Saturday, June 16, 2012

Two Sports Ilustrated Cover Stories Detail the Sordid Legacy of Baseball's "Steroid Era"

Ten years ago, Sports Illustrated published a cover story about how performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) helped Ken Caminiti become the 1996 National League MVP. Caminiti told Verducci that he did not feel guilty about using PEDs because PED usage had become widespread throughout the sport. That article prompted Congress to hold the hearings that finally, belatedly convinced the MLB Players Association to agree to allow drug testing: "It was the beginning of the end of the Steroid Era," writes Tom Verducci in a cover story for the June 4, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated; Verducci, who also penned the 2002 SI cover story, now examines the Steroid Era not in terms of its effect on the stars of the game, the records that they shattered and the Hall of Fame votes that they may not--and should not--receive but rather through the prism of the careers of four minor leaguers: three who stayed clean and never made it to the big leagues and one who cheated his way out of minor league purgatory.

When Dan Naulty received a call from one of the Mitchell Report's investigators, he willingly talked about how steroids transformed him from a tall, skinny minor leaguer with a fast ball that topped out well short of 90 mph into a ripped, muscular hurler with major league stuff. Naulty realized very early during his career that he would never move out of A ball unless he got much bigger and stronger, so he began cheating by taking an array of substances that helped him add nearly 70 pounds to his 6-6, 180 pound frame. Verducci writes:

It was a cycle that would repeat itself every year: Naulty would use various steroids through the winter, gain muscle mass and velocity, and wow the coaches in camp. He would not use steroids during the season, causing him to lose some weight--about 10 pounds if he had gained 20--and his numbers to fall off as the year progressed. Then it was back to an off-season of doping, with a veritable buffet of steroids. "We were mixing them," he says. "Some for size, some for speed. There was a steroid I took one off-season that was purely to speed your body up. You didn't gain any size at all. [Your arm speed] just got faster. The point was the faster I moved the harder I'd throw."

In four years Naulty gained 50 pounds and added 10 miles an hour to his fastball. (He would eventually top out at 248 pounds.) His legs were enormous. His shoulders looked like cantaloupes, with the rounded, watery hallmark of steroids. He loved the way his body looked, loved to take his shirt off, loved the compliments he got from coaches and loved the way nobody in baseball asked, How? The Steroid Era was taking hold, made possible by a don't ask, don't tell policy. "Everybody is telling you how great you look," Naulty says. "Nobody ever asked if I was using drugs. I never had one discussion about steroids around another baseball player. All my discussions about steroids were with bodybuilders."

Ninety percent of all drafted players never spend one day in the big leagues. Steroid users made the odds even worse for clean players.

Thirty-three players appeared in at least one game for the 1994 Fort Myers Miracle. Only six of them reached the majors long enough to earn $500,000 in their careers. Half of those players are known PED users: Naulty, outfielder Matt Lawton (who tested positive in 2005) and pitcher Dan Serafini (who flunked a test in '07).

This detailed information will no doubt surprise the economists and "stat gurus" who foolishly assert that PEDs don't work. PEDs work; that is why athletes use them even though these substances are dangerous to their long term health and even though such usage is both against the law and forbidden by their leagues/sanctioning bodies. PED usage has wrecked lives and transformed the record books from nonfiction into something more fraudulent than a three dollar bill.

Verducci reports that Naulty's minor league teammate Brett Roberts, who never cheated and never made it to the big leagues, is understandably angry:

"It's cheating," says Roberts, who bristles at the steroid users who made it. "It sticks in my craw because I know how hard I worked. Was I going to be a guy with a five- to 10-year career? Probably not. But I know I could have been there."

While Roberts and others dealt with crushed, broken dreams, Naulty advanced to the big leagues and received (stole) $185,000 a year. Verducci relentlessly breaks down all of the myths about the Steroid Era:

The rationalizing and enabling goes on even today by players, fans and media. The popular myth is that before testing, steroids in baseball "weren't illegal" (in fact, their use was made illegal by the federal government in 1988 unless prescribed to treat a medical condition), were "not against the rules" (a 1991 memo by commissioner Fay Vincent specifically prohibited steroids) and that "everybody was doing it, anyway." (Tell that to Legault, Linebarger and Roberts.) But the silence in the culture of steroids is a dead giveaway that the users knew they were corrupt. "I was a full-blown cheater, and I knew it," Naulty says. "You didn't need a written rule. I was violating clear principles that were laid down within the rules. I understood I was violating implicit principles.

"I have no idea how many guys were using testosterone. But I would assume anybody that was had some sort of conviction that this was against the rules. To say it wasn't cheating to's just a fallacy. It was a total disadvantage to play clean."

Jeff Horn is another minor leaguer who used PEDs to try to make it to the big leagues; he eventually injured two disks in his neck in a collision at home plate during a game in the Atlanta Braves' 2000 training camp and then in 2001 he was busted in the first year of the minor league baseball drug testing program (MLB would not institute drug testing until Congress intervened) while he was trying to make a comeback, prompting him to retire. Horn told Verducci, "I was, at best, an average hitter. A good fastball could tie me up. When I had the stuff in me I could get to those pitches easier. With steroids you could do those things you otherwise couldn't do. The things that kept you in the minor leagues all of a sudden didn't hold you back anymore. It's not like you could take a guy off the street, give him steroids and he can hit a Jered Weaver fastball. But if you have the ability to do it, you can get a little help doing things you were not able to do."

Rick Reilly once called the minor leaguers who got cheated out of jobs by steroid users The Forgotten Victims of MLB's "Steroids Era" and Verducci's article graphically illustrates the toll that this cheating took not just on those victims but also on the cheaters and on the sport itself. The players who cheated, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, the MLB owners and the MLB Players Association should be ashamed for enriching themselves at the expense of integrity.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Seventh Heaven: Nadal Beats Djokovic, Surpasses Borg

Rafael Nadal won one of the most historically significant matches in tennis history, defeating Novak Djokovic 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 in the French Open to both break Bjorn Borg's record for French Open titles and end Djokovic's bid to simultaneously hold all four Grand Slam singles titles. Nadal has now won the French Open seven times in eight tries and he owns a 52-1 match record at Roland Garros; Borg won six French Open titles in eight appearances, posting a 49-2 match record. Borg skipped the French Open once during his prime--a result of the Byzantine chess politics of that era--and he retired at just 25 as the four-time reigning French Open champion. The 26 year old Nadal won the French Open the first four times that he entered it--2005-2008--to tie Borg's record for consecutive championships at that event and after Nadal's lone setback in the fourth round in 2009 versus Robin Soderling he has won three more French Open titles in a row.

Commentators have been attempting for years to elevate Roger Federer to greatest of all-time status but while the talking heads chirp and the writing heads pontificate Nadal has been getting the job done where it really matters: between the lines on the court. Nadal is now tied for fourth (with Borg and Rod Laver) on the all-time list with 11 Grand Slam singles titles, trailing only Federer (16), Pete Sampras (14) and Roy Emerson (12)--but in many ways Nadal's career record is more impressive than the career records of Federer, Sampras and Emerson. Nadal has won 11 of the 32 Grand Slam singles events that he entered (.344), a percentage second only to Borg's phenomenal 11/27 (.407); Borg is the only male player who won more Grand Slams at a younger age than Nadal (Borg won his 11th Grand Slam at 25). Federer's Grand Slam winning percentage is .308 (16/52), Sampras' Grand Slam winning percentage is .269 (14/52) and Emerson's Grand Slam winning percentage is .207 (12/58).

Although Emerson did complete the career Grand Slam and was the first player to win at least two titles in each of the Grand Slam events, all of his wins came during an era when professionals were banned from the Grand Slams and six of his 12 Grand Slam titles came in the Australian Open at a time when many top non-Australians did not play in that event, so Emerson cannot be given serious consideration in any legitimate greatest player of all-time discussion. Federer's Grand Slam total is also padded by four Australian triumphs, while Nadal only has one win in the least important Grand Slam and Borg only played Down Under once, early in his career.

Nadal completed the career Grand Slam at 24 (Federer was nearly 28 when he accomplished this) and Nadal has bested Federer on Federer's favorite Grand Slam surface--Wimbledon's grass--but Federer has never beaten Nadal at Roland Garros. Federer has lost in the first round of a Grand Slam six times and Sampras suffered seven first round Grand Slam losses; neither Borg nor Nadal ever lost in the first round of a Grand Slam.

Borg's simultaneous grass (Wimbledon)/clay (French Open) dominance is unparalleled--he won Wimbledon and the French Open in the same year an unprecedented three straight times and when he retired he held the Open Era record for both Wimbeldon titles (five) and French Open titles (six). Sampras (seven) and Federer (six) broke Borg's Wimbledon record and now Nadal has claimed Borg's French Open record but no player has come close to matching Borg's simultaneous multi-surface dominance. It is baffling that Borg is not more widely considered to be the greatest Open Era player or at least on equal footing with Federer and Nadal. Sampras' inability to even make it to the French Open Finals--he only made it to the semifinals once--places him below Borg, Federer and Nadal in the Open Era pantheon.

Djokovic is the wild card in this discussion. He was clearly a distant third behind Federer and Nadal for several years until he had a season for the ages in 2011 but his year of dominance may have ended; after beating Nadal in three straight Grand Slam Finals--and seven straight matches overall, each of them in Finals--Djokovic has lost to Nadal three times in a row, with each of those setbacks coming in Finals. Commentators spoke of Nadal's supposed "Djokovic problem" but it is not unusual for the tide to go back and forth somewhat in a rivalry between two players who are almost exactly the same age--and the reality is that Nadal still has a healthy head to head edge versus Djokovic overall (19-14) and in Grand Slam matches (6-3). It is hard to understand how Nadal's "Djokovic problem" could possibly be more significant or relevant than Roger Federer's much larger "Nadal problem": Nadal owns an 18-10 head to head advantage over Federer, including 8-2 in Grand Slam matches.

Perhaps if Nadal wins five more Grand Slam titles even Federer's most loyal devotees will have to admit what has been apparent for several years: Nadal has authored a career that is at least as dominant and accomplished as Federer's.