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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

Later he wrote of a conversation with teammates about how many players pop greenies.

"Hell, a lot more than half," he quoted teammate Don Mincher as saying. "Just about the whole Baltimore team takes them. Most of the Tigers. Most of the guys on this club. And that's just what I know for sure."

Slugging first baseman Boog Powell was a member of the Orioles team referenced, and he said the players were plenty mad at Bouton.

"That was our sacred land," he said of the clubhouse.

But 36 years later, Powell said that greenies were around and that he tried them a few times. He noted that amphetamines weren't yet illegal in the late 1960s (they were first classified as controlled substances in 1970).

"It was available," he said. "I don't know that it was rampant like everybody seems to think. There weren't a bunch of guys just speeding all over the place. But there are always going to be some guys who do what's available to get an edge."

If anyone thought Bouton was just being provocative with his talk of greenies, a host of stars from the 1970s eventually would make similar claims about the availability and use of stimulants.

The subject came up when Pete Rose gave an interview to Playboy in 1979.

"Well, a lot of guys might think that there are certain days you might need a greenie, an upper," Rose said.

"Would you take one?" the interviewer asked.

"I might," Rose said. "I have taken stuff before."

He said he equated greenies with prescription diet pills.

"There might be some day when you played a doubleheader the night before and you go to the ballpark for a Sunday game and you want to take a diet pill, just to mentally think you are up. You won't be up, but mentally you might think you are up.

"It won't help your game, but it will help you mentally. When you help yourself mentally, it might help your game."

Other greats of the 1970s, from Johnny Bench to Mike Schmidt, would claim to have seen amphetamine use and to have experimented with it.

`Red juice'

In testimony during the cocaine trials surrounding the Pittsburgh Pirates, Yogi Berra's son, Dale, said he had received greenies from Hall of Famer Willie Stargell and batting champion Bill Madlock. The Pirates' John Milner said that when he played with Willie Mays, the legend's locker was the source for a stimulant called "red juice." Mays denied it.

Lonnie Smith made similar claims about Philadelphia Phillies teammates, including Rose, future manager Larry Bowa and Greg Luzinski.

In more recent years, players such as Chad Curtis and Ken Caminiti have said that amphetamine use remained widespread.

"I would say there are only a couple of guys on a team that don't take greenies before a game. One or two guys," Caminiti told Sports Illustrated in 2002 before his death two years later. "That's called going out there naked. And you hear it all the time from teammates, `You're not going to play naked, are you?'

"And even the guys who are against greenies may be taking diet pills or popping 25 caffeine pills and they're up there [at bat] with their hands shaking. So how good is that? This game is so whacked out that guys will take anything to get an edge. You got a pill that will make me feel better? Let me have it."

Being the best

Traber, who played while Caminiti's career was getting started in the late 1980s, explained the psychology of drug use:

"When you're somebody like me and at 5 years old you told your mother you wanted to be a baseball player and that's all you've ever cared about your whole life, you're going to find out a way to be the best you can be. And when you're 19 to 24 years old, you're not thinking about your body, the long-term effects."

He said most players probably used greenies here and there, on a Sunday afternoon, say, after a late game Saturday night. "But there were people who use them every day," he said.

Traber said that as players became more obsessed with working out and perfecting their bodies, amphetamine use seemed to decline. He doesn't believe greenies have damaged the game as much as steroids.

"Even though they help your awareness and your acuteness, they don't make you stronger," he said. "But I am for getting amphetamines out of the game. We need to clean everything up, because the reputation of baseball is in the toilet."

The problem hit close to home for the Orioles when minor league pitcher Steve Bechler collapsed and died during spring training 2003. Bechler was not using amphetamines, but he was taking an over-the-counter diet pill that contained ephedra. In the wake of Bechler's death, several players admitted using ephedra-based products such as Ripped Fuel for pick-me-ups.

Though such products weren't illegal, their widespread use spoke to the same old boost-seeking culture. It's not so much that illegal amphetamines have a different effect from coffee or Red Bull (which players gulp in the clubhouse). They simply pack much more punch in a small dose.

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