A former Major League Baseball trainer is fairly certain that ballplayers are using steroids again.
“That’s if they ever really stopped,” the trainer, who worked for more than 10 seasons with a big league ballclub, recently told me. “It wouldn’t surprise me.”
Established guys like Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak protest otherwise.
“People wouldn’t feel that way if they knew how often we are tested,” Smoak told me last week. “We’ve had blood drawn already this season and urinalysis, too. I don’t know how many times already, but it’s a lot.
“As players, it is something we fought for — to get the bad stuff out of the game.”
Just because we don’t have a Mark McGwire vs. Sammy Sosa home run chase that is sponsored by MLB and fueled by a syringe doesn’t mean we are not witnessing another historic home run pursuit in 2017.
“They’ve moved the fences in,” Rangers manager Jeff Banister said last week. “San Diego, Detroit, Houston … I don’t have any earth-shattering theories. I just think we are ahead of the pace this year than years past.”
Yeah … no. I’m not buying it’s the ball, either.
“I know people say it’s the ball, but when I pick it up it feels the same to me,” Smoak said.
It’s not the park, the ball, the bats, the increased indifference to strikeouts, the fact pitchers throw faster or that the batters swing harder. Baseball has taught us it’s not in the bats or the balls but in the bottle.
McGwire and Sosa went on their testosterone-aided tear in 1998, and nearly two full decades later we have come full circle. That’s after lengthy suspensions for drug use were put in place in 2005 and human-growth hormone blood testing was added in 2012.
Baseball is on a record pace for home runs in a season (2,883 entering Monday’s games). Despite the testing and increased awareness about the perils of PEDs, too much has happened since 1998 for us to believe this is clean.
Sports would be wise to consider permitting limited performance-enhancing drug use administered by a physician.
Bob Ward, who was the Dallas Cowboys’ strength and conditioning coach from 1976-89, argued for the use of approved steroids in “Building the Perfect Star,” a book I wrote with him in 2015. He likened steroids to aspirin, hormone replacement therapy or any other prescription medication.
“They work,” Ward told me. “I am not a medical doctor, and anything I’ve said is only my opinion based on the medical literature. Let’s have the medical experts make the decision when to prescribe hormone replacement or enhancements.”
If steroids are used as an aid to recovery, I agree with Ward. If a doctor administers steroids, they can be kept at a safe level.
Peter Snell, an Olympic gold-medal middle-distance runner from New Zealand in the 1960s who was a researcher at UT Southwestern for decades, told me he does not believe drug-testing works.
Whether it’s Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Ryan Braun, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez or the entire Russian Olympic team, we are numb to historic feats of strength being achieved with the use of a steroid or two or 10.
All of the hallowed records have been broken. As a sports society, we simply no longer care what these guys are doing. The past two generations have crushed the myth of the clean athlete.
The money is too big to ignore, the scientists too good to be busted by testing that is always a step behind, and the consequences of being caught are not punitive enough.
In 2013, Rangers’ outfielder Nelson Cruz was suspended for 50 games by MLB for his role in the Biogenesis scandal. The following off-season, he agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles.
After hitting 40 home runs and finishing seventh in the AL MVP voting in 2014, Nelson signed a four-year, $57 million deal with the Mariners.
Brewers’ outfielder Ryan Braun also caught up in the Biogenesis scandal and suspended for 65 games. This was after he repeatedly and indignantly denied drug use. No matter, Braun was still due $128 million after he completed his suspension. He’s still in the bigs.
For guys who realize they will never be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the chance for generational, life-altering wealth is a no-brainer risk to take. Who doesn’t make this trade?
But I don’t like the effect that approved PED use would have on teenagers. Adults know the risks. Teens have no idea and are naive enough to try steroids when their bodies are not yet fully developed.
Perhaps if baseball allowed a moderate level of PEDs, administered and prescribed by an independent physician, it would reduce the rampant use that our gut tells us continues despite the testing, the protesting and the denying.
By now we know it’s not the balls or the bats, but the bottles.
Mac Engel: @macengelprof