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.

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