Monday, April 14, 2008

Baseball's HITS List

I first wrote about steroids in sports in a May, 1985, column that followed a visit to a gym near New Haven, Conn. I went there expecting to get some laughs from watching a tryout for aspiring wrestlers of the theatrical (i.e., pro) variety, but the thing was postponed and instead I spent an informative afternoon with Ken Passariello.

Besides owning the gym, Passariello was a wrestler and many-titled bodybuilder. He also was a steroids guru with a how-to book to his credit-- a self-styled Dr. Schweitzer to athletes pondering the mysteries of the performance-enhancers.

“I know steroids carry health risks and I don’t recommend their use,” he averred. “I’m not a doctor so don’t write prescriptions. I don’t sell the stuff. I don’t take money for my advice. But steroids work. Every athlete knows it and many are ready to run risks to use them. I’m one of the few athletes who’s really looked into the subject and is willing to talk about it. When someone has questions, I answer them. I look on it as a service.”

That Passariello named body-builders among his advisees was no surprise; even then the sport was known to be steroids-soaked. But he said that Olympic weight lifters and throwers oftimes called him, and many National Football League players as well. Given time, he opined, they’d be ubiquitous in sports.

I, too, would read up on steroids and sometimes write about them, more than most of my colleagues, I daresay. I made a list of attributes common to users-- among them a pumped-up physique, adult-onset acne, irritability and antsiness—and began to keep my own list of users.

In baseball, it wasn’t short. Ballplayers may have been slower than others to adopt the substances because theirs was thought to be a sport of reactions rather than strength, but it wasn’t long before they realized that being stronger was a plus. Baseball locker rooms began looking like Gold’s Gyms and it seemed reasonable to assume that the boys weren’t interested only in looking good in their underwear.

Baseball publicly lost its innocence in 1998 when Steve Wilstein, a sharp-eyed Associated Press reporter, spied a container of androstenedione on an open shelf in the locker of Mark McGwire, the Blutto-like slugger then locked in an epic home run duel with Sammy Sosa. “Andro” was sold over the counter and thus wasn’t on baseball’s short and very general forbidden list, but it was outlawed by the IOC, NCAA and other sports entities. It was potent stuff, most experts agreed, and probably just the tip of an Antarctic-sized iceberg.

Baseball reacted predictably, putting its collective head in the sand and hoping the subject would go away. It ordered a study, then another. The game’s players’ union, declaring that steroids use was a privacy issue, was only too happy to play along. Years passed without meaningful action. Players got bigger and snarlier and home runs flew farther; in an era when one good season could set up a player (and all future generations of his family) for life, steroids’ use was a smart move. It wasn’t until criminal investigations, tell-all autobiographies and Congressional pressure finally forced the game to set up a testing program with teeth, five years into the 21st century.

Under further outsider pressure, the game last week moved to increase its testing regimen, but its program still falls short in important ways. Blood tests to detect HGH, the current drug of choice, weren’t included. And like the NFL and NCAA, baseball still controls its own testing, and you can’t expect a promoter to be an effective policeman. Enforcement credibility won’t come until it’s in the hands of an agency that’s completely independent of the sport’s commercial interests.

Meantime, through one means of disclosure or another, the list of baseball players linked to steroid use grew like Jack’s beanstalk. It includes Barry Bonds, the best recent-years’ hitter, and Roger Clemens, the best pitcher. McGwire is on it, also Sosa. Also Canseco, Sheffield, Giambi, Tejada, Pettitte, Gagne, and on and on. The real number never will be known but it’s surely in the hundreds. After a interview on another subject I once asked Mark Grace, the longtime first baseman with the Cubs and Diamondbacks, what proportion of ballplayers he thought had used steroids at one time or another. He said about one-third, and I got the impression he was being conservative.

But while all the games go on, as they must, baseball faces a special problem with its drug history. More than any other sport its appeal is tied to its statistical records, some of which have an almost mystical quality. Foremost among these are Bonds’ single-season home run record of 73, set in 2001, and his career mark of 762. A cry has gone up to mark those with asterisks signifying that they were set under dubious circumstances, but the same objection can be raised about everything that’s happened in the game during the last two decades. Baseball has had many eras in its long history, marking changes in playing conditions. The current one should be labeled the HITS Era, for “Head In The Sand.”

You could start it in 1990. It would be nice to say that the year 2008 would complete the bracket, but it’s too early to say.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


They are playing baseball for real now, but all minds are not on the diamond. Many still are pondering the biggest show of the off-season, the one that pitted the word of Roger Clemens, a pitcher of note, against that of his erstwhile personal trainer, Brian McNamee.

In several venues, including the Congress of these United States, McNamee swore that he stuck needles containing steroids and HGH, a banned, steroid-like substance for which there is no test, into the buttocks of Clemens in years past, thus giving the pitcher supernatural powers.

Clemens denied taking anything illegal. McNamee did shoot him up on occasion, he averred, but only with vitamin B12, a legal substance generally favored by the elderly as a pick-me-up. He has threatened to sue McNamee for besmirching his good name, although from accounts of the current state of the trainer’s business, he’d have a hard time collecting much if he won.

Other evidence is involved. Weirdly, McNamee produced needles, vials and gauze that he said he used in the Clemens injections. This material presumably contained the pitcher’s DNA, although the whats, whens and wheres of the procedures still would be in doubt. Andy Pettitte, Clemens’ one-time pitching partner and pal, said he took HGH shots from McNamee (for purely therapeutic reasons, naturally) and understood that Clemens had, too. But Pettitte admitted he never was present when the Clemens’ hide was pierced, so he didn’t know for sure.

So it’s pretty much a he said-he said, and you can take your pick. Interestingly, most of Democrats on the Congressional committee that heard the two men testify last month sided with McNamee and most of the Republicans took Clemens’ part. While that’s in keeping with the two parties’ general stances (the Dems usually side with little guy publicly, the GOP with the fat cats), it also might reflect seven years of reflexive Republican head nodding to the babble of their leader, Mr. Bush.

Whatever, my take is that Roger ain’t telling the truth. Not only does he come across as a rich, blustery jock used to having his version of things accepted uncritically, but some of his on-field actions tipped off the pissed-off persona of a steroids user. I refer specifically to the incident in the 2000 World Series when the New York Mets’ Mike Piazza splintered his bat fouling off a Clemens pitch and a jagged segment rolled toward the mound. Clemens picked it up and flung it at Piazza. A few feet to the right and he might have speared the poor guy.

In the back-and-forth over McNamee’s claims the pitcher’s wife, Debbie, fessed up that she once took HGH so she’d look better for a 2003 photo shoot in which she was to wear a bikini. Do you think Debbie took it to enhance her looks while Roger didn’t to advance his (and her) livlihood? C’mon. I stopped believing the sprinter Marion Jones’s denials of steroid use when her then-husband, the massive shot putter C.J. Hunter, was busted for taking the stuff in a test announced just before the 2000 Olympics, in which Jones was to star. What did the two of them discuss at the dinner table—the price of sweat socks?

The clincher for me, though, was provided by a Chicago Tribune column written by the estimable Bob Verdi. When Clemens said he didn’t attend a party at Jose Canseco’s house that figured in the drug-use allegations because he was playing golf that day, and produced a green-fee receipt to prove it, Verdi guffawed mightily in print. No big-time jock ever pays for his own golf, declared Verdi, who has hung around more than his share of courses.

In baseball lore, a kid asked the Black Sox wrongdoer “Shoeless” Joe Jackson to “Say it isn’t so, Joe.” Clemens is all too ready to say that, but it’s tough to believe him.

April 1, 2008