Baseball’s Steroid Era


When Kirk Radomski, a former clubhouse attendant for the New York Mets, pleaded guilty to distributing steroids in April, the feds gave the public a tantalizing look at their bounty. One page of the search warrant affidavit had a list of up to 23 players Radomski says he gave drugs to, but the names were covered by thick strokes of black magic marker. Only the feds and Radomski know who they are, but the list made one point perfectly clear: If those guys were using performance enhancers, baseball didn’t catch them.

Major League Baseball hasn’t caught many users, actually—only the young and inexperienced, like the numerous minor league players who have tested positive; or the inexplicably reckless, like Rafael Palmeiro.

They never caught Barry Bonds, but heaven knows they tried.

Two years after watching Bonds breeze past Mark McGwire’s three-year-old single-season home-run record in 2001, MLB had to read about Bonds’ illicit training regimen along with the rest of the world in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. When Bonds appeared before the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) grand jury in 2003, he said he never knew the substances he took—known as “the cream” and “the clear”—were steroids. (The feds never believed him.)

The thought has been passed around MLB headquarters in New York that once Bonds finishes this season’s assault on Hank Aaron’s record, base- ball will be able to move on, leave the “steroid era” behind for good, and pray that a more suitable home-run-hitting immortal presents himself soon.

That premise is flawed, however, because it’s built on the idea that baseball has solved its steroids problem. The lords of the game say that because stiffer penalties were enacted in 2005, the sport has the best testing of any game in America. By that standard they might be right. But if you want to get a good chuckle from the world’s top experts on doping, just try telling them this is baseball’s “post-steroid” era. Victor Conte and Don Catlin, the little devil and the little angel hovering over the shoulders of American sports, find that idea hysterical.

“There is no such thing,” Conte has said.

Conte, the founder of BALCO labs, is the man who helped make Bonds the greatest hitter in the game, and he turned track stars Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery into the fastest woman and man on the planet. Conte did four months in a federal prison for trafficking steroids and still makes millions selling legal diet supplements. Catlin, who recently left his post as the director of the UCLA Olympic testing lab, is the father of drug testing. He also led the team that decoded Conte’s greatest tool, the once-undetectable steroid THG.

What the two men agree on is that testing does not work. Sure, it may serve as a deterrent and catch the occasional slipup. But an experienced doper need never be caught; there are too many ways to beat the tests.

“Repeatedly,” Catlin has said, “we see evidence that the standard chasing-down-and-testing approach isn’t working. At all.”

First, there are the drugs for which there is no test. Athletes can use human growth hormone (HGH), insulin, and insulin-like growth factor with the knowledge that the substances can’t be tested for. Each of those drugs will help increase lean muscle mass and improve recovery time from injury and workouts.

Baseball players can also avoid testing for a week or two during the off-season, using all the heavy-duty steroids they can get their hands on, knowing that once they resurface the drugs will be out of their systems. (A favored method of track athletes was to do the “duck and dodge,” telling testers they would be in, say, Europe for two weeks, when they were actually doping it up in the Caribbean. They would call their own cell phones, fill the voice-mail box, and then refuse to answer the phone. Two weeks later they would call the testers, apologize for being out of pocket, and immediately make themselves available for testing.)

Users will benefit for as long as six months after they cycle off; they can then augment the effect with low levels of testosterone creams, gels, or patches that are absorbed into the body. To trip a positive test, an athlete’s urine needs to have at least four times as much testosterone as the amount of epitestosterone. The body should produce both at a 1-to-1 ratio, but because some people’s ratios are naturally out of whack, anything below a 4-to-1 ratio is acceptable. It’s relatively easy for athletes to keep their levels below 4-to-1, especially if they have their blood tested independently.

So if this isn’t the post-steroid age, then call it the age of enlightenment—at least for those who care to see the truth. Unless there is a major shift in technology, steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs are going nowhere. The only progress has been a retraction from the gross excesses of the Mark McGwire–Jose Canseco years. In this game, the cheats have always been ahead of the testers.

Baseball players did make one big mistake in 1998, when word spread through clubhouses that taking HGH in conjunction with steroids could strengthen connective tissue and prevent the sorts of joint injuries all their new muscle mass could cause. Ligaments and tendons don’t have receptors for hormones, so the HGH would do nothing to prevent injuries, according to Joel Finkelstein, a Harvard endocrinologist once hired by MLB to study the supplement commonly known as andro.

Moreover, too much HGH could cause heart, liver, and kidney problems. Some steroid users developed back acne, baldness, shrunken testicles, and violent mood swings (those notorious “’roid rages”); cycling off has been connected to depression and, in some cases, suicide. But there are still users who swear steroids in moderation are the closest thing to a fountain of youth man will ever find.

All those years of thorough but unscientific research led to the rise of the BALCO lab, when Conte began coaching athletes through their cheating regimens, telling them that doping, like most things in life, is about balance. Too much is as bad as too little, he told them.

It is possible that baseball may never see a better specimen than Bonds in 2001. Conte took a man who was already one of the game’s greatest hitters, and through trainer Greg Anderson helped him become the greatest living chemical experiment.

There is no dispute that Barry Bonds took performance-enhancing drugs. When he spoke before the BALCO grand jury in December 2003, he admitted taking the substances the U.S. Attorney’s office identified as the clear (the stealth steroid, THG), the cream (a combination of testosterone andepitestosterone), nandrolone, and several other substances. Bonds argued that he did not knowingly take the drugs. The U.S. Attorney’s office thought he was lying and began their perjury investigation, but that’s the only matter in dispute. He took the drugs.

Those who say Bonds never failed a steroid test are correct (although he did fail an amphetamines test last season). But in the anti-doping world, testing has become a bit of a joke. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) push sports federations and leagues all over the world to have the highest-quality testing possible, but chasing the perfect test is like chasing a rain- bow: Even the best one is an illusion. As my colleagues and I at the New York Daily News reported last year, the NFL, which believed itself to be the gold standard of non-Olympic drug testing, had massive gaps in its program. From the end of a player’s season until the beginning of mini-camp—two months for players who were not in the playoffs—no one was tested. We knew because the men who did the testing said they weren’t given names to test that time of year. Those same drug program agents also told us players were only tested at the stadium during the season. That meant a player could leave practice or a game, slap a testosterone patch or rub a steroid cream onto his body, and know that by the time he came back to the stadium the next day, he would have benefited from the drug and the levels in his body would have dropped during the night to the point at which they would not trip a drug test.

We asked Conte what he thought about those gaps, especially the two-month lag some players faced. “Here’s what you can do in two months,” he said. “Tim Montgomery came to us and we put him on a program that was completely undetectable on November 17 of 2000. His baseline bench press was 265, and he weighed 148 pounds. On Jan. 18, 2001, eight weeks later, he weighed 176 and he benched 345. That’s what you can do in eight weeks.”

If there are gaps, the cheaters will find them. And when testers close those gaps, the cheaters will find new ones. Maybe law enforcement will catch some and humiliate them, but they’ll still come. Baseball might be happy to be rid of Barry Bonds next year or the year after, but the game may never be rid of those who want to cheat.

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