Romanticists cringe, but mass hysteria is here to stay

July 10, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

WHICH IS JUICED more, the balls or the players?

It's the hot topic in Major League Baseball. Baseball romanticists, who live in their own little pure world, have become upset because of the allegations of widespread anabolic steroid use in the sport and the yearly assault on league records.

Gosh, how could this have happened?

Now, every time a player flexes or has biceps the size of Jay Gibbons' or forearms as big as Mark McGwire's, a fan hears a little voice in the back of his head.

Is he or isn't he?

Well, get used to big players. It's not going to change. Major League Baseball might decrease the use of steroids, but it can't and won't shrink the players. Baseball is no different from any other sport where the evolution of man has caught up with the game: They're just bigger, stronger and faster.

That's life.

Secondly, a steroid ban can't dent a market that is loaded with over-the-counter, body-building, performance-enhancing substances. And most of all, Major League Baseball really doesn't want a change.

You see, it's about economics. Baseball owners have publicly complained about steroids and the injuries associated with them, but that didn't stop them from signing stars like Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti who had been suspected of steroid use.

The owners and general managers pretended they couldn't see.

"When a player adds 30 or 40 pounds during an off-season, you have to know what's going on," said Kurtis Shultz, the University of Maryland's men's basketball trainer, who trains a lot of professional athletes, including Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. "But when there is no regular testing, and you can get away with it, hey, you try anything."

It's a business.

The player's stats increase, which helps the team's performance and eventually attendance and fan interest. The same fans who complain about steroids are the same ones who get caught up in the monster shots and Barry Bonds chasing down his home run record. But it's just not the sluggers using steroids; pitchers use the needle, too.

It's all part of a baseball problem that needs to be addressed.

But when it comes time for a new collective bargaining agreement, steroid use will take a back seat to more pressing, big-money issues such as revenue sharing, luxury taxes, high payrolls and a salary cap.

The players union, the strongest in professional sports, will use the issue as a bargaining tool. The result will be Major League Baseball adopting a drug-testing policy similar to the one used in the NFL.

It's more about public relations than flushing out the problem.

The tests are supposedly "random," but players are notified in advance of the date. So running back Muscle Head Jones has plenty of time to "clean up" and remain on the field.

The NFL seems to suspend a player for steroid use about every leap year, a one- or two-time offender who usually runs afoul of the law. But you have to be pretty careless - no, downright dumb - to flunk one of these tests.

Masking agents have become so sophisticated that it's almost impossible to get caught. With the money professional athletes make, finding a masking solution is no problem. The average salary of a major-league baseball player is about $2.5 million.

"When players get their testing date, they're always in the locker room asking about a masking agent or a doctor that they can find who might be willing to help out," said a former Ravens player who is still in the league and requested anonymity. "You can go to any of these nutrient stores and buy an herbal product that will clean out your system, and it tells you that right on the back. But it's not just for steroids. I know guys who take the herbal tea to make weight because you can lose 4 or 5 pounds of water in a night."

Said Dave Barringer, a physical therapist and former longtime trainer in the NFL and at Towson University: "They have these new synthetic steroids that get out of your blood very fast. Then you take these other chemicals and substances to piggyback them and clear it up. The Russians were one of the countries that perfected these making agents to hide steroids in the Olympics a while ago. But you see use all the time now in high schools and college football. If they aren't using them, then these guys are eating an awful lot."

Diets and training regiments have changed dramatically over the years. Of the three major sports, baseball players were considered the laziest during the off-season, but the conditioning has improved. We're in the era of specialization, beginning in recreation leagues where our kids now play one sport year-round.

But the bigger bodies, increased speed and muscle mass are just as much a part of science. Scientists say within the next four years, athletes will be able to receive injections of genes that will lead the body to make certain substances, like an increase in the number of red blood cells. Bodies would be mass producing what they're already making.

Worse yet, nothing illegal would be left in the system.

It's kind of scary, but that's where we're headed. We're going to get more super plays and more super players. It's all part of the future. Big bodies are here to stay. More records will continue to fall.

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