Does Major League Baseball Still Have a Drug Problem?

MLB will conduct more than 10,000 tests this year, but some players continue to use PEDs.

February 27, 2018 5:00 am
San Diego Padres hitting coach Mark McGwire #25 against the Minnesota Twins on September 13, 2017 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Padres 3-1. (Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
San Diego Padres hitting coach Mark McGwire #25 against the Minnesota Twins on September 13, 2017 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Padres 3-1. (Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
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The “steroid era” in baseball may not be over.

“They cheated. Steroid users don’t belong here,” Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan wrote in an open letter late last year to the Baseball Writers Association of America, whose members vote on which ballplayers are to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Morgan — the quintessential “back in my day” crank — received some pushback over his letter, specifically regarding his moralizing over performance-enhancing drug (PED) use during the so-called “steroid era.” Critics have noted that Morgan’s black-and-white moralism makes no mention of the many unsavory characters forever designated as Hall of Famers, to say nothing of the long-standing use of foreign substances in the game which unquestionably contributed to statistical anomalies, especially in Morgan’s day.

Amphetamines — known as “greenies” — were an indelible ingredient in the baseball diet for decades until they were banned in 2006; overtly racist owners and commissioners (such as Tom Yawkey and Kenesaw Mountain Landis) who helped keep baseball segregated are honored in Cooperstown with nary an asterisk on their plaques; Bud Selig is in the Hall of Fame despite having illegally colluded against the players as an owner and presiding over the “steroid era” as MLB commissioner; even Gaylord Perry is in the Hall despite writing a book — Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession — whose very subject is how cheating helped immortalize his career.

Ethical inconsistencies aside, what Morgan’s letter makes plain is that the reckoning over whether players implicated as PED users (whether by failed drug tests or a preponderance of investigative evidence) should be inducted into the Hall of Fame is upon us. However, the two decades commonly understood to encompass said era actually constitute three distinct periods.

In the late 1980s, steroids were more associated with weightlifting or track and field than baseball, but we now know their usage was beginning to creep into MLB locker rooms, most epitomized by the Oakland A’s “Bash Brothers” duo of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.

Then there were the late 1990s and early 2000s — the Wild West era following the devastating 1994 players’ strike — where baseball’s owners, administers and sports media turned a willful blind eye as home runs left the park in record numbers and previously wiry athletes turned into hulking professional wrestlers.

Finally, there were the mid-late 2000s — technically the “post-steroid era” because PED testing had been established — but the punishments were so lax and the scope of testing so limited that a Hall of Fame-caliber player like Alex Rodriguez was evidently able to beat scores of tests administered by MLB’s supposedly state of the art scientific enforcement regime, before being caught by an ethically questionable MLB investigation into his dealings with the euphemistically-described “anti-aging” lab Biogenesis. Further confusing the issue is baseball’s mysterious therapeutic use exemption (TUE) program, which confidentially grants players permission to use banned substances for medical reasons. In A-Rod’s case, he was granted a TUE to use testosterone in 2007 and all he did was hit 54 HRs and win his third MVP award.

But lost in the argument over the legitimacy of the “steroid era” is an essential question: Is the “steroid era” really even over?

In the present “post-steroid era,” where MLB conducts over 10,000 PED tests a year, players continue to get busted for PEDs both in the majors and minors. The details of those failed tests continue to disrupt the previously-accepted narrative — that “juiced-up” players get big and hit for power — as partially evidenced by thin, contact-hitting All-Stars Dee Gordon and Starling Marte, both recipients of 80-game suspensions in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

The already murky narrative gets muddier still when one considers the fact that after briefly dipping for a few seasons, home runs are up — way up — as demonstrated by the annihilation of the all-time record for home runs in a season. The previous high water mark of 5,693, set in the peak steroid era year of 2000, has since been surpassed by 2017’s mark of 6,104 dingers.

Still, MLB is proud of its testing program, which the league believes is an effective deterrent for would-be PED scofflaws. Seven major leaguers out of over 750 were busted last year (four for steroids, one for a masking agent and two for banned stimulants), with an approximate rate of just 1.2 percent of major leaguers failing drug tests over the past three years. The numbers are similar in the minors — which has a three-year positive test rate of approximately 1.58 percent — but a closer look at the data is revealing.

Among the 85 violations out of more than 6,100 active minor leaguers in 2017:

* 55 were pitchers, 30 were hitters.

* 38 violations were for steroids. Of these, 27 violators were pitchers, 11 were hitters.

* 21 violations were for “drugs of abuse,” which could be described as recreational or performance-detracting drugs.

* 14 violations were for various stimulants, be they amphetamines or markers of drugs used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

* The remaining violations were either for masking agents, estrogen blockers (used to prevent the body from creating estrogen after an unnatural infusion of testosterone), or “undisclosed” substances.

Among the striking takeaways is the preponderance of pitchers busted, as the outrage over how PEDs have affected the integrity of the game has generally been focused on the distortion of offensive statistics. It’s also surprising, given the narrative that the “steroid era” is in the past, that old school and easily detectable steroids such as Stanozol and Turinabol (the latter of which was developed for East German Olympians and has been described by The New York Times as “an anabolic steroid straight out of a doping time machine”) represent the lion’s share of suspension-triggering substances.

An analysis of major leaguers suspended for PEDs since 2005 shows no obvious prototype of a “cheater.” Young and old, star and journeyman, pitcher and hitter, they’re all represented with no demographic vastly outweighing another. And while the punishment for a first offense has increased from the minuscule 10-game suspension of 2005 to the formidable 80-game ban of today, the stain of the “juicer” is all but gone. Gordon and Marte remain popular and effective players even after being outed as “juicers,” and in Gordon’s case, his offensive numbers are remarkably similar in the seasons before and after he was busted. Even A-Rod’s image is somewhat rehabilitated, thanks in part to his well-received work as an incisive and self-deprecating TV baseball analyst.

While MLB may cite the minuscule proportion of failed tests as evidence of its drug policy’s success, critics of the testing regime believe the continued use of both conventional and “designer” drugs only serves to prove that many players remain able to stay one step ahead of detection, even in the “post-steroid era.”

Tom Verducci quoted a former major leaguer in a column for Sports Illustrated last year as saying, “I think we are back up to large-scale use again,” adding that without the “nuclear option” of a lifetime ban for a first offense, “it still seems to be worth the risk.”

It is unlikely the Major League Baseball Players Association would ever consent to such severe sanctions in the next collective bargaining agreement. But as the evidence demonstrates, it’s folly to assume the use of PEDs in baseball exists only in a time since passed, making Joe Morgan’s fit of pique over PED users in the Hall of Fame equally anachronistic.

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