crediting andro, they might be using something else. Something stronger. Something better. What's that? Something better? "I could safely put any athlete on a cycle of anabolic steroids, and he'd get improvement in muscle mass, lean body mass and loss of fat, and his performance would go up, with no side effects. I guarantee it. There's plenty of evidence that the supposed ill effects of using steroids are way overblown. The P.C. thing to say is steroids are not safe, but the science doesn't support it. I believe that if you use a low dose, 600 milligrams or less per week, of testosterone enanthate or Deca-Durabolin, you can get great effects in terms of performance with no side effects."
And then he laid it on the line to the coaches: "I said, this is me speaking here, but your players are not getting drug-tested, you know anabolic steroids aid performance, so why not use them? In fact, I said, have the player go to a physician, have the physician monitor his liver profile, blood chemistry and things like that. I said I think that's doing it the smart way. The dumb way is to let athletes administer the drugs themselves. I don't think I floored any of those coaches. I don't think it was earth-shattering."
Fernando Montes, strength and conditioning coach for the Indians and president of the PBSCCS, wants everyone to know, "Jose Antonio was regurgitating his research to us in an educational setting. In no way was he giving us a formula to take to our players." But when asked if he agreed with Antonio's theory that players were already dabbling in anabolics, Montes said, "I'd agree with that. If you can't test, you can't prove anything, but if you're in this business long enough, you get suspicious when a guy's development doesn't match the work he puts in."
Everyone seems to agree the andro study might as well be ditched. "Baseball isn't keeping its eye on the ball," says Dr. Gary Wadler, a New York physician and lead author of the book Drugs and the Athlete. "The real ball is steroids and not andro. And it's disingenuous to even talk about andro when there's no year-round out-of- competition drug-testing. The NBA has no out-of-competition testing either, and until you have it, your whole sport is under suspicion."
So the next time you see a hitter put a less than perfect swing on a fastball and still hit a 400-foot opposite field homer, you can blame it on a lively ball or a Double-A-caliber pitcher who threw it right down Main Street. But you can also feel free to wonder where that extra jolt of power is coming from.
A consultant on steroid abuse to the U.S. Department of Justice, Dr. Wadler obviously has no use for what Antonio calls "science." "Saying there's a safe way to use steroids is an absolutely irresponsible statement," Wadler says. "And it's nothing new. Years and years ago, there were people saying it, fringe people. But no mem ber of the medical community with any knowledge or integrity would ever say something like that. First and foremost, it is a violation of federal law. Steroids can be used only for legitimate medical treatment within the context of a doctor/patient relationship."
Says Antonio, "I don't want to be labeled as a guy pushing illegal drugs, but there's scientific proof behind what I'm saying. If you look at professional bodybuilding, all the elite bodybuilders use gobs and gobs of anabolic steroids, higher doses than any baseball player would ever want to use, and they're not dropping dead. We have a slew of bodybuilders from the 1970s and 1980s who used anabolic steroids who seem fine. And most of them are so conscious of diet and exercise, they're healthier than society at large."
A retired ex-bodybuilding champ agrees. "The key is to study up," he says, "and not take stupid amounts. A ballplayer doesn't need to be cut-up like a bodybuilder, and with their schedule, he's not going to be able to work out enough, or eat and sleep enough, to be really cut-up anyway. A baseball player's just looking for explosive energy and muscle recovery so he can perform every day. Would he benefit from 'roids? Absolutely."
Oh, but we've all heard about the side effects. The liver and heart problems, not to mention the zits, premature balding, man-breasts, 'roid rage and shrunken testicles. "The only thing I can say," the bodybuilder says, "is they returned to normal size. As for 'roid rage, go down to my gym and you'll meet some of the happiest guys in the world. And they weren't as happy when they were 'natural' because they wanted better results. If you take a jerk and make him bigger and stronger, he's probably going to be more likely to throw his weight around. Then he'll get in trouble and blame it on steroids. I say, 'Don't blame it on steroids that you're a jerk.'"
In the baseball world, one of the biggest anti-steroid claims is that players who take them "break down" because they are more susceptible to pulled muscles and ruptured tendons. Antonio admits those things could happen if a player works out the wrong way and creates a "muscle imbalance." An example might be a player who develops his quadriceps to such an extreme that his hamstrings can't keep up with the power the quads generate. There could be cases where vain players simply add too much mass for their frames and end up with chronic back problems or gimpy knees. These would be examples of athletes going about it the wrong way.
"For baseball," Antonio says, "just having extra muscle mass isn't going to translate into better performance. It could predispose you to injury." But, he says, for an athlete who is diligent about his training and diet, steroids will actually help him stay healthy because they help muscles recover. "Pitchers," Antonio says, "could really benefit from steroids." Can you imagine a player's mind racing now? They don't test me. This can help me perform better and help me stay healthy. All I have to do is stick with a program. I can do that. Why not? Don't believe it, says the doctor.
"Hormonal drugs can do harmful things you have no way of predicting," Wadler says. "Women who take estrogen are now finding there's a risk of breast cancer associated with it. Women who took DES in the 1960s didn't find problems until 16 years later when their children got cancer from being bathed in the womb by it. When people say bodybuilders aren't dropping dead, there's no central repository for information on this, no sharing of data. There are documented cases of people in their 20s and 30s who took steroids having strokes and heart attacks. All that's out there are anecdotes. But look at The New York Times a few weeks ago -- there was a story about four children of East German athletes who had taken steroids born with clubfeet. The East Germans have chronicled an array of adverse effects. Bottom line is, we should only be using medication for medical purposes. Steroids are drugs for which we must have great respect. The adverse effects may not be known until years, or even generations later."
If you take what the players say at face value, they do fear the unknown. The stock response to the 'roid question is, "Not me, bro. I would never take that risk. But, yes, I think there are some guys willing to take that risk." Most players do say they've added strength and bulk through weight training and nutritional supplements. "When I came up to the big leagues," says Seattle's Jay Buhner, "I was considered a big, raw-boned country boy. Now, I'm pretty normal in terms of size. Kids come in here now, and they've been on a lifting program since high school. And they're drinking protein shakes and taking creatine, and these kids are absolute monsters."
It was a reporter with wandering eyes who noticed a bottle of andro in Mark McGwire's locker, but you don't have to do any snooping to notice the boxes and vats of supplements that fill a major league clubhouse. Meal replacement powders. Protein bars. Multivitamins. Herbal energizers. Basically, if it's advertised in a muscle mag and sold in a nutrition store, there's a pretty good chance some ballplayer is giving it a try.
"I'd say about 75% of players are taking some type of supplement," says veteran pitcher Mark Langston. "And with hitters, that percentage is even higher." Most players say they do their product research by reading magazines, even though most of the articles in those periodicals are written by people getting paid by supplement companies. "Obviously, a lot of what's written is too good to be true," says Braves shortstop Walt Weiss. "So, you've got to find people you trust."
The PBSCCS invited Dr. Jeff Stout, the director of the Human Performance Research Laboratory at Creighton University, to its Anaheim seminar to discuss creatine, which is undoubtedly the hottest supplement in sports. Stout, a former small-college football player who first learned of creatine in 1992, swears by the supplement, which is a compound of three amino acids that are naturally produced by the body and can be supplemented by eating meat and fish. But Stout does not recommend taking creatine the way most supplement manufacturers suggest.
"Most of the manufacturers tell you to begin with what they call a loading phase," Stout says. "Something like five grams, four times a day for the first five days. Our observations show that about 30% of the athletes who loaded creatine experienced stomach cramps and diarrhea. But we saw great results with athletes who took five grams once a day. They were able to work out longer and harder. You know when you're working out and you start to feel the burn? Well, that's lactic acid breaking down. Basically, creatine prolongs the lactic acid buildup. If you don't feel the burn, you keep working."
Stout stresses proper hydration when using creatine; he recommends using it in an "effervescent form," a powder that bubbles like an Alka Seltzer in water. "Five grams, fully dissolved in 14-16 ounces of water," he says. "Take it after a workout or, on an off-day, take it first thing in the morning." Creatine also helps an athlete's muscles recover, which is why many pitchers swear by it as a post game tonic. "I've noticed a big difference in the way I feel the day after I pitch compared to earlier in my career," says Langston. "You don't have that dead feeling."
Stout calls creatine "the most researched nutrient out there," with more than 150 studies available to back up his claims. "That's the difference between creatine and things like ginseng, or some of these stimulant products laced with caffeine and ephedrine. There's just not enough information out there on those products, and I'm afraid of them because they've been known to increase the heart rate. Creatine, taken in conservative doses, is very well-tested."
But when asked if an athlete could show a mas sive difference in physique and power in, say, one off-season of creatine-aided training, Stout says, "No, it's not a quick-fix or a miracle-maker. An athlete's got to put in the work and the time to get results. At first he'll be able to do a few more reps in the weight room. Eventually, that will translate into more strength and muscle."
That sets creatine apart from the stronger stuff. A 1996 article in The New England Journal of Medicine demonstrated that a person who simply took 600 milligrams of testosterone enanthate (a steroid) weekly for 10 weeks, and sat on his butt, showed a greater increase in muscle size and strength than a guy who lifted weights three days a week. Take that same dosage and hit the gym? Now, you're talking a total body transformation. "A guy could gain 20 or 30 pounds in 10 or 12 weeks if he ate a lot and lifted weights and cut out all aerobic activity," says Antonio. "But a lot of that weight would be fat, and I don't think that guy would be pleased with the way he felt." So, if he's adding that much weight in a short time and his body fat percentage is going down, and he's feeling awesome? "Steroids," Antonio says. "I've never seen anyone do that naturally."
Without testing, everyone's innocent. But, without testing, everyone's also under suspicion. "And the players union will never agree to random drug testing," says the MLBPA's associate general counsel Gene Orza. "Never." Why not? Well, Orza says it's in violation of a person's Fourth Amendment rights. And the players maintain they have concerns about "mistakes" and "guys getting branded for life." And really, when you think about it, why would the owners fight them on it, when the turnstiles keep clicking and the balls keep flying out of the park like so many Roman candles?
The Major League Drug Policy says, "There is no place for illegal drug use in Baseball." And that there is a "need to maintain the integrity of the game." And yet a page later it says, "Major League players are not subject to unannounced testing for illegal drugs." That, right there, tells you how serious Major League Baseball is about steroids. They've set a speed limit but don't believe in putting police out on the road with radar guns to catch those who drive too fast.
Maybe Major League Baseball believes that don't ask, don't tell is just a way of giving the fans what they want. Of course, I'm just speculating. Just another debate for the Power Age, I guess. Is it the ball? Is it the ballparks? The pitching? The strike zone? Or is it The Juice?