Todd Walker

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Did baseball's Steroid Era really ever end?

Did baseball's Steroid Era really ever end?

Mark Zeigler - San Diego Union-Tribune 


It has been assigned its own era, like anthropology’s Paleozoic Era or Precambrian Era, with a nod toward history and a sense of finality, with start (late 1980s) and end dates (late 2000s), like it happened in the past, like we can gaze back at it nostalgically, like it’s over.

The Steroid Era of baseball.

Except it’s not over.

Or at least we’d be foolish to think it is.

Major League Baseball once again is confronted with explaining why a record amount of cowhide is leaving the building, more than that magical summer of ’98 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa reinvigorated the game by hitting and 70 and 66, more than 2001 when Barry Bonds smacked 73, more than 2000 when teams combined for a staggering 5,693 – nearly double eight years earlier.

In 2017, the percentage of hits that are home runs, the percentage of runs via HR, the number of multi-HR games, the number of teams (Padres included) on pace to set single-season HR records are all at historic rates. The league total could top 6,000 for the first time.

Wait. Weren’t those numbers all trending downward in the years after McGwire was squirming in his seat at Congressional hearings and Major League Baseball implemented a supposedly independent, iron-clad testing program?

They were, which is part of the argument why Roid-asaurus – the species of juiced-up sluggers – never went extinct. Folks like Victor Conte, the mastermind of the BALCO doping scandal that swept Bonds into its vortex, predicted exactly this. A decade ago, when testing was ramped up and players lived in fear of FBI raids or being hauled in front of Congress again, Conte told me there would be a momentary dip in performance followed by a return to “Steroid Era” numbers as players became more sophisticated in the dark art of juicing.

 “These guys are much smarter today,” Conte says now. “This generation of players has learned from the mistakes of the past. Guys have realized that in order to be competitive, you have to use these drugs. And once they realized that other players are all doing it and they’re circumventing the testing and they’re getting away it, and they realize the financial gains far outweigh the penalties, you’ve seen what happened. It was only a matter of time.

 “As they said in the 1990s, chicks dig the long ball. Well, players dig cash. They’ve discovered that the guys who hit home runs make the most cash.”

In the ’90s and early 2000s, baseball players could and would use anything they wanted. They had boxes of stuff mailed to their homes or drove across the border to Mexican pharmacies and injected themselves with potent anabolic steroids like Deca-Durabolin, then went on their merry, muscle-bulging way.

Olympic athletes laugh at this point. They long ago stopped using Deca and similar substances because, while effective, their chemical fingerprints remain detectable in urine tests for six months or more. Baseball players didn’t have to worry about testing because there essentially wasn’t any.

That changed a decade ago, and many players went cold turkey.

At first. They needed to figure out how to be stealthier in their doping, how to combine periodic injections of human growth hormone (when was the last time someone tested positive for that?) with nightly micro-doses of testosterone via pills, gels, creams, patches or other delivery methods that clear their system by the time they’re subject to drug testing at the ballpark the next afternoon.

How to get a therapeutic use exemption to legally take stimulants for ADHD, which apparently afflicts nearly one in 10 MLB players.

How to bulk up in the offseason when testing is limited or disappear for a few weeks to a remote locale where testers can’t find them.

How to acquire other potent muscle-building substances like Insulin-like growth factor 1 for which there is no verifiable test.

“The dosages are less than the ’90s, so you won’t see guys hitting 70 home runs,” Conte says. “But more guys are using. It’s working, and guess what: Good news of making money travels fast.”

There are other, more politically correct, reasons proffered. The ball has smaller seams so it has less movement approaching the plate. Climate change has meant hotter summers, and balls travel farther in warm, rising air. Ballparks are moving fences in. Scouting on opposing pitchers has improved. Analytics have de-emphasized the strikeout, encouraging players to swing from their heels. The latest rage of hitting instruction is increasing launch angles of the stroke.

And maybe they have something to do with the spike in long balls. But that also presumes a supreme level of confidence in the testing program and its deterrent properties, and ignores history and human nature.

“Very naïve,” Conte says. “Everybody knows PEDs work. If there’s anything we’ve learned post-BALCO, that’s the case … Listen, my (legal supplement) business is doing better than ever, and I would never take any sort of risk that would jeopardize my family. But I still have contacts with people out there who I can have a meal with and say, ‘What’s really going on?’”

No one wants to believe him, of course.

Fans don’t because they expend enormous amounts of capital – financial and emotional – supporting their sports heroes, and they don’t want to admit what they’re seeing might not be all natural, in the same way the U.S. cycling crowd became apologists for Lance Armstrong even as it became more and more obvious he was juiced to the gills.

And Major League Baseball doesn’t want to admit what other leagues have come to privately understand: that testing programs don’t eradicate doping, they merely eradicate the suspicion of doping. If the ticket-buying public believes players are relatively clean, that’s just as good as players actually being clean.

The cat and mice both benefit from the cheese.

Baseball, meanwhile, is quietly becoming a sport obsessed with velocity, with pitch speed, with bat speed, with advanced analytics like isolated power (ISO). Starting pitchers work fewer innings. Heat-hurling relievers come on for a batter or two. Offenses rely on the long ball like never before. A rookie has 30 bombs at the All-Star break.

It’s a chicken-or-egg proposition: Did the passion for PEDs fuel the passion for power, or is it the other way around?

Either way, you have a testing program that people like Conte say is easily circumvented and a generation of new players who were impressionable kids during the magical summer of ’98 and a public who’d rather watch home runs than bunts. Last week the Home Run Derby drew higher TV ratings in the key 18-to-49 demographic than the All-Star Game a night later, which should tell you something.

Alex Rodriguez, he of 696 career home runs and several run-ins with the doping police, signed a 10-year contract worth $252 million followed by another 10-year deal worth $275 million. The last contract included a $6 million bonus each time he caught someone on baseball’s Mount Rushmore of sluggers: Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Bonds. Players dig cash.

Conte patiently answers questions for a half-hour, explaining protein synthesis and nitrogen baths and soft-tissue repair, explaining how to double or triple your testosterone levels while flying under the testing radar, explaining the cost-benefit analysis of a young player debating whether to dope. Then he switches roles from interviewee to interviewer and asks a simple, shuddering question: “Does any of this really surprise you?”

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