“Ken Caminiti calls it his goody bag. The black and green duffel accompanies him on every road trip, along with his bats and the black mitt that helped him win his second Gold Glove award last season.
“I take it everywhere,” the San Diego Padres third baseman says, pulling it out of his locker stall before a game in Atlanta recently. “It’s part of my routine.”
Caminiti unzips the bag and reveals bottles and zip-locked bags of pills, vitamins and nutritional supplements. He opens one packet and shoves a handful of capsules into his mouth viking-style, all but swallowing the plastic.”
The above is the lede to Pete Williams’s 1997 USA TODAY story titled “Lifting the game: Creatine is baseball’s new gunpowder.” It’s not the only incredible part of the story when viewed through the lens of what we now know about performance enhancing drugs. The entire story is required reading, but a few snippets demand extra attention.
Hat tip to Bomani Jones for digging this story up early Wednesday morning.
In my mind, the most important quote comes near the end from Brian Sabean, then in his second year as Giants general manager (notable in itself):
Steroid use “wouldn’t surprise me,” says Giants general manager Brian Sabean. “If it gives somebody an edge, guys are going to use it. Look how it’s affected other sports. We’d really have our head in the sand if we thought it wasn’t here in baseball.”
There’s a lot going on here.
The reality of the performance enhancing drugs situation has been apparent for at least 15 years. You can go back further — Thomas Boswell claimed Jose Canseco was juicing in 1988, his trainer Curtis Wenzlaff was arrested in 1992, and then-Padres GM Randy Smith gave Bob Nightengale a similar quote to Sabean’s in 1995. But even as seemingly reasonable explanations for sluggers’ ever-swelling bodies existed, it seems notable for multiple general managers to come out and say they suspected a steroid problem. Fay Vincent added steroids to the game’s banned list in 1991. It seems downright subversive.
Then, of course, consider the source. Sabean was Barry Bonds‘s general manager as Bonds broke the single season and career home run records. Sabean traded for Melky Cabrera last season, before his infamous midseason bust.
I’m not accusing Sabean of aiding or abetting Bonds, Cabrera or any other Giant who may have juiced over his long tenure (nor, it should be noted, would I accuse Randy Smith of involvement with Caminiti’s steroid use). But if Sabean was willing to give such a quote on the record, he surely couldn’t have been the only general manager to know; as Smith said in 1995, “We all know there’s steroids use, and it is definitely becoming more prevalent.”
But Sabean’s quote must apply to more than just the players themselves. It extends across the entire league — the front offices, managers, owners, broadcast outlets, journalists, even fans. Just reading Williams’s lede makes Caminiti’s juicing seems screamingly obvious now, but there was no incentive anywhere across MLB’s wide influential network to actually do anything about it, or even recognize it as a problem.
As we know, not all juicers (nor legal supplement users) were bulging with muscles like Bonds and McGwire. Not all were sluggers, and not all were even hitters. So why else use?
“It helps late in the season,” says Rangers designated hitter Mickey Tettleton, who says he does not bother with nutrition supplements. “When you feel sluggish, it makes you feel like you have a little left in your gas tank.”
Changes in the structure of the starting pitcher make it tough to examine this from the pitching side — the five-man rotation and pitch counts have whittled down innings totals for years now. For hitters, we can take a simple look from a games played perspective — how many played in at least 160 games in one season? MLB adapted the 162-game season in 1961, giving us five convenient decades to look at:
The 1990s saw two shortened seasons thanks to the 1994 players’ strike. As such, 86 seasons of 160 games or more is right in line with the totals from the 1970s and 1980s — about 10 per season. The 2000s — including the height of the steroid era — saw the big increase. Highlight the first half of the decade and the disparity is bigger — 2001 through 2005 saw 75 players hit the 160 game mark, whereas the last five years have seen just 56 (76.1 percent). Although it’s difficult to test, there’s no reason these endurance-granting effects shouldn’t have helped pitchers as well.
One of the great fallacies of the steroid era is that it only helped big, hulking power hitters. There was much more to it — the slappiest slap hitter, the overworked starter, the reliever pitching for the fourth time in five games — all of them could use the recovery benefits provided by supplements and steroids.
A final line that piqued my interest talks not of steroid use but one superstar who skipped the weight room altogether:
Others aren’t quite as sold on weight work. Ken Griffey Jr., the player perhaps most likely to make a run at Maris, eschews lifting in favor of a program emphasizing flexibility and leg strength.
Weight training — whether aided by steroids or not — has always had the potential for injury. Williams’s article notes how both Mark McGwire and Juan Gonzalez, both big-time weightlifters, struggled with injuries. McGwire played just 74 games between 1993 and 1994 and missed at least 30 games in both 1995 and 1996. Gonzalez had topped just 150 games once prior to 1997 and he missed 54 games in the strike-shortened 1995 season. Griffey was wary, and maybe it made sense.
But so much for that leg health. According to Griffey’s injury history on Baseball Prospectus, Griffey missed 205 games between the 2001 (age 31) and 2006 (age 36) seasons. Six times Griffey hit the disabled list for leg injuries — his right hamstring three times, his right knee twice and his left knee once.
Barry Bonds played in at least 150 games four times between age 31 and 36, hit the 140 mark five times and played at least 100 games in all six seasons. At age 30, Griffey had 78.5 career WAR; Bonds was at 73.8 when he hit 30. And then this happened:
We know why Bonds was able to maintain his durability throughout his 30s. We’re left just able to wonder what would have happened had Griffey maintained his. But by 2015 — Griffey’s first year eligible for the Hall of Fame — Junior will, in all likelihood, be the only one of the pair with a plaque in Cooperstown.