Baseball's fast-lane drug

Debate accelerates over prevalence of amphetamine use by baseball players

June 25, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Former Orioles Jim Traber and Mickey Tettleton had just picked up their sons from football camp when the details of Jason Grimsley's affidavit on drugs in baseball crackled over the car radio.

As they listened to Grimsley's description of leaded (laced with amphetamines) and unleaded (regular) coffee in major league clubhouses, the old teammates laughed and laughed.

"That was giving away a secret of the clubhouse," said Traber, who played parts of four seasons for the Orioles. "But yeah, I knew about it."

Traber is now 44 and host of a sports talk show in Oklahoma City. He's not afraid to say that he tried amphetamines when he played, that the drugs were readily available from teammates or trainers' offices and that the vast majority of major leaguers probably used "greenies" at one time or another.

"I think we all basically thought it was just part of the game," he said. "I think everybody knew the drugs were illegal, but I think the only guys who didn't try them were ones who were so morally [upright] that they wouldn't do anything illegal."

Baseball's dependency on amphetamines has never taken center stage. Steroids and human growth hormone have become the celebrity drugs of this decade. In the 1980s, it was cocaine. But numerous accounts from 1970 on suggest that amphetamines were the most commonly used illegal substance all along.

Grimsley apparently linked several Orioles teammates to amphetamines, though the names of other players are blacked out in the publicly released version of his affidavit, given in April.

Will Carroll writes about medical issues for Baseball Prospectus and said that during a recent presentation in a major league clubhouse, he referenced estimates that 75 to 80 percent of players have tried amphetamines. The team's trainer shot him a look, Carroll recalled, and murmured, "Higher."

Traber said such numbers hardly sound crazy to him. Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar disagrees.

"I've never seen a coffee pot leaded or unleaded in my life," he said. "I don't know where these stories come from. There might be a player or two that's into that stuff and it gets magnified and all of a sudden, 80 percent of big leaguers are taking stuff. It's not like that, and that's the truth."

Like steroids and any other illegal substance, amphetamines are not allowed in baseball. But this is the first year that players have faced tests and penalties for using them.

"In a way, it's even more interesting than steroids in that it's taken for granted," said John Hoberman, a University of Texas professor who studies sports doping. "There has been no outrage over amphetamines."

That discrepancy reflects a cultural tendency to be selectively outraged, he said, comparing it to this country's divergent attitudes toward marijuana and alcohol. Perhaps amphetamines have drawn less scrutiny, he said, because ballplayers used them in the same way truck drivers or students do - just to get by.

"It's a get-out-of-bed drug as opposed to a hit-the-ball-500-feet drug," Hoberman said.

Dangers to heart

The dangers - increased blood pressure and heart rate, insomnia, interruptions to the heart's rhythm - shouldn't be overlooked, said Gary Wadler, an associate professor at New York University School of Medicine and member of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

"It's one of the quintessential performance-enhancing drugs," Wadler said. "In many ways, it gave rise to the whole doping movement. It's a very dangerous drug."

Amphetamine use spiked in the 1930s but became truly widespread during World War II, when the major armies gave stimulants to thousands of soldiers (pilots especially, in the case of the United States military). Cyclists apparently became the first athletes to use them extensively in the 1950s. During the 1967 Tour de France, English rider Tom Simpson collapsed and died on the 13th stage. An autopsy found alcohol and amphetamines in his blood.

By all accounts, baseball's relationship with stimulants had begun by then, though it wouldn't be outed for a few more years.

Pitcher's diary

Long before Jose Canseco started slinging steroid allegations, Jim Bouton's Ball Four pulled back the curtain on daily life in the major leagues. One of the locker room secrets the journeyman pitcher betrayed in his diary of the 1969 season, when he was with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros, was widespread use of "greenies," so named because of the color of the pills. What seemed most striking about Bouton's revelation was that he wrote so casually about snarfing pills.

"We've been running short of greenies," he noted breezily in his May 21 entry. "We don't get them from the trainer, because greenies are against club policy. So we get them from players on other teams who have friends who are doctors, or friends who know where to get greenies. One of our lads is going to have a bunch of greenies mailed to him by some of the guys on the Red Sox. And to think you can spend five years in jail for giving your friend a marijuana cigarette."

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