Drug Policy

Baseball's Persistent Drug Culture

Banning steroids will not prevent further substance abuse


The news about Alex Rodriguez's use of steroids is simultaneously distressing and encouraging. Distressing because we learned that yet another baseball star was cheating. Encouraging because the revelation is one more step toward putting the years of bogus biceps in the past.

Baseball and A-Rod were stained, but both have cleaned up and moved on. So now the Yankee slugger and everyone else will be competing on honest terms and records set in the future won't need an asterisk.

If only. True, Major League Baseball has gotten reasonably serious about curbing its drug problems. But the incentives for getting around the rules—stardom, records, big money, or merely hanging on to a roster spot—are as alluring as ever. The evidence suggests that plenty of players will take any help they can get. And for anyone who wants the benefits of steroids without getting busted, there's a good alternative.

You don't have to be a cynic to doubt that Rodriguez and any of his colleagues in crime have all had a moral epiphany. If they were willing to ignore the rules and use banned drugs before—and, in many cases, reaped impressive gains—why wouldn't they keep doing it?

The only obvious reason is the likelihood of detection. Baseball now has a system of year-round, unannounced testing for steroids and other artificial aids. But what if there were a steroid-like substance that couldn't be detected? Wouldn't it be just as tempting to anyone looking for an edge?

Judging from the steroid experience, that's enough players to fill several rosters. In 2003, the first year of drug testing, when Rodriguez got nailed, more than 5 percent of major leaguers flunked. In the years before testing became a deterrent, the number of steroid aficionados was undoubtedly higher.

But there is an alternative for anyone intent on a burlier body: human growth hormone, which is reputed to have the same muscle-inflating properties but doesn't show up in a urinalysis. To detect it, you need a blood test, which the players union has refused to accept.

The hormone's appeal is not in doubt. Barry Bonds was indicted for perjury because he told a grand jury his personal trainer had not given him HGH. Roger Clemens' trainer said he had injected the pitcher with the stuff. Andy Pettitte admitted using it. This week, Miguel Tejada did likewise, as part of a plea agreement.

But absent a reliable test, it's not easy to catch hormone hounds. Even a blood test may not suffice. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which supervises testing of Olympic competitors, has screened 8,500 athletes for HGH since 2000. And how many positive results has it gotten? Zero. So anyone feeling puny and weak without steroids is bound to contemplate a switch.

We also know baseball's new testing regime has not miraculously dried up the demand for performance enhancers. After Major League Baseball outlawed amphetamines, an interesting thing happened: More than 100 players got "therapeutic exemptions" for banned stimulants to treat Attention Deficit Disorder.

Calling that number "incredible," Dr. Gary Wadler, a WADA official, told USA Today, "There seems to be an epidemic of ADD in major-league baseball."

For now, though, the broadest boulevard for cheating is HGH. That could change: At a recent conference sponsored by Major League Baseball at the University of California, Los Angeles, scientists said they were making progress toward a urine test for the agent. But it is still in the future, leaving dishonest players ample opportunity.

We may have banished steroids, but there is no reason to think baseball is any cleaner now than it was before. If and when an HGH test is developed, we are likely to get another round of failed drug tests. And one or more of today's stars is bound to be doing the confession-and-repentance routine.

Unfortunately, we won't know how bad things were back in 2009. In theory, current samples could be preserved and retested in the future. But Major League Baseball doesn't preserve samples. That means today's players—possibly including the supposedly repentant Rodriguez—can use HGH with little fear of someday being unmasked.

It's slightly comforting to think we have moved beyond the steroid decade. But the drug-free era hasn't begun, and it may never.


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  1. Knowledgeable baseball fans view the sport in its entirety, and judge each “era” accordingly.

  2. Yeah this article makes a good point. HGH use is still a huge wild card. The only way they have caught any players on it is through testimony or paper trails.

    Of course, there is an even larger problem beyond that; drug designers will ALWAYS be making new substances that can get around current testing methods. Like Steve points out, the incentives to get around the testing are simply too great. Pandora’s box has been thrown open, and good luck getting it closed.

  3. This is a subject that reflects our society’s hypocritical and infantile attitudes about “drugs”. The steroids saga has been driven by the hysterical histrionics of certain scribes and sports talk disc jockeys who have acted the part of sanctimonious scarlet letter sob sisters.

    Hypocrisy. Take cortisone. Ballplayers have been receiving cortisone injections for decades. Does anybody remember the 1978 Boston Red Sox, particularly the third baseman, Butch Hobson? He had a great first half of the season (in fact, one could argue that the ’78 Sox had one of the best first halfs in baseball history) but injured his elbow. He trailed off in the second half and fans will recall that he made a number of horrible throws to first base, many of them resulting in errors. Since the Sox manager, Don Zimmer, was loathe to go to his bench, he kept sending the former Alabama football player out to third base every day.
    Hobson could not have been out there without the benefit of a steroid-cortisone.

    Taking cortisone enable ballplayers to play who otherwise could not play. Why should baseball regard cortisone any differently than the use of other “performance enhancers”? What about the “integrity” of the game? Look at how statistics have been affected by those players who played while on cortisone. It is not fair to players who chose to either play in pain or sit out rather than take cortisone.

  4. That’s a good point libertymike. Sandy Koufax, who basically ruined his arm as a fire-balling youngster trying to get into the bigs, only had his half-dozen or so years of dominance as a result of nearly constant cortisone injections.

    Not to mention “greenies” (amphetamines). Those were absolutely ubiquitous for decades; Jim Bouton’s book “Ball Four” made that clear.

    Ultimately, baseball has gone through so many changes that to speak about the “integrity” of the numbers is sort of laughable. Babe Ruth, supposedly the greatest player ever, didn’t have to face some of the greatest players of his era, who were relegated to the Negro leagues. While it wasn’t Babe’s fault obviously, it’s still just as much of a compromise of the game’s integrity as drug use or gambling is.

  5. Yeah I think we covered this already, but thanks for your two cents Steve. Not that you added anything to the conversation. In fact I’m getting tiered of hearing about it. But still, good on you for taking a stand.

  6. The steriod scandal is BS. Hey look, steriods were NOT banned in Baseball until the late/mid 90’s. so ANYONE who used steriods prior to them being actually banned by the sport, did not one iota of a thing wrong, they used the means that baseball let them have to play. and really who cares, they play a game, and get paid big money.

  7. Not to mention “greenies” (amphetamines). Those were absolutely ubiquitous for decades; Jim Bouton’s book “Ball Four” made that clear.

    How else could you stay awake through a whole baseball game?

  8. A-Rod used steroids. Do I give a rat’s ass?

    ? Yes, it tarnishes the game and sends the wrong message to youth.
    ? Fuck No.

  9. Quite simply, if MLB and the MLBPA gave a shit about their reputation there would be annual testing for all banned substances (whatever MLB establishes as illegal and the MLBPA agrees to). Everything else is bullshit. The players’ union knows about perfomance enhancers, the players know, the commisioner knows, and the fans know. Why does everyone act like it’s a big shock or that it’s a scandal? The scandal is the way no group steps up and chooses which way baseball goes – with or without enhancement.

  10. Hey Ska, actually there is a much more rigorous testing procedure in place now. It’s done randomly and often, both in and out of season.

    To Steve’s point, HGH use still cannot be detected, but that’s more of a scientific shortcoming than a hole in the testing policy.

  11. http://www.slate.com/id/2162473/

    We aren’t even sure how much HGH helps athletic performance. The reason many athletes take it probably has a lot to do with their trainers selling it to them as an alternative. HGH therapy has been shown to be beneficial to people in their 60s who aren’t producing the hormone as much as they used to, but the effects on healthy people are less evident. It may help speed recovery from injury, but in that respect, how is it different from cortisone as libertymike points out.

  12. Steroids were not banned in baseball until 2004, the year after the test that netted Rodriguez. The test on which he was caught was meant to determine the prevalance of PED use in the sport. Everyone peed into a cup in 2003 and since more than 5% of the players tested positive, the ban was instituted the next year.

  13. Everyone cares except the fans. Baseball is healthier than ever. Unsuccessful sports leagues cannot and do not support $25-million salaries. The pundits and hypocritical cable-news talking heads are full of shit when they speak of American outrage over A-Rod and Phelps and all the others. They should stick to what they do best: missing-child stories and financial disinformation.

  14. @chris.ez, that’s not exactly true. While there was no official policy regarding testing and penalties until 2004, steroids have been illegal in baseball since 1991. They just had no penalties listed or method of detecting use.

    So someone who tested positive in 2003 was, officially, in violation of the rules. However, there was no system in place for punishing them. More importantly, obviously, the agreement was that the 2003 tests were completely confidential and for purposes of gathering information only.

  15. Rhayder
    Thanks, I was unaware of the Fay Vincent memo. And while I’m no fan of Alex Rodriguez(re:Bronson Arroyo, October, 2004) it’s ridiculous for the media and fans and now Bud “The Only Reason Baseball Has Grown In Popularity Under My Watch Is Due To The Widepread Use Of Steroids” Selig to hop on their respective soap boxes and pontificate about how these players are ruinous to the intergrity of the game. Everyone, the players, the union, the owners, the media and the fans benefitted from offensive explosion in the ’90’s and now its the players who are left holding the check. The hypocrisy is more than a little infuriating.

  16. Yeah I agree. Most of the players were as much victims of the steroid era as they were the perpetrators. I’m not saying you just give the players a free pass, but the owners, MLB, the union, etc are all complicit, and should not be let off the hook. Like you said, even the media and fans turned a blind eye.

    I will point out that Selig has done at least a couple positive things. For one, the wild card format has been huge for fan interest; not only are there twice as many playoff teams now, but every season has at least one or two hotly contested races down the stretch in September.

    Also, revenue sharing has been great for league parity. Sure, the yanks can still spend their asses off, but teams like the Marlins, Cardinals, White Sox, and Diamondbacks have all won since the Yankees last championship.

  17. I agree, the wild card and the inherent uncertainty of baseball in a short series has done a lot for competetive balance.

  18. A-Rod mentions being under a lot of pressure during the wear and tear of a 160 or game season.

    Cutting the number of games in half would make for less wear and tear on the players, less boredom for fans, and better attendance at the remaining games.

  19. Reason and its comments section continue to miss the mark on steroids.

    You are right to point out the futility of the war on drugs in general and always the first to suggest non-intervention when appropriate. But there a couple of persistent errors when addressing the steroids and baseball issue.

    1. (not really an error but a worthy comment.) Congress shouldn’t be involved. Totally agree with Reason on this one. Of course, baseball had no problem accepting an antitrust exemption. Irony alert.

    2. The fact that there is currently an HGH loophole means we should throw up our hands and just accept PEDs in baseball. BULL.

    The cream and the clear were ‘undetectable’ when Bonds took them. But guess what: we still have samples lying around, and the detection science has advanced since then. There may be no urine test for HGH yet, but when there is one, players’ urine will still by lying around in a lab somewhere surrounded by scientists. Sleep unsoundly, cheaters.

    And the other trump card: even if HGH remains undetectable forever, the guy who sells it to you probably won’t.

    A-Rod got busted for using a steroid known for hiding the outward signs of steroid use in an anonymous test. The clear lesson to today’s players? The only way to ensure not getting busted is to not take steroids.

    3. We shouldn’t worry about steroids in baseball. If you’re not a baseball fan, you shouldn’t worry, but you should also keep to yourself your opinion about my worrying. If you are a baseball fan, the “integrity of the game” is not a joke.

    I hate to get all romantic, but baseball is the only major sport where a player with fewer natural gifts can make up the difference with guile, stamina, and preparation. As a kid I got de-cleated on football fields by bigger kids and rejected on basketball courts by taller kids. It’s sickening to watch somebody like A-Rod (who was BORN with the tools to succeed) try to widen the gap between himself and the guys who are trying to get by with hard work alone in the one sport where such a thing is possible.

    I’m a Little League coach, and the best part of teaching is showing kids who aren’t the biggest how to play on the same level as the kids who could easily take their lunch money. You cover the outside part of the plate, despite having a shorter/lighter bat, by going the other way. You make your fastball look overpowering by throwing changeups or curves. You play better defense than a stronger faster kid by concentrating on every play and learning to anticipate.

    If it befuddles you that I’m not entertained by acne-riddled circus freaks mashing home runs every sixth at-bat, then you’re obviously not a baseball fan. I believe 100% that anybody who wants to take steroids should be able to. I also believe 100% that MLB/MLBPA should work to give their fans the product that they demand (is there somebody at Reason who disagrees with this?).

    I believe 100% that the best possible product is a showcase of players who haven’t used PEDs, and a vast majority of fans agree with me. If you think PEDs make for better baseball, fine, but don’t disparage my right (or the rights of the millions who agree with me) to lobby for what I consider to be better baseball.

  20. @Douglas Gray: Bad idea. The long season is one of the things that makes baseball so great. They have been playing 154+ games for much longer than players have been using steroids. In fact, there were far fewer injuries back when players weren’t so freakishly oversized.

    @phil: great post. You’re exactly right: baseball is the sport that rewards skill and determination more than athletic ability. To lose that would be a tragedy.

    Of course, I think baseball is headed back in that direction. Home runs were way down last year; speed, pitching, and strategy made huge comebacks. One only needs to look at the Rays to see that major shift (and this is coming from a Red Sox fan).

    It’s good to know that our country’s coaches (some of them, at least) can see beyond the mashing cleanup hitter to show kids what the game is really about.

  21. Babe Ruth, supposedly the greatest player ever, didn’t have to face some of the greatest players of his era, who were relegated to the Negro leagues.

    While there were some great pitchers in the Negro Leagues, there weren’t enough to make much difference in the long run of a players career. The tinkering with the strike zone and ball composition have had caused far more fluctuation between eras. But the biggest difference in the home run totals is the fact that when Babe played, balls that bounced and then went over the fence were considered home runs rather than doubles as they are now.

  22. The real shame of all this is that our government wastes its time, and our money, on hearings dealing with sports.

    So baseball is full of drug users and cheaters? How is that a concern of the government?

  23. when the hell will this whole baseball/ steroids crap just go away out of the media, nobody cares.

    the only people to blame here is the corrupt sporting organizations

    everyone knows that these players are taught to take steroids by their own instructors.

    yep thats right media, we the public are not as stupid as you think

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