As I type this, several of Major League Baseball's heroes and villains are appearing before a special congressional panel. The subject? Steroids. What else? Have the words baseball and steroids not been used in the same sentence in the last couple of years?
As I watch the proceedings, I'm torn between each side. On the TV are a bunch of athletes lying through their millionaire teeth about using performance enhancing drugs. On the other side of the room are government officials throwing around steroid myths that were debunked fifteen years ago. When they started talking about all the kids who "died from steroids" (and then later admitted the two cases were suicides), I started yelling at the TV.
But there was one guy in the room who'd written a book saying that yes, a lot of baseball players used steroids. This made the other players very angry. This guy also wrote that steroids could be used in a safe manner. This made the government types very angry. So this guy, Jose Canseco, becomes the villain... and he just might be the most honest cat in the room. Or hell, maybe he's just pimping that damn book.
What a circus. What a train wreck. What a train wreck in the middle of a circus with clown guts and dead elephants lying around everywhere.
I decided to gather up a couple of guys who follow baseball closely–one of who's an expert in the hormone Testosterone–another guy who's an expert in steroids in general, and a fellow who's written a book about the sport, and get their take on this mess. That would be Lou Schuler, TC, Chris Street and Jim Vigue. Here's how the conversation went down.
T-Nation: First things first, let's cut through the media and MLB bullshit. From all the evidence you've seen and all of the observations you've made, are these players in the court's crosshairs right now drugged to the gills? Or were they at one time?
Lou Schuler: Sosa: yes. McGwire: yes. Palmeiro? Hard to say.
His slugging percentage jumped almost 100 points between 1989 and 1990, but that's before he allegedly came under Canseco's influence. Plus, he was in his mid-20s, which is when players really can make those kinds of jumps without generating suspicion.
The thing is, his slugging went up again the next year, when he was 26, and then fell by almost 100 points in '92 when he was 27 and should've been peaking. So then he has Canseco as a teammate in '93, and all of a sudden his slugging percentage jumps up by 120 points, to .554, which is a career high. It's okay to have a career high at 28, but it does lend some statistical credence to what Canseco said.
Another curious thing about Palmeiro is that he had a monster season in '99, at 34, with 47 home runs and a .630 slugging percentage. So I guess the red flag on Palmeiro isn't that he did anything unprecedented or miraculous, but that he has some curiously timed career peaks.
With Canseco, he already outed himself, but the proof was always in his record. He was a minor leaguer with some speed but little power, and all of a sudden he came to spring training with 30 extra pounds of muscle, and the rest is history.
TC: I can't match numbers with "stat boy" Lou, but I first noticed steroids starting to crop up in baseball with the Philadelphia Phillies as they were fighting their way to the National League Championship in 1993. I was watching a game when Lenny Dykstra came up to bat. Formerly puny Dykstra now had these huge forearms and formidable body to match. Same thing with the aging catcher Darren Daulton, who suddenly was buff and had somehow subtracted some years from his damaged knees.
A couple of years later, I noticed how the Texas Rangers had gotten huge: Canseco, Pudge Rodriguez, and Juan Gonzalez in particular. In fact, Canseco used to call up my ex-partner/boss Bill Phillips and ask him for steroid advice.
After that, there was an explosion in size. Almost every team had guys on it that looked more like running backs. And then there's Barry Bonds, of course. We don't even need to talk about him.
The most damning piece of evidence, aside from the power numbers of all these guys, is that they're able to stay strong and big throughout the season. The baseball season is long and grueling, and you often don't have time to train. Even if you do, you can't work out so hard that it'll compromise your performance on the field.
How many readers could do a legitimate bodybuilding or strength building workout and then play baseball at a hundred percent the next day? These players can't, even on steroids, so they don't work out all that hard during the season, yet they stay big.
Add to that the crappy food they have to eat day-in and day-out on the road, and common sense dictates that they'd start to lose some of that size round about August or September.
But they don't.
Jim Vigue: The public is aware of the extent of the problem these days. I doubt most of these players are on steroids now. Several of them have shown a considerable drop in mass over the winter. I don't think this is all due to Slim Fast!
I wish they'd been more forthcoming, but what did we really expect? Since there's little in the way of proof of who used what, I guess we'll never know for sure. My estimate is at one time probably close to 20 to 25% of the players in the minors were using some sort of enhancer and probably half of that in the majors.
Chris Street: I agree with the estimates Jim stated. I think that this should be the last time this question is asked by the media. Yes, these guys were doping. There were many others too. I'm very surprised that a number of other players weren't called to testify.
I'm sorry for my bluntness here, but the stupidity of the mainstream media and some politicians is just crazy. How long did these guys have their heads in the sand? Now they want to do something? I wish these guys would learn something about drugs and especially about elite sport. They have absolutely no idea what they've gotten themselves into. No idea.
T-Nation: Agreed. Now, baseball players haven't been training with weights for long. This is a relatively new thing in the sport. Some say that if you take a great athlete, put him on a training program and hire him a nutritionist, then yes, these muscle gains are possible in a short amount of time. Do you buy that?
Vigue: No, I don't. We have a chapter in the Peak Power Baseball book that deals with baseball-specific weight training, and while I believe that good nutrition and certain protein and creatine products can help, I doubt they would've produced the effects that we've seen. No one takes a jump like Bonds did at his age without using something fairly powerful.
Schuler: Guys in their 20's? Okay. But when guys in their 30's reach not only career peaks, but break all-time slugging records, no, I don't buy that.
TC: Right. I suppose these fast muscle gains are possible in some rare instances. But really, being closely involved with strength coaches, personal trainers and nutritionists, how many of them that you know could add five pounds, let alone 25, to an athlete, any athlete, in a single off-season?
There just aren't that many people out there who know what they're doing. So for that fact alone I'm skeptical.
Street: I disagree with Lou here. Not even in your 20's will you make steroid-like gains, even with the help of a trainer and a nutritionist. It's physiologically impossible to make some of the gains these guys (and others) have made without the use of drugs. You can't compare the gains someone makes due to drugs with the gains a natural athlete can achieve. We're talking different worlds here.
T-Nation: Do steroids really help in the sport of baseball? The big argument you hear is, "Steroids do nothing for hand-eye coordination, and that's what makes a hitter or thrower."
TC: Absolutely they help. They definitely potentiate or "fire up" the nervous system and they definitely add size and strength. Add those up and you're talking about increasing rotational torque, not to mention being able to wait a bit longer on a pitch before you decide to swing – we're talking microseconds here, but in baseball, that can make all the difference in the world!
Vigue: Everything can be trained. We have another chapter in the book on vision improvement. Certainly steroids might add some speed or some power but I haven't seen any studies where they've improved hand-eye coordination. With increased power comes increased velocity and increased bat speed. This is where steroids are beneficial, negative side effects not withstanding.
Schuler: Well, in a recent Men's Fitness article of mine, I quoted a Harvard researcher who said that Testosterone absolutely does have an impact on reaction time and eye-hand coordination. You can't necessarily make the leap that artificial Testosterone does that. But then again, synthetic Testosterone mimics most other effects of endogenous hormones, so why not this too?
Street: Jim, negative side effects not withstanding? The negative side effects with low dose steroid use have been shown to be negligible. I think you're being politically correct here.
The risk-to-reward ratio for a baseball player weighs heavily on the side of reward. Steroids do have profound effects on the central nervous system; TC is right on the money here. In addition to the myogenic activity, the effects on the nervous system are a major reason why sprinters take them. Strength and power have a muscle component and also a central nervous system component. So, yes, androgens can impact baseball performance.
But the question is: can they make every average player in the minors and majors a super star? The answer here is no, absolutely not. There are a lot of guys on drugs, but only hard work and innate talent will bring certain guys to the very top. This is true in every sport, and even in the gym world which most of the readers are familiar with.
Think about how many guys in the gym that we see who use steroids and GH, and how many really have elite physiques? I'm not just talking huge bodybuilders. I'm talking about the model-like physiques, the smaller, leaner guys. My point is that a lot of guys take drugs, but drugs aren't the sole determining factor for building a great body or being a super star athlete. Without question drugs help, but drugs are not the sole determinant.
T-Nation: Interesting points! Before all this steroid stuff was made aware to the lay public, the big controversy was "andro." Do you think prohormones were scapegoated here, at least in the beginning?
TC: Sure, but chalk one up to the idiot mainstream press again. I once told San Diego Padres Vice President Larry Luchino how androstenedione converted as readily to estrogen as it did Testosterone, particularly in older males, as Mark McGwire was getting to be by that point. He laughed and said, "You mean Mark's getting in touch with his feminine side?" I said, "Well, that would be the case, if that's really what he was using."
I also pointed out to him the evidence–coincidental perhaps, but eyebrow raising nonetheless–that McGwire's brother was a high-level competitive bodybuilder who was clearly a steroid user.
Regardless, the press and the baseball hierarchy wanted to believe that the problem was andro.
Schuler: Prohormones were absolutely scapegoated! But andro did give McGwire an out. I mean, the bottle of andro gave him some cover for a few years, until Canseco came out with his book, and the New York Daily News reported on how McGwire's name came up multiple times in a steroid investigation in the early '90s.
Vigue: Yes, andro caught the blame, and I think it was a mistake and a bad precedent. The pharmaceutical companies did a great job on this one. Next we'll lose creatine. Where will it stop? They'll probably force athletes to give up caffeine some day in the future.
Street: Andro was a nice cover. In the beginning andro gave guys an out. They could say, "No, I'm not taking steroids, I'm taking andro." I thought it was funny, especially for those of us who knew that the data suggested andro didn't work.
Imagine what would've happened if McGwire never left that bottle of andro in his locker? Would this whole media inquiry have ever started? Maybe it would've just taken longer for the media to start asking questions. I bet Mark is saying to himself, "Fuck, why did I do that?"
I think McGwire came away from the hearings looking very, very stupid, and guilty. He should've been advised on a better strategy by legal counsel. I feel kind of sorry for him.
T-Nation: What does the steroid fiasco do to the record books and the Hall of Fame? Do they get an asterisk? Is so, what does the footnote say?
Schuler: I don't think we're in asterisk land here. See, baseball's always had distinct eras when hitters and pitchers had unequal advantages or disadvantages. You can't look at, say, Honus Wagner, and compare what he did in the dead-ball era against what Ruth and Gehrig did with more tightly packed baseballs in the '20s and '30s.
Then, starting in the '60s, you have the dawn of what I call the "dead-stadium era." You had these mammoth ballparks, mostly in the National League, with artificial surfaces. So an entirely different type of ballplayer could succeed in that era.
You had guys who literally couldn't hit a fucking baseball, like Vince Coleman of the Cardinals, who were superstars. They could slap the ball down on the turf, and use their speed to get a single and two stolen bases and be on third before the next guy in the lineup had time to adjust his cup. (Small pop-culture note: Coleman was the model for Willie Mays Hayes in the movie Major League.)
I think the period from 1990 to 2004 should go down in baseball history as its own distinct period. How about the "live-biceps era?"
Vigue: No, we won't have an asterisk. A number of these players were great before steroids. Bonds had 500 homers and 500 stolen bases before "the cream." His place in history was assured. Is he tainted now? Probably, but there will never be an asterisk. I often wonder what his godfather Willie Mays would've done with the year and a half he spent in the service and maybe a decent protein drink, weight lifting program and a more friendly ballpark than Candlestick.
TC: I agree with these guys: no asterisk. We don't know how much players were using or exactly when they were using, and it's hard to quantify how much of a player's performance was "him" or how much of it was the steroids.
Besides, as Lou said, every generation has had its aids. Amphetamine was rampant in the sixties, so how many records were affected by players being amped to the gills? Amphetamines are still popular, and we'll no doubt see their use go up again with all the testing for steroids.
Street: I'm divided on this. I argue with myself whether or not steroid use is cheating. This is a debate for the philosophers among us. I do worry about what effect this issue has on the youth of America, but I've also seen professional athletes up close, and many of them aren't admirable human beings. To give them the status they have is just plain stupid. In truth, many of these guys you wouldn't want dating your daughter.
Professional athletes make more money, drive faster cars, take more drugs, and have more and wilder sex than most of us could ever imagine. I remember Shannon Sharpe at a Muscle Media 2000 party at the Arnold Classic nearly having sex with Bill Phillips's girlfriend in front of like 200 people on the dance floor of a night club. Give me a break! They weren't sober either. From the crowd they were with, I'd say there was more going around that night than a few beers. This was not exactly moral behavior for Shannon, who's a married man.
This is only one example of boys behaving badly. I could give you other stories as well. Let's be honest, guys, no one in this room is an angel. What I'm trying to get across here is that professional athletes – just because they make their living in sports – are not role models for our youth. In many cases they're just as bad, if not worse, than the rest of us. In many cases I say worse because they have the money to act like really bad boys and get away with their behavior.
What we need to come to grips with is that elite sport is about winning and money. Parents and teachers should be our kids' role models, not professional athletes. The whole fairness issue and people talking about the purity of the game kind of wears on me. I'm not sure what cheating is anymore.
Let's flip the script. Instead of focusing on the athletes, maybe we should look at the team owners and how these guys made their money? Did these men always conduct their business and personal affairs in a legal and ethical manner? In America, if you have money and/or play professional sports you're considered a great person, even if you're dishonest or carry yourself in an amoral fashion.
Like I said, I'm not sure what cheating is anymore. The problem we're discussing is much bigger than steroids and shouldn't just focus on the athletes.
T-Nation: Great points all around, gentleman. So, what's the solution to this? Very strict drug testing?
Schuler: If anybody wants a solution, sure, go to Olympic standards. If they don't do that, with strict off-season testing and disqualification for first infractions, it's still just a show. I think any threat of testing will weed out some of the guys. Most likely, the superstars won't take the risk. But if you have a minor leaguer whose only chance of getting to the show is with a needle, he'll take that risk.
TC: Sure, let them use the same testing program the NFL uses, or the Olympic committee uses. It'll make all the dried prunes in Congress happy.
Street: Well, drug testing in the NFL is a joke. Olympic standards likewise can be beaten. At present there's no perfect system; they can all be exploited. With a well planned drug regimen and properly selected drugs, any test can be rendered useless.
Vigue: The program as it stands now is crazy. There should be stronger consequences for the first offense. I'd say, as in the game, you get three strikes and you're out of baseball. But I don't see it happening. Major League Baseball might tighten up, but it will take an act of Congress to get a real tough program of testing. MLB won't do it itself.
T-Nation: Speaking of Big Brother, we've heard President Bush mention steroids a few times over the last couple of years. What's the government's role in sports?
Schuler: Grandstanding. Getting on CNN instead of C-Span. Distracting us from all the things they do when we aren't watching.
Vigue: For the most part the government should stay out of sports, but there has to be better internal policing of sport. The NBA is an embarrassment, professional baseball has steroids and we all know what happened with hockey. Salaries are way out of whack and it drives athletes to do things and take chances with their bodies that they wouldn't normally take.
TC: I think it's all pandering. Just bullshit pandering. "We have to save the children." If I had my wish, I'd eat a pound of asparagus, washed down by a 12-pack of Mountain Dew, and then walk up the stairs into the balcony during the Congressional hearings on steroids in baseball and pee on all their heads.
I'm sorry, I didn't answer your question. The government should have no role in baseball. You know, for a bunch of so-called Republicans, they really have turned into the "mommy" party, telling us at every chance what we can or can't do with ourselves.
Street: Amen, brother TC.
T-Nation: Does MLB really even want to clean this up? It kinda reminds me of pro-bodybuilding. If the organizers make it drug free, the popularity would probably fall. Who wants to see 190 pound guys on stage and in the mags? Most fans/fetishists want freaks! Hey, wasn't baseball revived by drugged players getting in home run wars and chasing records?
Vigue: No, the suits don't really want it cleaned up, and they won't unless they're forced to.
Schuler: Baseball is more of a yin-yang sport. Bodybuilding is all yang. If offense goes down, then you have superstar pitchers again, and that's exciting too. Games go faster, and you could have entire seasons turning on the outcome of a couple of one-run games.
I'd argue that's more memorable and thrilling. When you're watching a 12-7 game, you don't worry about missing something when you go out to take a leak. But in a 1-0 game, you hold it in. So, on the bladder scale, shorter, closer games are much more interesting.
TC: Well, you've definitely got a point with the pro-bodybuilding analogy. The new generation of fans is into action and power, and smaller hitters will affect attendance at games. However, given all the bad press baseball has had regarding 'roided up athletes, they're going to lose fans anyways, so they're in a Catch 22 situation.
Street: I agree with these guys. No, baseball does not want to clean up. Like all professional sports they want money. The drug status of the athletes is irrelevant. That's of course unless their dirty little secret comes out.
T-Nation: As baseball fans who also know a lot about what goes on behind the scenes, have the drug issues affected your love of the game?
Schuler: No. Not in the least. It's still baseball. When sluggers are juiced up, you have to employ one kind of strategy to win games, and that's interesting. When the sluggers are playing with what nature and York Barbell gave them, managers might use a different type of strategy to win, and that's interesting, too.
Street: I still enjoy baseball. Regardless of the drug issue, it's still America's game.
TC: It hasn't affected me at all. I love baseball for a whole bunch of reasons. I love the fact that it has no clock; that there's time to both strategize and reflect; and that the rules largely haven't changed in a hundred years so I can compare different generations of players. Nope, I'll still go to the games.
Vigue: I believe in doing all you can to be the best you can be – within the rules. We've recommended certain Biotest products in Peak Power Baseball. Although I've gotten into arguments with parents, I don't see a problem with creatine if used properly for anyone over age 18. But besides destroying the credibility of the game, these drugged players are taking big chances with their bodies and I think that's a very negative message to be giving out to every young ballplayer that has a dream of playing in the majors some day.
T-Nation: So what happens now? The poop is currently oscillating in the fan, making a real mess. What comes next? What will baseball look like in five years?
Schuler: I think the more athletic players will be in higher demand, the guys who can steal bases and take away hits in the field. I think games will go faster, since pitchers will be less likely to pitch around the pumped-up sluggers.
I also think fans will be more trusting of their own eyes and brains on this issue. If they see a guy suddenly improve his power in a contract year, they'll automatically be suspicious.
Vigue: There'll be better testing. Ballplayers will need to maximize all legal avenues to improve performance. There will be new exercise breakthroughs and new nutritional supplements that'll help. Hopefully they won't take away stuff like pharmaceutical grade fish oil!
Performance numbers will suffer and we probably will never see another 70-homer season, but the game will go on, and hopefully there will be more honesty to it.
TC: Players will "downsize" and baseball will look more like it did in the late eighties. For awhile at least, players will be paranoid about looking too buff and they'll keep their body weight down. Then, we'll probably go through another era of the pitcher where batting averages as a whole go down.
But then, everyone will forget about steroids and Biotest will have figured out some other way to make players bigger and better and it'll start all over again. It's the nature of man, especially when a player stands to earn million of dollars from hitting a few more home runs.
Street: Steroids will soon be old school. It's about to be a new game, guys. Genetic manipulation is coming to a stadium near you! In five years athletes will have limited access to this technology. Mark my words, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Things are about to get real interesting!
T-Nation: Fascinating subject and interesting talk, guys. Thanks for throwing in your two cents.