The Dead Balls Era

Most guys would give their left nut to hit like Barry Bonds. So why not let Barry Bonds give his left nut to hit like Barry Bonds?

Steroids in baseball has been a political football for almost exactly a year, ever since President Bush’s 2004 State of the Union address, in which he removed any reference to Osama bin Laden and threw in a couple of applause lines about the evils of the synthetic male hormones. Then came Sen. John McCain’s ’roid rage.

Speaking to reporters during an appearance at the Army-Navy game with Bush last month, McCain gave another strong hint that he’s already running for his old nemesis’ job by jabbering “Barry Bonds” into every microphone he could find. McCain, who had already made a series of appearances in New Hampshire right after Bush’s re-election, claimed he’d use his position as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee to get Congress involved in testing players for steroids if the game’s powers that be didn’t come up with a testing plan of their own.

“I’ll give them until January,” McCain told reporters, “and then I’ll introduce legislation.”

McCain’s threatened federal intrusion into the locker room was as senseless as it was shameless. If his goal was to eliminate steroids from the game, what baseball players would have to pee in a cup under his plan? Just major-leaguers? Major- and minor-leaguers? Would he start at the bottom, with Little Leaguers? And, if steroid abuse in baseball really is worthy of a government crackdown, well, why just baseball?

But the grandstanding rants got McCain all the attention he craved, and, with last week’s announcement about baseball’s self-instituted steroids crackdown—“zero tolerance,” if we’re to believe the hype—the will-be candidate never had to disclose whom he wanted to see peeing into what.

For all the political agreement that anabolic steroids are really bad, not a whole lot of scientific research has gone into determining the damage that their misuse can actually cause.

“Nobody knows how dangerous steroids really are,” says Kensington, Md., sports doctor Gabe Mirkin. “There are a lot of suggestions about what abuse can do.”

The government suggests, according to literature put out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as part of its anti-drug abuse campaign, that steroids can lead to “higher blood pressure, liver problems, stunted growth, infertility, irregular menstrual cycles, and testicular shrinkage. Over time, steroid use can cause violent behavior, delusions, and paranoid jealousy.”

The testes caveat is the most commonly heard fear about steroids among athletes. But even that hasn’t kept steroids out of the locker room over the years. Mirkin, best known around here for his decadeslong run as a radio talk-show host, has been practicing sports medicine since the ’50s. In the mid-’70s, he authored Sports Medicine, which now stands as the best-selling book on the subject ever written.

Mirkin says he chuckles whenever he hears baseball officials, fans, or sportswriters insinuate that only a small percentage of ballplayers use steroids and that the bad boys of summer can easily be weeded out.

“People who think only a few [ballplayers] use steroids are just stupid,” he says. “It is my impression that almost all of them do. All you have to do is watch old baseball movies, and the players all look so small and weak. Now they’re all giants. That’s not evolution. That’s not natural. I believe it is steroids, and steroids are available at every gym in America.”

It would be hard to argue that the game hasn’t benefited from whatever price, testicular or otherwise, performers have paid for their use of pharmaceuticals.

Look at Curt Schilling. Since the end of the season, Schilling has been hailed as a folk hero for playing through pain to help the Red Sox win their first World Series in 85 years.

“Thirty-five thousand Fenway fans framed Curt Schilling’s profile in courage Sunday. Years from now, considerably more will claim to have been at the stadium the night Schilling showed that the pilgrims’ can-do spirit is alive and well in these parts,” Palm Beach Post columnist Karen Crouse wrote after a bleeding, wounded Schilling beat the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 2 of the series.

Well, it ain’t pain if you can’t feel it. Schilling, who was reportedly suffering from a dislocated tendon in his right ankle, didn’t just take a shot or two to get through the playoffs; he was letting doctors inject powerful painkillers into his faulty joint for most of the season. According to a June report in the Boston Herald, since late May Schilling had been getting injections of the anti-swelling steroid cortisone and the numbing agent Marcaine whenever his turn to pitch came around.

The fallout list for both of Schilling’s go-to drugs makes anabolic steroids seem like gumdrops. In a 2002 research paper on local anesthetics published by the New York University School of Medicine’s Department of Anesthesiology, bupivacaine—the generic name for Marcaine—is called “the most toxic” of the compounds studied. According to the overview of local anesthetics found on the Web site of Bethesda’s National Naval Medical Center, after it hit the market in 1957, doctors were advised not to prescribe bupivacaine to children and the mentally handicapped “due to the potential for self mutilation.” As for cortisone, don’t count Mirkin among its fans. Long-term use of the drug, he says, can lead to “osteoporosis, weaker tendons, weaker ligaments, diabetes, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, obesity, all sorts of problems.

“Cortisone is bad stuff,” he says, “and I won’t even prescribe it except in very special circumstances. That’s something you might use if you have to before an Olympic finals, but not much else.”

Yet, just as Beatles fans don’t care that psychedelics helped John Lennon get from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Red Sox rooters wouldn’t give back their championship in exchange for reversing whatever damage Schilling did to himself along the way to getting it. Baseball fans would rather risk another generation of players with shriveled testicles than have the long ball disappear from the game.

Take Mark McGwire. The ex–St. Louis Cardinals slugger came to RFK Stadium for two exhibitions in the spring of 1999. Early into his round of batting practice before the first game, McGwire hit the roof of the stadium above left field. Even the most seasoned baseball people assembled around the batting cage that day were stunned by what they’d witnessed. Nobody had ever hit a ball anywhere near as far as McGwire’s blast in all the years of ballplaying at RFK.

“I’d have bet it couldn’t be done,” Thomas Boswell wrote of McGwire’s batting practice blast in the Washington Post.

Boswell meant a ball couldn’t be hit that far once. But, while heads were still shaking and jaws still hanging around the RFK cage, McGwire hit the roof again.

McGwire, everybody knew by then, had some help going deep. After a reporter spotted a pill case near his locker, McGwire admitted mixing the amino-acid powder creatine monohydrate with androstenedione, a testosterone precursor that at the time was legally available to athletes. Use of “andro,” as it was known in the locker room, will cause a positive test for steroids. It is now banned by baseball.

But, despite the revelations about McGwire’s diet, nobody at RFK that day yelled that his Bunyanesque feats should be ignored. They were too busy screaming for his autograph.—Dave McKenna

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