In Defense of Steroids

Jose Canseco's surprisingly sensible case for juice.


Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big, by Jose Canseco, New York: Regan Books, 304 pages, $25.95

On March 17, former baseball star Jose Canseco told the House Committee on Government Reform exactly what it wanted to hear. The pressure to win, he said, drives pros to steroids and subsequently pushes steroids on kids. "The time has come," he said, "to send a message to America, especially the youth, that these actions, while attractive at first, may tarnish and harm you later."

That isn't exactly the message he sent with his recent pro-steroid tell-all, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big. And while his new tune may sound more responsible to legislators' ears, it's actually too bad that the former A's slugger turned his back on his own book. Beyond the typical sports memoir material– Lamborghinis, encounters with Madonna, growing up Latino in baseball–Canseco's book makes a rare and sustained argument in favor of steroids (and substances often used in conjunction with steroids, such as human growth hormone). Coming at a time of full-blown moral panic, with grandstanding senators trampling athletes' privacy rights and the media blaming steroids for everything from brain cancer to suicide, Canseco's position was a welcome one. It's a shame he didn't have the guts to stick with it.

Canseco was once a good and popular player, but today most people remember him as an overmuscled knucklehead who didn't take the game seriously, a steroid clown who once accidentally fielded a fly ball with his head. (The ball bounced over the fence for a home run, earning a place in the blooper Hall of Fame.) It certainly didn't help his image that he's been in and out of prison since leaving the game and that he has been reported as having money problems.

An ex-ballplayer with a slippery reputation isn't going to get much slack from the press, and for the most part, that's been the case. Much of the media attention Canseco's book has received so far has focused on the questionable veracity of his locker-room revelations or the sheer sleaziness of his literary project. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd zeroed in on the sexist bits, while Publisher's Weekly called it "a portrait of a bitter, disgraced ex-player who so desperately wants respect that he casts his own extraordinary recklessness as perfectly commonplace, a scorched-earth attempt to raise his own legend by bringing the game–and some of its great players–down to his level."

In Juiced, Canseco claims to have actually observed or talked about supplement use with some of the best players of the last decade, including former teammates Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi, and Ivan Rodriguez. (Gonzalez, Palmeiro, and Rodriguez have denied Canseco's assertions, in Palmeiro's case under oath.) Canseco's claims about his drug history with the formerly respected slugger Mark McGwire seem especially to have set sportswriters off. According to Canseco, the pair basically had a one-dimensional relationship, and that dimension was steroids.

Canseco's lurid anecdotes–did Jose really climb in a bathroom stall and stick a syringe in McGwire's butt?!–have helped sell a lot of books, but they've also distracted from his main point. Before the Senate dragged him to Washington and denied him immunity, Canseco didn't think any of the players he'd outed or speculated about should feel the least bit apologetic for using steroids. In his book, though not his testimony, he described steroids as a gift to baseball. Indeed, he wanted to claim credit for bringing them to the league. Whether or not you buy the idea that he's the steroid Prometheus, his book offers good reasons to think baseball should accept the drugs. As he pats himself on the back for nearly 300 pages, he considers two reasonable questions:

1. Just how useful are steroids for baseball players?

2. Can they be used safely?

Most people assume that steroids are only useful for building thick layers of muscle and cranking home runs. As Canseco tells it, though, steroids and human growth hormone can be put to much more sophisticated use. If taken in moderate doses and in certain combinations over a period of time, they can help build strength, quickness, and, most importantly, stamina. The baseball season–a 162-game slog–goes from the beginning of April to the end of September (barring a postseason run). Most players wear out at some point during that period. If a power hitter can use steroids to stay fresh over the course of a season, he could pound out a few extra home runs before October–and that's without any gain in bulk. With millions of dollars at stake, it only makes sense that players would look into this seriously.

The sports press has been quick to diagnose him with steroid-induced fragility, but Canseco insists that steroids helped him cut down on trips to the disabled list and to recover faster when he was hurt. In his book, Canseco characterizes himself as a scrawny, injury-prone kid who started experimenting with steroids in the minor leagues, just prior to his rapid ascent into the majors. Canseco claims that he began to spike his workouts with liquid testosterone combined with Deca Derbol in 1985. That year he shot from a double-A team in Huntsville, Alabama, to the major leagues. The next season he won Rookie of the Year, and two seasons after that, he was Most Valuable Player. (Canseco's usage then was perfectly legal–Congress did not pass the Anabolic Steroid Control Act until 1990, and Major League Baseball resisted steroid testing until the labor agreement of 2002.)

As far as health risks are concerned, Canseco only admits to suffering a pair of shrunken testicles, which, he proudly insists, had no impact on his sexual functioning. As with most of the book's assertions, Canseco makes his case almost entirely with anecdotal evidence. He has plenty of anecdotes to offer, and it isn't easy for the reader to evaluate them. He keeps good company, though. As Dayn Perry has pointed out in these pages (see "Pumped-Up Hysteria," January 2003), most claims about the health effects of steroids and their long-term impact rely heavily on anecdotal evidence and tend to overstate the case. Perry wrote, "A more objective survey of steroids' role in sports shows that their health risks, while real, have been grossly exaggerated…and that the worst problems associated with steroids result from their black-market status rather than their inherent qualities."

Juiced doesn't recommend banning steroids. Refreshingly, it doesn't advocate reckless self-medication either. Before using steroids, Canseco counsels, an athlete should learn as much as possible about both the medication and his own body, consult a medical expert regularly, be ready to take training seriously, and probably cut out recreational drugs. In one stand-out passage, Canseco praises the infamous Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) for its steroid-dispensing ways. "The important thing to know," he writes, "is that, according to the press reports, BALCO was doing it right: They were giving blood tests to [baseball sluggers Barry] Bonds and [Jason] Giambi and the others. As I've been telling people for years, that's the only way to design a cycle that's right for you–to know the details of your body, your different hormone levels, and tailor your dosage accordingly."

Major League Baseball instituted league-wide steroid testing in 2002 as part of a new labor agreement. Under threat of federal legislation, it revisited and expanded that not-yet-expired policy this year. The penalties have been boosted–the leagues will subject players to random testing and to harsher penalties (suspensions, not fines) if caught–and in concert with revised federal law, more substances have been added to the list of the banned. Canseco, largely unconcerned with questions of cheating, argues that steroids are just another example of players taking any competitive advantage they can. He references unsavory baseball aids used through the years–doctored balls, corked bats, amphetamines–and tries to claim them as precursors to steroid use.

It isn't a particularly strong argument, especially for non-players with little sympathy for creative rule-bending to begin with. But he also touches on another, much more convincing argument–not for cheating, but for reconsidering the rule altogether.

Much of the animus toward steroids assumes that they stand apart from all other forms of training–that they are ugly, artificial, and alien to a culture of hard work and honest sweat. But the athlete's project has always been body modification and specialization, and when modern technology impacts elite sports, it doesn't stop at the outer layer of the player's skin. Trying to distinguish natural from artificial methods of training makes less and less sense by the year.

Players hire year-round personal trainers to identify weaknesses in their overall musculature, help build and balance muscle, and hone their reaction times. As recently as the early '80s, weightlifting ballplayers were fairly rare. Now even the sorriest Major League parks have very nice weightlifting facilities and players freely mix weight training with other modern forms of training, such as plyometrics (a form of exercise that concentrates on explosive movements).

The days of rotisserie chicken and beer meals are over, too. Meal replacement powders, multivitamins, and protein bars are the new fuels. Many players even hire private chefs to prepare specialized diets. None of this is done blindly: In order to make sure they get a good return on their diets and training, top athletes may have their blood and urine tested and analyzed regularly. Products such as ZMA (zinc and magnesium) help combat any deficiencies or imbalances. Reportedly, BALCO offered this service to one of their more famous clients, Barry Bonds.

If players don't get the desired performance out of diet, diagnostics, and exercise, there's always surgery. Consider Tommy John surgery, a ligament transplant invented for baseball players and named for the first pitcher to undergo the procedure. It has advanced to the point that the Chicago Cubs' Kerry Wood actually picked up velocity on his pitches after wrecking his arm and having the surgery. In the March 2005 Wired, Steven Johnson notes that, "To date, pitchers have opted for the surgery only after suffering ligament damage, but elective-enhancement surgery in baseball is inevitable–and it will show up in lots of other professional sports, too." Johnson also notes that batters hoping to improve their pitch recognition skills can choose another elective procedure: laser eye surgery.

In short, sports technology isn't just for golf club shafts and running shoes. It's for muscles, ligaments, and organs, and it's getting more sophisticated all the time. If such technologies are available to everyone and if the health risks are low–or lower, at least, then getting pulverized by a bulky baserunner sprinting toward home plate–then why single out steroids?

Canseco writes: "These players [who use steroids] may seem like pariahs. But don't be surprised if someday we look back on some of them as pioneers." No one's holding their breath on that one, but it's not as far-fetched as many fans think. And if it does come to pass, Canseco may one day find it convenient to remember that he also wrote, "The performance enhancement that can come with responsible steroid use is nothing to be dismissed…it's an opportunity, not a danger." Maybe someone could remind him when this thing blows over.?