Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » February 2005 » More on The Juice.....

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02/11/2005: More on The Juice.....


"Juice" as in steroid abuse, that is; I've not yet abandoned my more-or-less complete boycotting of any mention of the O.J. trial (well, probably less complete, but none of us are perfect).

Brian Walton, at The Cardinals Birdhouse, has a fascinating interview with fitness expert/journalist (and also native St. Louisan and Cardinal fan) Lou Schuler. Schuler has some interesting, and IMHO, sensible, observations on the whole steroid controversy in MLB:

What are the similarities and differences between weight training and nutrition by professional bodybuilders and professional baseball players?

Beyond the fact theyíre both eating and lifting weights, there shouldnít be any similarities. In theory, it doesnít matter to a bodybuilder if his muscles can do anything. His diet and training are designed to create a certain appearance, an ideal shape.

A ballplayer, on the other hand, needs to be able to perform. Baseball is a lot like football, in that itís all about being able to generate speed and power suddenly and over very short distances.

I remember reading, back in the Ď80s, about how Jose Oquendo would go jogging in St. Louis in July in the afternoons before ballgames. Itís hard to imagine a more counterproductive way for a ballplayer to keep in shape Ė I mean, how does any part of jogging translate to baseball performance? Ė but thatís how little anyone knew about sport-specific training back then.

Another big misconception is that ballplayers who have big bellies are lazy slobs who arenít in shape for their sport. If the most important part of the job is hitting the ball out of the park, then thereís no need for someone to have six-pack abs. In fact, training to achieve that type of look would probably be detrimental to a ballplayer. Itís not that the fat helps him hit a baseball, itís that training to get rid of the fat might reduce his strength and power.

How might steroids affect a baseball playerís performance?

Steroids donít just make a player bigger and stronger. Thereís no direct evidence, but plenty of reasons to believe that higher testosterone levels could improve reaction time, and also make a player more confident and fearless. Look at the huge improvements in on-base percentage among players who we now suspect were now taking steroids. Is it just because pitchers are afraid to pitch to them? That could be part of it, but you can also look at the confidence and aggressiveness a guy with inflated testosterone levels will have. Itís the dominance hormone. In the wild, the animals with the most testosterone lead the pack and get all the females to themselves.

You look at the way these guys were suddenly crowding the plate in the Ď90s. They were fearless. Well, if you put Jeff Blauser on steroids, he mightíve been fearless, too.

I know the umpiring and expansion-era pitching and smaller ballparks and tighter baseballs all played into this. But that one stat, on-base percentage, might tell a bigger story than anyone suspected. I mean, if youíre not afraid of getting hit by an inside fastball, you own the plate. And what pitcher is going to aim for the head of a guy with 18-inch biceps?

Why should the average sports fan care one way or the other if their heroes are users?

If the only reason they go to the ballpark is to see home runs, the longer the better, they shouldnít. If they think sports should be more like video games, with supersized guys slamming each other around like the laws of gravity are for losers, then they should hope all their heroes get juiced like pro wrestlers.

Now, if you believe that athletes should follow the rules of their sports, then steroid use is cause for alarm.

For me, as a baseball fan, there are two issues. One is that steroids can take a marginal player and make him an all-star. That makes it harder for the legitimate all-stars, the best players, the guys we want to tell our grandchildren we saw play, dominate the games the way they should. So I think steroids diminish the natural stars.

Just for the sake of argument Ėand I donít know these guys, and canít say anything for certain Ė Iíd put Ken Griffey Jr. into that class, along with Nomar, A-Rod, and Albert Pujols. Looking at those guys, and following their careers, I donít see any reason to believe theyíve juiced.

Those guys may put up numbers like the juicers, but visually, they just donít look like they take steroids. Pujols, for example, would probably have much bigger shoulders and arms if he were using training drugs. But like I said, no one can possibly know for sure.

Griffey, in particular, mightíve benefited more than any of the others from steroids, since he probably wouldíve recovered completely from his injuries and would still be dominating the game the way he did in his 20s.

That brings me to the second issue, which is the fact that the record book is meaningless if a guy can take steroids and put up better numbers than the guys who didnít take steroids. Steroids can help guys overcome injuries and play at a high level longer than they otherwise would. Fans may enjoy that in the short term, but a few years down the road, weíre going to have a lot more guys with Hall of Fame-worthy numbers, and weíll have no idea how much was them and how much was pharmacological.

Thereís a third issue now, which is that steroids are against the rules, and anyone who uses them is cheating. Correct me if Iím wrong, but I donít think steroids were against the rules in Major League Baseball until after the 2002 season. So, technically, Barry Bonds wasnít even cheating in 2001, when he hit 73 out.

With seemingly everyone from governors to movie stars to athletes bulked up, how do we know who is legit and who is not?

Thatís a very good question. And thereís actually an answer. A Harvard psychiatrist named Harrison Pope worked out a formula called the ďfat-free mass index,Ē or FFMI. He measured hundreds of bodybuilders, both natural guys and juicers, and figured out exactly how much muscle mass someone could build without adding fat. Beyond a certain point, you canít add more mass without also gaining fat.

So thatís why it helps to look at bodybuilders. No matter how big their muscles are, they canít compete unless theyíre also so lean the audience can see all the muscle separations Ė where one set of muscles ends and the next begins.

Humans can build practically unlimited bulk without steroids, but most people would be surprised how little they can build without also being fat.

Dr. Pope says that a bodybuilder from the 1940s, Steve Reeves, pretty much hit the ceiling. Steve Reeves was a big guy Ė 6í1Ē, 213 pounds, with 17 Ĺ inch arms, but only a 31-inch waist. And that was the best physique ever built without steroids, according to Dr. Pope.

But virtually every bodybuilder and pro wrestler today surpasses that, by a long shot. Lots of other pro athletes do, too.
And for an expert opinion on "the ultimate question" (at least for us Cardinals fans): Was McGwire juiced?
Specifically, how do we ensure athletes who are not users are not unjustly accused? After all, isnít most evidence circumstantial, such as in the case of Mark McGwire?

You canít. You can only look at what we know to be humanly possible without drugs, and judge for yourself whether or not guys like McGwire exceeded it.

I loved baseball in 1998. I made my son come watch every McGwire at-bat with me, even though he was only 2 and couldnít have cared less, just to be able to say he and I saw the record-breaking shots together.

And even at the time, I figured McGwire and Sosa were both juiced. I didnít care. As a fan, particularly as a Cardinal fan, I was in heaven.

I canít say with any certainty that McGwire took steroids Ė and andostenedione doesnít count, since no studies have shown it works well enough to produce the kind of size and strength McGwire had.

Circumstantially, all the signs were there. He turned 35 right about the time he hit his 70th homer. That season he had an OPS of 1.222. Athletes typically peak in their late 20s. Macís highest slugging percentage in his 20s was .618, in í87, when he was A.L. rookie of the year. He started that season at 23.

At 28, in í92, he had a slugging percentage of .585. The next few years are screwed up, with his injuries and the strike, but then all of a sudden, in 1995, he jumps up to a .685 slugging percentage, then .730 in í96, on up to .752 in í98.

You just canít find a precedent in baseball history for that. Ted Williams had an amazing season when he was í38, in 1957, but it was amazing because it almost equaled his previous best season, 1941, when he was 22 and hit .406.

Henry Aaron is another one who had some great seasons in his late Ď30s, but they werenít dramatically better than his best seasons when he was in his 20s. And in terms of total bases, they werenít really close to what he did when he was 25. He had 400 that year, but in his 30s he never came close to that, even though he was hitting tons of homers.

Have you ever met Canseco, McGwire or any of the other principals in this story or have any connections to them?

Nope, never have. I have the same information everyone else has. I may interpret it a little differently, but we all have the same stuff to work with.


Len on 02.11.05 @ 08:41 AM CST



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