The day after the San Francisco Giants’ outfielder Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 games for testing positive for testosterone, the question everyone wants answered is the same as it always is when a star tests positive for performance enhancing drugs: How many other players are juicing?
Victor Conte, the founder of BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative) who was jailed for distributing steroids, was asked by USA Today what percentage of the players he thought might be taking a secret advantage? “I would say,” said Conte,” maybe as much as half of baseball.”
I would say that Victor Conte is blowing smoke out of his rear end. Let's stick with what we do know about the number of players who have used performance enhancing drugs. In 2003, after years of bickering on the subject, Major League Baseball and its players union finally agreed to a plan for random drug testing. Almost 1,200 players were tested – anonymously – and if the percentage of positives was over 5 percent, then testing would be incorporated into the next Basic Agreement. The number of users proved to be 104, or to be precise, 7.7 percent of all players under a major league contract. That’s why, since 2004, MLB has had a formal testing program.
Common sense dictates this question: Is it possible that there would be a higher percentage of drug users now -- when everyone knows they will be tested and there are stiff fines and penalties -- than there were nine years ago when everything was wide open?
Moreover, if PED use is so rampant, why has there been such a dip in offense? Or do we assume that because there have been three perfect games -- including one by Felix Hernandez Wednesday night -- and three other no-hitters this year that pitchers are the only ones loading up?
For that matter, do we really know whether this junk helped turn Melky Cabrera into one of the league's best hitters this year? I asked Will Carroll, author of "The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball’s Drug Problems," and the most-informed person I know on the subject of PEDs, what exactly testosterone was supposed to do for Cabrera?
“Testosterone is the male sex hormone. Does it increase muscle mass? Well, yes," he said. "Watch any LowT or Andro Gel 1.62 commercial for all the benefits, because that’s exactly what he took. It’s the same thing Barry Bonds allegedly took as 'The Cream' and what [Ryan] Braun tested positive for last year (his suspension was reversed over questions of whether his urine sample was properly handled). Low doses of testosterone have an effect, but not a significant one on power. You don’t see low doses of testosterone bulking guys up, like we think of with steroids -- but it can help with energy, weight loss and retaining muscle mass. Maybe Cabrera just didn’t want to wear down.”
OK, I’m intrigued. I’d be careful not to make any comparisons to Bonds, even though it’s tempting given that Melky plays the outfield for the Giants, and that even though BALCO is no longer in existence, surely some of the people who worked there with Bonds are still in the area.
But whatever boost Melky got from what he took, it was no Bondsian boost. So far this year he had 11 home runs in 459 at-bats -- for an average of one home run for every 41 times at the plate. Prior to this year, he had 58 home runs for 3,039 at-bats, or one for every 52. Doesn’t that difference fall in the category of margin of error, or even a new ballpark?
The real jump in Melky’s stats came in batting average: At .346, he’s easily at the highest average of his career -- which, by the way, stood at a lifetime .282 before this season. Cabrera hit .305 last year with Kansas City, which, of course, now becomes a suspect number as well. But, really, that’s just a handful of bloop singles from his batting average in previous seasons.
There are only three possibilities. One, that he’s doing something much different than in previous seasons. Two, this all-star season is a big fluke, an aberration. Three, some PED is helping him. I don’t know what it is, and the truth is no one else really does either -- though a lot of the sports media seem to be pretty sure about it. I do know that no drug yet discovered has been able to enhance hand-eye coordination, the primary factor in producing a high batting average.
I’m not hinting that Melky is innocent or that he shouldn’t have to face up to the punishment that his own union has approved, but there are a lot of people out there making sweeping statements about what this drug does without giving us the slightest indication where their information came from or whether it has any basis in scientific fact.
I do know that the reason most doctors are against taking too much testosterone is that not enough is known about the long-term effects. High dosages have been known to convert to estrogen, the female hormone, and in adolescents it is pretty much known to stunt growth. But do we know that Cabrera’s intake could have threatened his health? We don’t, and we don’t even know exactly what the stuff does in small doses.
Isn’t it time we found out? Guys who are middling-to-fair players are tempted to take the stuff because they think it might extend their careers. Indeed, Cabrera, long a fourth outfielder, was the MVP of the all-star game this year and stood to make millions as a free agent this off-season. But if players knew for sure that it wouldn’t enhance their performance and that it definitely could harm their health, who would cheat with it? You can buy testosterone boosters online for less than a buck a capsule. Maybe finding out what it really does would be beneficial to ballplayers, everyone who debates the meaning of baseball stats -- and you and me, too.