I played baseball at the University of Michigan from 2000-2003 and played for (and got cut from) several independent teams in the years thereafter including the Elmira Pioneers (formerly of the CanAm League) as well as the Mid-Missouri Mavericks and Ohio Valley Redcoats (both now-defunct Frontier League teams). I was a fringe player – a scrapper – always on the edge of making my way into the lineup, but lacked the talent and size (5’9″ and sub-170-lb most of my career) to be a prospect. I played during the heart of the steroid era, never had to face a drug test, and had it made very plain to me by almost everyone in the baseball business that my dreams were in direct proportion to my ability to get bigger and stronger. All that incentive with no potential consequences, but I never did steroids. I don’t pretend I would have made the big leagues, but there is no question in my mind that had I made the decision to do steroids, it would have pushed me over the threshold that kept me from advancing in the game.
Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa made their chase for Roger Maris’ single-season home run record in 1998 when I was in-between my junior and senior year in high school. I remember being blown away by the raw power of Slammin’ Sammy and Big Mac, not to mention the other prominent sluggers that were bombarding the rest of the league. The game of baseball was simple at the time – the only way to get to the big leagues was your ability to hit the ball out of the yard. That year, 18 players logged a slugging percentage over .580, in 2009, there were three – Pujols, Fielder, Maurer. Ryan Howard, one of the most prolific power hitters in the past few seasons, was 5th in MLB in slugging percentage last year; he would have ranked 20th in 1998.
At that time, I weighed around 160 pounds, which was actually up about ten pounds from when I started working with a personal training during the off-season of my sophomore year. I had always been a decent player who could hit for average, put the ball in play, and catch-and-throw behind the plate better than most my age, but it wasn’t enough – without power, there was no future in baseball. I started sucking down Creatine Monohydrate, the new big thing at the time, and choking my way through protein shakes that hit my gag reflex worse than a finger down the throat. By the time I was a freshman in college, I was up to 175 pounds of flabby, useless water weight from over-the-counter GNC products.
My freshman baseball season at Michigan was the spring of 2000 and I was down to 170 pounds from the college-level conditioning and number of hours I was spending catching bullpens. I was putting away an unbelievable amount of calories to try to keep from losing weight and living in the weight room to try to pack on muscle. In the big leagues, people were starting to grumble about steroids, but the players looked like they were rushing to use as much of the stuff as possible before the inevitable crack down. Slugging percentages continued to soar – 22 players slugged over .580 and 47 players hit 30 home runs or more. I’d go to GNC and point at any new product(s) I saw promising weight gain, quicker recovery, more energy, or added strength and buy them all without a second thought. I wouldn’t even read the label.
When the MLB draft came around I saw my peers with power favored while other players with defensive tools and the ability to hit for average were passed up. This is not a steroid accusation against any of my old opponents or teammates, either in college or my brief time in independent baseball, but it is sufficient to say at the time that power was king and without it you weren’t worth much. I never saw a syringe in my career or anyone speak directly about anyone else that they had definitive knowledge of who was on the on juice, but there were always these kinds of statements – “I need to get on the juice,” or, if reference to the massive physiques we were all witnessing on TV, “I could hit like that, too, if I were on steroids.”
The pressure of the game and desire for personal achievement combined with the necessity to produce power numbers in order to be in the lineup, let alone be drafted, let alone make the Major Leagues, was the main precursor to using, in my opinion, and I why I still don’t hold it against anyone who comes out and admits their use. Why? Because if my now-wife, then-girlfriend, hadn’t told me she would have dumped my ass if I tried steroids, I would done everything in my power to get my hands on them. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t know whether or not I could have even gotten my hands on the stuff – it’s not like there was a dealer on the corner looking to hand it out – and no one ever gave me the impression that they could get it for me if I asked (I never asked anyone directly about it), but it was just a feeling I got during the time that it wouldn’t be too hard if I really wanted to pursue it.
After my graduation from college in December of 2003, I decided instead of going to work immediately I would put all my resources into making a run at playing professional baseball. I lined up tryouts all over the country, and hit the weights. When I wasn’t in the weight room, I was at my apartment, eating, or drinking, straight protein. I’d go to my local supermarket and grab every piece of red meat that was on sale and load them into my fridge, sometimes eating 3-4 steaks per meal. I went through a lot of A1 sauce. I got up to 185 pounds during this routine, and while I wasn’t exactly lean, and probably fairly unhealthy, I started showing up at tryouts with a little more pop in my bat than I had in the past. I turned some heads and I got an offer to go to spring training in May with the Elmira Pioneers of the CanAm League. A year and a half later, I got my release from my third independent team. At 5’9″ and 185 pounds, I was as big and as strong as I’d ever been, but still not as big and as strong as the competition.
The culture of the clubhouse, believe it or not, really is don’t ask, don’t tell. The general public has a hard time believing when a new player is busted for steroids that ex-teammates or coaches had no idea they were on the juice. Don’t get me wrong – there are at least a couple dozen ex-teammates that, if news did come out about their steroid use, I wouldn’t be surprised, but I never asked or heard about anyone around me shooting up. I saw a lot of guys dramatically increase their offensive output from year to year, and they’d often get the ribbing of – “You on the juice or what?” – but it wasn’t something that was open and out there.
Then again, and this is toward Mr. Tony LaRussa, I never played with someone for 15 years who weighed 275 pounds and broke the Major League home run record, either. So while I would believe Tony that he never asked McGwire, and McGwire never said anything, as someone in LaRussa situation, and even if it was just deep down, you had to know, Tony.
And in reference to my own personal story, I’d like to comment on the man that is Mark McGwire. All that McGwire had to say was, “I did steroids to be bigger and stronger, hit more home runs, help my team win, make more money, and stay in the game, which, at the time that I played, was deep in a culture of steroids.” The end. Period. And to that message I would say to McGwire – I understand.
Why? Because I would have done the same thing given the circumstances, and if you, the reader, says something different, you are either a liar or someone who doesn’t understand what it is like to compete in sports at an elite level and have the possibility of being the best in history dangling in front of you. Unfortunately, McGwire didn’t say that. He said that steroids didn’t help him hit home runs. And as someone who spent my life not getting the chance to advance in the sport I love almost solely because I wasn’t big enough and strong enough I say, you sir, are either an absolute moron, think the American public are absolute morons, or have lied to yourself so much and so often that you actually believe your own BS.
In 2005, the same year that I was released from baseball for the last time – the last time I ever laced up my cleats to play the game at what I consider a competitive level – Tampa Bay outfielder Alex Sanchez was the first player busted for using steroids in the Major Leagues. Alex Sanchez, for those of you who don’t remember, was 5’10” and 179-pounds as listed on www.baseball-reference.com. He did not hit home runs. He did not do much of anything well. And he never played in the big leagues again after 2005, the year he was busted. But from 2001-2005 he was a Major League player, taking away a roster spot from a clean player stuck in the minors and, without testing, would have never fallen under the scrunity of the players who showed an obvious physical change brought on by steroids. And somewhere at a lower minor league level, I always felt there was someone out there doing the same thing to me.