King Kaufman's Sports Daily

"We want to burn witches." An interview with Will Carroll, author of "The Juice," who studied baseball's drug problem and found out how much we all don't know.


Salon Staff
May 16, 2005 11:00PM (UTC)

It's going to be a parade of sports commissioners up Capitol Hill this week. Congress wants to talk some more about steroids.

All four major sports commissioners -- baseball's Bud Selig, David Stern of the NBA, Paul Tagliabue of the NFL and Gary Bettman of the NHL -- will appear at a two-day hearing of the House Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., chairman of that committee, is the author of the Drug Free Sports Act, which would mandate drug testing of all professional athletes and take it out of the hands of the leagues.

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Stern will also appear at a separate hearing held by the House Government Reform Committee, which has already talked to Selig and Tagliabue.

"It is clear," Stearns said, "that legislation is needed to establish uniform standards and heavier penalties for steroid use."

If anything connected to the steroids issue is clear, it's that nothing is clear -- including "the clear," the designer steroid THG that's at the center of the BALCO case. "The clear" is brown.

That's one of many surprising things you'll learn by reading "The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems" by Will Carroll, who writes the unique "Under the Knife" injury column at Baseball Prospectus.

A few others: Amphetamines are a far bigger problem in baseball than steroids; there's no hard evidence that steroids are responsible for baseball's offensive explosion of the last dozen years; and steroids are a small part of the spectrum of performance-enhancing drugs.

Carroll, who employed a squad of co-authors to tackle such complex issues as the chemistry of steroids, genetic doping and drug laws, says he took on the book with no agenda to push, either pro- or anti-steroid. He says he "tried to be a blank slate" about drugs in baseball, and to draw conclusions based only on what he learned as he researched the issue.

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I spoke to Carroll, 35, by phone from his home in Indianapolis.

What is it that you learned that surprised you the most?

The fact is, we really don't know. It turns out it wasn't just me that didn't know. It was pretty much all of us.

We don't have good scientific studies. We don't understand what the effects are on the body. We don't have a great understanding of how to use these drugs properly. We don't have a great grip of what we want to do as a society with drugs, and we seem to be expecting more of our athletes than we do of our society. The real big conclusion was this big "I don't know but we need to do more."

Everybody just wants more testing, don't you think?

It seems like that. Myself included, we've all been saying baseball needs a valid steroid testing program for the last 10 years. And now that we finally have it, it seems like it's not enough. It's like, we want to burn witches, but it's got to be a really big witch.

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And we just want to talk about steroids. The thing that was surprising to me about your book was the idea that amphetamines are a bigger problem than steroids, they've been around longer, there are probably more players taking them, and there's more clear evidence that they are performance enhancing than there is about steroids -- about which that's not clear. Why do you think everybody wants to talk about steroids?

I think it's easy. Steroids has become this generic term, almost like Band-Aid or Kleenex, for performance-enhancing drugs. And I think that shows the basic misunderstanding of the problem. If people understood just how big a problem amphetamines were, or how widespread it was, going back to the '50s and '60s, maybe they'd be more upset.

I think the sports drug problem is obviously analogous to the societal drug problem. The intractability of that is that there there's always going to be demand. As long as you keep score in games there's always going to be someone who wants an edge. Whatever rule you make, there's always going to be someone looking to cheat.

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And one of the things I've found is that we accept cheating in baseball, more than any other sport. Throwing a spitball or scuffing the ball or even corking a bat. We don't think of Sammy Sosa instantly with corking bats, we think of him with steroids. And I've never quite figured out why.

We know he corked his bat, and that's cheating. Whether it's effective or not's a totally different question. But with steroids we don't know that he used and we don't know that it's effective. But that's what we keep coming back to on him.

Part of it may be the way that over the last 50 years or so drugs have just been demonized in our society. We turn our back on someone who's a heroin addict in a way we don't if they're a drinker, or a tax cheater.

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Exactly. And there's sort of a semantic argument too, because there's drugs, and then there's pharmaceuticals. It's fine to take Viagra, it's bad to take steroids -- even though they're both very specific performance-enhancing drugs.

And it's also fine to take steroids if you've got strep throat or whatever. I've taken steroids.

Right. And the situation like we're seeing with James Toney. [Toney had his victory over John Ruiz in a WBA heavyweight championship boxing match changed to a no-decision after he tested positive for steroids.] The fact is he took steroids. The reason he took steroids is to try to repair a torn muscle. That's a very good use of them. Did it give him an advantage? I don't know. I would think yes, when you think about what steroids do and how it affects boxing. I'm not sure. Would they rather he delayed the fight by six months? Isn't getting rid of John Ruiz worth something?

Last offseason, when Bud Selig and union chief Don Fehr were saying, basically, "We think we're going to have this drug problem solved in a few months," Christine Brennan ridiculed them in USA Today. She wrote, "The Olympic world has been trying hard to catch its cheaters for 30 years now and it still is failing -- miserably in some cases. But baseball? Those guys are so good that you can give them a few months and they'll catch 'em all."

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I remember the article. Christine really seems to have a handle on this issue like not a lot of media people do.

Selig said pretty much the same thing again last week. The program's working and everybody needs to back off, and I just made this new proposal to the union about a 50-day suspension for a first offense because of political pressure.

What we're looking at are two different things. There's the actual problem of drugs in sports. And then there's the public relations problem. I don't think Bud separates the two in his head. I think if he solves the P.R. problem, the drug problem will go away and he doesn't have to worry about it anymore.

Even at its height, unless you include amphetamines -- you include amphetamines or creatine, then the numbers skyrocket -- if you're just talking illegal performance-enhancing drugs like human growth hormone or steroids or some of the other more esoteric ones, I don't think we're looking at more than 5 or 6 percent usage at any one time.

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I was just talking to an author today, and he was talking about players that he talks to. They had mailed off for steroids and it turned out to be a scam and they didn't get anything back. And they talked about "Where do we find this stuff?" These are major league players. If they don't know where it is, you know, it's not like it's just sitting around the clubhouse.

I've wondered over the last few years how much of the steroid story is more media driven than man-in-the-street driven, how much the average fan really cares if 5 percent of the players are doing human growth hormone or whatever. We just want to see good games. And where is that line between Tommy John surgery or 12 cups of coffee and HGH or Epo or whatever anyway?

I think you're exactly right. Obviously with [Mark] McGwire and Sosa and everybody else, the whole "chicks dig the long ball" thing was exactly right. People like home runs. It made for exciting games. If we had a bunch of 2-1 games, I don't think people would go. Maybe we'd have to juice the ball back up or whatever it is we could do at that stage.

But I think you're right. It's a complex issue. What I think we have the opportunity to do, by dealing with steroids, is deal with the problems that we're going to have. Because there are some things coming that are going to make steroids look like Flintstones vitamins.

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We've got genetic doping that we just barely touched on in the book because it's exploding so fast. Everybody seems to think the 2008 Olympics is going to be the genetic doping Olympics. Who knows what we're going to do? We're going to introduce whole new genomes. We're going to have literally genetic freaks out there competing in the field.

But we already do. Shaquille O'Neal's a genetic freak.

That's the other thing. These are all already genetic freaks. It's always been interesting to me just how many second-generation and even third-generation players we have.

The brother thing is another interesting issue. What's really interesting for me with the Giambi brothers and the Canseco twins, especially the Cansecos -- these two guys are genetically identical. Yet both had absolutely different results from using the same substance. So steroids for one person is not going to do the same thing for another person.

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I thought your book had an interesting chapter by Baseball Prospectus author Jay Jaffe about how, even though it's received wisdom that steroids equals home runs equals butts in the seats, we really don't know that the scoring and home run explosion of the last 12 years has been steroid-driven, as opposed to ball- or ballpark- or anything else-driven.

Everybody likes the five-second sound bite. It's easy to say steroids are bad, steroids have ruined the game. It's harder to do the research Jay did and try to explain that to the average everyday person. Or even the average everyday baseball executive.

I've always been against drug prohibition for philosophical reasons. I think it's a bad approach, it doesn't work. But now I have a little boy, and if he plays sports and he's any good and reaches a certain level there are going to be these sleazy people suggesting that he try this or that drug. So now more than ever I want all this stuff to be legal because I want it to be as regulated and as talked about and as out in the open as milk and aspirin and all the other stuff we use.

Absolutely. There's a quote in the book, where I asked L Rea [a bodybuilder, author and trainer who is a leading advocate of steroid use], "Should steroids be legal?" and he says, "Legal, medically supervised by competent personnel, and age-dependent." And I'm thinking, "That's it. That's the ultimate solution."

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One thing that's always kind of bothered me. I don't know how tall you are, but what if your son was 5-6, and he wants to be a basketball player? HGH is an option. We don't know all the dangers, but if it's medically supervised it's actually reasonably safe.

If your son wanted to be a basketball player and needed to be 6-1 or 6-2, we have solutions for that. And you're not Ken Griffey Jr., so Ken Griffey III has genetic advantages over your son if he wants to be a baseball player.

And when people want to talk about how they want a level playing field? The playing field's not level. I'm betting that Nicolai Bonds has a better shot at being a professional baseball player than your son. There's a way of looking at these drugs as saying they actually do level the playing field.

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