This past week, federal prosecutors announced that they had found evidence that six professional athletes — including baseball stars Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield — had received human growth hormone (hGH) and the designer steroid tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) from BALCO Labs.
While this new information has certainly raised some questions about the integrity of Major League Baseball, was it really unexpected? I think that the most shocking part of these allegations is that players such as career utility infielder Randy Velarde (100 career HR in 18 seasons) and fourth outfielder Marvin Benard (54 HR in 9 seasons) were juicing.
I mean, what was Randy Velarde thinking? “Boy, if I can get past that pesky five-home-run plateau, some team is bound to sign me to a sweet multi-year deal. Maybe I’ll give BALCO a call.”
Former major leaguer (and admitted steroid user) Ken Caminiti has gone on record as saying that over 50 percent of major leaguers use steroids. Former A’s OF Jose Canseco puts that number much higher, as high as 75 percent.
In the past, though, doubts were raised over the validity of these claims. Caminiti has been arrested several times for possession of cocaine, and Canseco has been known to make other outrageous claims, including a now-famous prediction that the right combination of hGH and anabolic steroids can allow a human to live for at least 120 years. However, as new evidence surfaces, one cannot help but place at least a kernel of truth in their allegations of widespread steroid abuse.
Who could not suspect Bonds and Giambi of using performance-enhancers? The two hulking giants known for their enormous heads today were mere beanpoles as rookies. Their metamorphoses are the stuff that Kafka novels are made of.
During their first few seasons, each slugger was lucky to go yard 30 times a year. For years, Bonds intrigued teams with his speed, while his ability to swat 20-30 shots was regarded as an added bonus. Giambi, unlike his predecessor at 1B in Oakland, Mark McGwire, did not come out of the gate his rookie year and hit 50 balls out of the park.
These allegations should surprise nobody. However, if baseball fans think that all of the players on the needle have now been ferreted out by this investigation, they are sorely mistaken. Anyone who saw the 2002 Home Run Derby at Milwaukee’s Miller Park should recognize all of the telltale signs of steroid usage on another beloved slugger, Sammy Sosa. Sosa, with veins bulging through his overgrown neck, launched astronomical shot after shot into Milwaukee’s upper deck, as the close-up cameras captured the yellow tinge of his eyes.
Other stars can be pegged as juicers by the massive amounts of weight that they conveniently lost this off-season before Major League Baseball introduces random steroid testing. San Diego 1B Phil Nevin has lost thirty pounds this off-season without the help of a major illness. Giambi has been noticeably thinner since BALCO closed down shop. Perhaps he is suffering from malnutrition after his supply of “vitamins” was cut off.
Even Sosa appeared leaner last year after a Rick Reilly column in which Sammy became enraged after being asked if he would submit to a drug test. Perhaps even more telling is that after a slow start last season, Sosa was caught with a corked bat. Some would argue that it was an honest mistake, but is it not more probable that it was an attempt to reclaim some semblance of former greatness by a suddenly clean, aging star?
While this group of prominent players will certainly place increased scrutiny in the coming weeks, months and years, I am more concerned about the Randy Velardes of the world, the players who can continue to use steroids no questions asked.
While random testing should help to decrease the number of high-profile players on juice, it would not be for fear of penalty, as Major League Baseball has adopted a policy similar to the “11-Strikes-and-You’re-Out” approach taken with Steve Howe and other cocaine-abusers in the 1980s. Rather, the sluggers would fear taking a massive hit in the court of public opinion, similar to the one currently experienced by Giambi and Bonds.
And what of the Randy Velardes of the world? No one cares if a utility infielder gets caught taking performance-enhancers. If anything, the lenient stance that the MLB has taken on drug abuse in general has offered increased incentive for bench players like Velarde and Benard to juice up in anticipation of a big payday toward the end of their careers, all the while taking away from those who put up big numbers without cheating.
More troubling, perhaps, is the credibility that such small-time players lend to whistle-blowers and troubled souls like Caminiti and Canseco, who are routinely laughed out of conversations by educated media and fans. If guys like Velarde and Benard are taking help, then perhaps their estimates are not far off.
Irregardless, steroid abuse in baseball is an issue that will neither die swiftly nor quietly. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get my next cycle of hGH and steroids. Didn’t Jose tell you? That stuff can help you live 120 years.