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Pumped Up

Steroids inject a little controversy into Major League Baseball. How long before Arnold Schwarzenegger is named commissioner?

5.31.02

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Major League Baseball needed a shot in the arm after the strike-ruined season of 1994. What it got instead was a shot in the ass.

The current issue of Sports Illustrated reveals the shocking news that large numbers of major leaguers routinely inject themselves with horse-sized quantities of performance- and body-enhancing steroids. These are often hypodermically injected into the buttocks.

Controversy has swirled around former San Diego Padre Ken Caminiti's claim that he won the 1996 National League MVP award while on 'roids. What's more, he estimated half of all players take them.

Steroids are technically illegal, but can be procured with a doctor's prescription or by making an over-the-border run to the pharmaceutical shacks lining Revolucion Avenue in Tijuana. They produce testosterone and make you bigger, bulkier, and more energetic.

It's not just steroids, either. Legal over-the-counter products like andro -- adrostenedione, Mark McGwire's favorite supplement -- and creatine can, like steroids, help turn the puniest, scrawniest guy into a muscle-bound brute. That's why one of the great trends in baseball over the last decade hasn't just been the increase in balls flying over fences, but the increase in Ranier Wolfcastle-like sluggers driving them.

These products can literally make you bigger. Your shirt and pants sizes will grow. So will your head. One major leaguer is reported to have seen his hat size grow more than two inches while taking the juice.

One area that won't grow? Your testicles, which can shrink and float up into your body, since they're no longer producing your body's testosterone. But that's an occupational hazard many major leaguers seem willing to accept.

One consequence of this scandal is it further removes today's game from that of the previous century. And that's trouble for an institution that trades on its history and tradition as much as baseball does. Today's baseball is fast becoming a fundamentally different sport from that of most of the 20th century.

To get an edge in the past, cheaters might cork their bats. Now they cork themselves. Statistics are grossly inflated as players literally inflate themselves.

Over the last decade, we've seen a barrage of balls flying over fences. Records aren't just being broken, they're being shattered. Witness Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa all routinely eclipsing Roger Maris's longstanding record of 61 roundtrippers in a season.

Everybody's hitting home runs now. Before the 1990s, only one player had hit more than 50 home runs in a season in two and a half decades. That was Cincinnati's George Foster, who clubbed 52 dingers in 1977. And he was considered the weak man in the ten-member 50 HR club comprised of gods like Ruth, Mantle, Mays, Foxx, and Greenberg.

Now they're letting anybody in, including mediocrities like Brady Anderson (Brady Anderson!) and Luis Gonzalez. Luis Who? Exactly.

How many of the new sluggers used steroids or other enhancements? It's not clear. Certainly McGwire did. He was even the ad pitchman for andro. Bonds is reported to use them. Brady Anderson had to have used them. Sosa? Maybe, maybe not.

When Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 to break Babe Ruth's 34-year-old record of 60, baseball insisted an asterisk be placed next to Maris's 61 in the official record books, since his season was longer and he had a few more games than Ruth. If that record was considered tainted, then how should we look at Big Mac's and Bonds' records? Forget the asterisk, put a little needle next to theirs.

All of this makes Babe Ruth's accomplishments that much more impressive. The Babe didn't use enhancing stimulants. Hell, most everything he reportedly ingested -- mass quantities of hot dogs and liquor, for instance -- undoubtedly limited his performance. Who knows how great he would have been had he lived a clean life? And if he had taken the juice? The Lord only knows, but it's safe to guess he would have clubbed a lot more than 714 home runs.

For now it appears that juicing up is so widespread that steroidgate will be the major league equivalent of the congressional check-kiting scandal. The defense will be that since so many do it, it's not really that bad.

Ken Caminiti has taken a lot of heat from fellow players for disclosing the game's dirty little secret. Just yesterday Caminiti disavowed his comments, taking refuge in the time-worn claim that his remarks were taken out of context. It's hard to tell, however, how one could misconstrue this quote: "It's no secret what's going on in baseball. At least half the guys are using steroids."

Baseball was long a game that the average guy could relate to, largely because the players looked like him. One didn't need to be a physical oddity to succeed, as in football or basketball.

But that's changed. Now baseball players look like professional bodybuilders. It's only a matter of time before the trainers and clubhouse guys who tape players' ankles also find themselves oiling up their preening charges.

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