Out of the Park
In the 17th year of the world’s slowest-moving scandal, baseball’s steroid controversy finally picked up momentum as the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that federal investigators had implicated superstar sluggers Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield, among others, in the BALCO doping imbroglio. This followed a State of the Union address in which President George W. Bush used his bully pulpit to call for a crackdown on athletes using chemical muscle-builders, a denunciation that stood in contrast to the Bush dynasty’s previous encounters with steroids.
Have you noticed that a lot of steroid cheaters, alleged and admitted, are jerks? So, do jerks take steroids? Or do steroids make jerks? Both are likely true. Good guys don’t cheat. And the masculinizing side effects of steroids make many users more volatile, even violent. Baseball’s brouhaha illuminates a growing challenge for society in general as the biotechnology-driven masculinity arms race (or, perhaps more precisely, biceps race) expands beyond sports. Politicians, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, and even pundits, such as Andrew Sullivan, have turbocharged their careers by ingesting the manly molecule. But do we want the most aggressive men to boost their masculinity even further by artificial means? Or is the natural balance best for society as a whole?A history of baseball’s seduction by steroids can now finally be pieced together. First synthesized in central Europe in the 1930s, scientifically savvy athletes, such as Olympic shot-putters, began injecting artificial male hormones in the 1950s. Bodybuilders were close behind. For example, Austrian weightlifters who trained with the teenage Schwarzenegger told the Los Angeles Times that the future governor of California started using steroids in 1964 at age 17. In the 1970s and 1980s, the manly ladies of East Germany dominated the distaff side of the Olympics because their Communist regime forced steroids upon them.
This trend largely bypassed baseball, however, because ballplayers were among the last athletes (besides golfers) to try honest weightlifting. Pumping iron benefits almost all athletes, but the frustrations of reaching maximum natural strength within a few years can encourage some to then move on to steroids.
Baseball has always been, at best, proudly traditional and, at worst, lazily lackadaisical about innovation, especially if it involves hard physical or mental work. Ballplayers justified spending the off-season in the tavern rather than the gym because of the dread fear of becoming “muscle-bound.”
There were exceptions. A century ago, Honus Wagner, the slugging shortstop who was probably the greatest National Leaguer before World War II, lifted dumbbells. Similarly, after Babe Ruth’s embarrassing 1925 season, most observers thought the hard-living 30-year-old was permanently washed up. Instead, Ruth hired a personal trainer and worked out in a gym for the next ten winters, in the course of which he broke his own record with 60 homers in 1927. But Wagner and Ruth’s stupendous statistics didn’t convince lesser players, who refused to lift anything heavier than a beer mug. Mickey Mantle’s off-season exercise regimen consisted of going hunting when his hangover wasn’t too blinding.
Slowly, conditioning improved. More players cut back on the booze and a few of the most intelligent, such as Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, and Brian Downing, started to lift weights.
Baseball’s first flagrantly obvious steroid abuser didn’t arrive until 1986, when the Oakland A’s Jose Canseco won Rookie of the Year. Canseco started out tall and slender in the minor leagues, but eventually bulked up to 240 pounds. Most tellingly, he possessed the juicer’s equivalent of the portrait of Dorian Gray: his identical twin Ozzie, who stayed spindly and in the minors for years, before eventually inflating himself too.
“Jose Canseco was the Typhoid Mary of steroids,” one baseball agent told me. After Canseco joined a team, some of his new teammates would suddenly beef up. Indeed, Canseco recently told book companies to whom he was peddling his proposal for a tell-all autobiography that he had helped obtain steroids for other players.In 1988, Canseco won the American League Most Valuable Player award by becoming the first to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in one season. But that made Canseco conspicuous at the wrong time. At the Seoul Olympics that September, Canadian Ben Johnson—the once skinny, shy, and slow sprinter suddenly turned burly, surly, and swift—blasted off like a fuel-injected funny car in the 100m dash to beat Carl Lewis and set an astonishing world record. “Benoid’s” urine test turned up highly positive, and his gold medal and record were stripped from him. A few days later, during the American League playoffs, Red Sox fans taunted Canseco with chants of “STER-oids!” He responded by posing like a bodybuilder. Washington Post sports columnist Tom Boswell publicly accused Canseco of being on the juice.
Following Ben Johnson’s disgrace, track became more serious about drug testing. This slowed women runners noticeably. Because women naturally produce only about one-tenth as much testosterone as men, they get more bang for the buck out of a dose of steroids. That’s why Warsaw Bloc women dominated women’s sprinting, but their menfolk could seldom beat sprinters of West African descent. Tougher testing combined with the collapse of the Communist sports-industrial complexes meant that female medalists ran a striking 0.6 percent slower at the cleaner 1996 Olympics than at the 1988 Festival of Androgens, while men’s times continued their steady improvement. Runners still cheat, but can’t be as brazen. Most of the absurd women’s records set in the 1980s by the communists and by America’s late Florence Griffith-Joyner remain untouched.
The National Football League cracked down hard enough that some dopers reportedly had to pump someone else’s clean urine up catheters into their bladders. Yet, baseball resolved to remain oblivious to the obvious and didn’t test at all. In the subsequent anything-goes years, ballplayers super-sized themselves. Home run totals, fan excitement, and revenue swelled, too.
Worried about schoolboys wishing to emulate their idols, President George H.W. Bush signed a bill making steroids a controlled substance in 1990. Yet he then sent a thoroughly mixed message by appointing movie muscleman Schwarzenegger, the world’s most famous role model for steroids, as chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.
The elder Bush was probably naïve, but the younger Bush surely knew Canseco’s reputation when, as co-managing director of the Texas Rangers, he signed off on a blockbuster trade for the macho man in 1992. (It’s important to note that Bush’s partners did not allow him much other executive responsibility. Ranger general manager Tom Grieve told PBS, “George was the front man .… He was the spokesperson. He dealt with the media, he dealt with the fans, and it was obvious to us right from the start that that’s what he was made for.” Why a man whose friends didn’t consider him qualified to run a ball club is qualified to run the country is a question for another day.)
Canseco’s Ranger years are best remembered for the long fly ball that bounced off the outfielder’s increasingly block-shaped head and over the fence for a home run. Canseco’s abused body became injury-prone and his personality erratic. Last year, the now retired Canseco was jailed when he failed a drug test for steroids, violating the probation stemming from a nightclub brawl he had gotten into alongside his twin Ozzie (whom had eventually hulked up to Jose’s size).
Other careers began following odd trajectories, too. Journeymen ballplayers would show up at spring training with a radically different shape and crush their career high in homers by almost 30.
Downsides quickly appeared. Although players drank less, they seemed to get arrested for assault more—what bodybuilders call ’roid rage. Time spent on the disabled list grew 20 percent just between 1997 and 2001, and some injuries were gruesomely unprecedented. A former teammate of Canseco’s ruptured his bicep swinging at a pitch. “In all my years of watching sport, I’ve never seen/heard anything so awful,” wrote a fan. “When his muscle ripped, it produced a sharp snap and traveled up his arm and into his shoulder like a scurrying rodent.”
In the middle of 1996, both the size and firepower of 33-year-old Ken Caminiti suddenly exploded. He had never hit more than 26 homers in a full season but smacked 28 after the All-Star break, winning the MVP award while leading the lowly San Diego Padres to the World Series. Advertisers used the new Caminiti as an icon of masculinity, filming him glowering in black leather on his Harley. As he admitted in 2002, though, the megablasts of anabolic homer-helpers had permanently damaged his health.
Meanwhile, baseball was finally undergoing an intellectual revolution. In the 1970s, a boiler-room attendant named Bill James whiled away the hours by statistically testing baseball’s oldest argument over strategy, the one between Ty Cobb’s cunning, elegant style of hitting line-drive singles, and Babe Ruth’s seemingly vulgar swing-for-the-fences approach. James found that what the Cobb-admiring baseball insiders didn’t understand was that Ruth had a second arrow in his offensive quiver. By slamming out of the park strikes thrown down the middle, the Bambino forced pitchers to try to nibble at the edges of the plate. When they missed, he’d accept a walk. Although Cobb’s career batting average of .366 was the highest ever, significantly better than Ruth’s .342, Ruth’s on-base percentage of .474, the less understood but more important number, substantially beat Cobb’s .433.
Slowly, the amateur statistician’s views on power infiltrated the big leagues, with Oakland A’s general managers Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane among the first to get the message. When George Steinbrenner’s ultra-rich New York Yankees signed away the A’s homers-and-walks king Jason Giambi, Beane still had his underrated little brother Jeremy. Yet, it turned out Jason and Jeremy shared more than genes; they are both implicated in the BALCO scandal.
Bonds, the greatest all-around player of the last decade, may well have been clean until recently. With pumped-up lesser talents like Mark McGwire, who was found with the legal steroid precursor Androstenedione in his locker, becoming folk heroes, Bonds apparently decided to turn himself into the monster that hit 73 home runs in 2001 with the alleged help of steroids and human growth hormone.That’s the real problem: even guys who want to play fair are under pressure from cheaters to play foul. This arms race is spreading beyond sports. As an opinion journalist, for instance, I have to compete with Androgel Andrew Sullivan, who resurrected his career via prescription testosterone, as he explained in loving detail in the New York Times magazine four years ago. On his blog, the enormously energetic Sullivan asked, “Would you rather live till you’re 85, gradually sinking into torpor and sexual collapse or have a great time and conk out at 65?”
That is the kind of question that the voluntary lab rats will make all of us confront in the years ahead.
Steve Sailer is TAC’s film critic and VDARE.com’s Monday morning columnist. His archives and blog are at wwwisteve.com.