Hot Topic; From Pastime to Nap Time
Published in The New York Times Magazine
February 5, 2006
Spring training camps open this month with a tough new steroid policy in place and the sport, in a sense, restored to its proper historical balance. We can assume there will be no more seasons with multiple players hitting 60-plus home runs, nor the abomination of a 73-home-run season. Record books may one day even include asterisks for steroid-era feats, and future sluggers could find themselves chasing two distinct sets of numbers: the Ruth-Maris and the McGwire-Bonds standards, with the latter considered as unreachable as some of the track and field marks set by doped athletes in the 1980's and early 90's.
With much less fanfare, Major League Baseball for the first time also mandated testing and penalties for the use of amphetamines. This is probably the more significant step, because the game was more thoroughly awash in them -- and a greater number of players depended on them.
The result, however, is not one that most fans will like. The game is liable to become more sluggish. A discerning fan may notice it; a great many players will feel it.
Steroids enabled herculean feats, accomplishments so outsize as to call into question concepts of fair play. Amphetamines, which in baseball are known as greenies or beans, do something very different: they establish a minimum, day-to-day level of energy and alertness. Players have long considered them to be a necessary and acceptable tool of the trade, not cheating at all. Why would players need such a pick-me-up? Baseball's physical demands are not as obvious as those in, say, a collision sport like football, but they are more relentless: a regular season of 162 games, many of them in the heat of summer, with few days off in between, as well as lots of travel and sometimes quick turnarounds between night and day games. Try hitting a 100-mile-per-hour fastball or a hard-biting slider on five hours' sleep. Throw in a night of carousing, and it becomes even more challenging.
Billy Sample, who played nine seasons in the big leagues before retiring in 1986, believes the most difficult challenge in the post-greenies universe will be those pesky day games after night games. He says, ''People who bet on the over-under line'' -- a wager on how many total runs will be scored -- ''they should probably take the under on those games.''
Even under normal circumstances, everyday players get worn down. Base stealers must repeatedly dive back to the bag to avoid pickoff attempts by pitchers who make these throws specifically to tire them out. Catchers squat for hours in their equipment. Infielders are on their toes every play. The long grind of a season provides, if not an excuse for taking amphetamines -- which are illegal without a prescription and potentially dangerous -- an easily understood rationale.
As Brian McRae, who played a decade in the majors before retiring in 1999, told me, ''They don't pay out those multimillion-dollar salaries for you to be walking around like a zombie.''
Amphetamines have been part of the game since at least the 1950's and were once openly dispensed by team trainers, set out in jars like hard candy. In the book ''Ball Four,'' Jim Bouton's account of his season as a pitcher with the hapless Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros in 1969, he writes at one point, ''We've been running short of greenies'' -- the casual tone suggesting that it was as if the fellas had broken too many bats and were awaiting their new shipment of Louisville Sluggers.
Estimates on how many players take greenies vary, but no one seriously suggests the pills have been anything but endemic, enough so to merit their own special vocabulary. To ''bean up'' is to pop a pill before game time; to abstain is to ''play naked.'' Players who can't decide what to do sometimes joke, ''To bean or not to bean, that is the question.'' This was related to me by Billy Sample, and it is the first reference to Shakespeare (no matter how common) I have ever known to emanate from a baseball clubhouse.
Last year, the former Yankee Chad Curtis said on HBO's ''Costas Now'' that he believed 85 percent of current big-leaguers use illegal energy-enhancing drugs. The late Ken Caminiti told Sports Illustrated in 2002 that ''there are only a couple of guys on a team that don't take greenies.'' Some players take them only when they feel especially washed out, and others pop a pill before every game. They ingest whatever they can get their hands on: drugs marketed under such brand names as Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, Cylert and Dexedrine, as well as pills passed along by teammates that players can identify only by sight: the little white pills with the orange crosses or the red-and-blue things. ''Stand in the middle of your clubhouse and walk 10 feet in any direction,'' the pitcher David Wells wrote in his 2003 book, ''Perfect I'm Not: Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches, and Baseball.'' ''Chances are you'll find what you need.''
The use of greenies, passed down through the generations from veterans to rookies, has been the kind of open secret that becomes problematic only when it breaks into public view. In a 1979 interview in Playboy, Pete Rose, whose hitting was always more consistent than his truth telling, was asked if he used greenies. ''Yeah. I'd do it,'' he said. ''I've done it.'' Two years later, Rose gave testimony in the case of a doctor in Pennsylvania who was accused of illegally prescribing amphetamines to Rose and other members of the 1980 World Series-winning Philadelphia Phillies. Professing ignorance of baseball's drug culture, Rose said, ''What's a greenie?''
A retired player and perennial all-star, who did not want his name used because he is still affiliated with baseball, told me: ''When I took a greenie, it changed my level of intensity. I'd feel like I could hit a whole platoon of Bob Gibsons. That's what those things do. You're more aware. You're more into it. You're not going to fall asleep out there. That's just the reality of it.''
So what will happen now that an entire sport has been taken off its meds? Well, baseball's new amphetamines policy makes an exception in cases of diagnosed attention deficit disorder. So one possibility is that dozens or perhaps hundreds of big-leaguers will suddenly discover they have A.D.D. and seek out prescriptions for Ritalin or other stimulants they have previously been taking illegally. Could a tendency to swing at the first pitch, rather than work a pitcher deep into the count, be construed as a symptom of A.D.D.? We may see that case made. Also, throwing to the wrong base, forgetting how many outs there are and missing the team bus.
Other players will take caffeine pills, drink more coffee or gulp caffeine-laced energy drinks like Red Bull. But those substances are not likely to work as well as the pharmaceuticals players have become accustomed to. (There's a reason you can get coffee at the 7-Eleven but have to go to a pharmacy to legally obtain amphetamines.)
No one suggests that baseball can't exist without greenies. But the sport has been played by generations of pill-poppers who either needed greenies to be physically prepared to play or came to believe they needed them. At a certain point, there is no distinction. You can't do without them. So a period of adjustment will be necessary. On some days, certain teams may just feel unable to generate much in the way of offense or energy.
Is this what we really want? As a fan, I don't think I do. Long-haul truckers, military pilots flying in war zones, college students cramming for exams -- they have long gotten their hands on uppers without provoking a national outcry. A United States president, George H. W. Bush, sometimes took a strong prescription sleeping pill when he traveled out of the country so he could avoid jet lag and operate at a higher level. Major leaguers are big boys, and well paid. To take my family to a game costs me about $200. I care if the players cheat, and I'd put steroids in that category. But otherwise, I'd just as soon that they have what they need to put on a good show.
After baseball announced its amphetamines plan -- mandatory testing after a first offense, a 25-game suspension for a second, 80 games for a third and possible banishment after that -- a satirical Web site called TheBrushback.com ran a fake news story in which the baseball commissioner, Bud Selig, announced that he was shortening the season. ''One hundred and sixty-two games is simply too long for a player under the influence of nothing at all,'' he was quoted as saying.
The item was funny for the reason that any good satire works: there was just enough truth in it.