Can we please stop acting like we’re shocked and appalled when players test positive for steroids and other performance enhancing drugs already?
In the last two weeks, both Melky Cabrera and long-time big league veteran Bartolo Colon have tested positive for increased levels of testosterone and suddenly, just when I thought we, as a baseball community, had finally moved past the steroid hysteria of the last decade and a half, the level of self-righteous chest-beating has ratcheted right back up to where it was almost a decade ago.
There’s something that all baseball fans need to understand – and quickly. Baseball has never been clean. Ever.
If you go back to the early days of the big leagues, cheating was rampant. Ty Cobb sharpened his cleats and slid feet-up into bases. Or, you know, he did the good old-fashioned kick-the-catcher-in-the-gonads trick you can see to the right. Around that same time period there was a pitcher that you might have heard of; Christy Mathewson. Mathewson was one of the greatest pitchers of all time, one of the first five men inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame and, also, an admitted spit-baller.
In a 1914 interview with the New York American (a now-defunct New York newspaper), Mathewson said, “Once in a while previous to this year I used to cut loose a spitter in an effort to cross some batter who wouldn’t expect one from me. Three or four seasons back someone told me Hans Wagner couldn’t hit a spitball very well, and I used to slip one in occasionally”
The article from which that quote was drawn was near the end of his career when he admitted to using the spitter more often. Mathewson went on to say, “What I am doing now is only what nearly every pitcher does when he begins to feel the old snap ooze out of his arm.”
First of all, I love the way people spoke back then. But also, it’s a pretty good example that baseball wasn’t too clean back then, either. And sure, that was a long time ago, I’m sure baseball cleaned up after that; right?
In the mid-1900s there was another player that some of you might have heard of by the name of Willie Mays. Generally regarded as one of the best players to ever put on a uniform, Mays was heralded for playing the game the right way. He gave it his all and made highlight catches and big-time plays along the way. Oh, and he also, apparently, used amphetamines.
In his September 1985 testimony at a federal cocaine trafficking trial, former outfielder John Milner testified that Mays was known to keep a bottle of “red juice” in his locker – a liquid form of amphetamines. He went on to say that his own first experience using “red juice” was from a bottle in Mays’ locker.
Then, there were greenies. One of the most popular “supplements” to a baseball players’ diet for about forty or fifty years, greenies were a pill form of amphetamine. In his 2006 book, “Clearing the bases,” Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt spoke openly about greenies, writing that they were “widely available” in major league clubhouses.
In 2006, at the height of the steroid freak-out, MLB finally got around to banning the substance. Which, really, is laughable considering they knew damn well they were being used for about half a century.
Mind you, all of these things were around – and used – long before steroids ever became an issue. But somehow, for some reason, columnists, pundits and fans alike continue to speak and write about steroids as though they were the things that disgraced baseball. Spitballs, amphetamines, hidden-ball tricks, sharpened cleats – the list goes on and on. But none of those things were as bad as steroids?
Give me a break. Cheating has always been a part of baseball – and it always will be. And do you know why? Because baseball is a terribly difficult sport. And I’m not talking about the game itself. I’m talking about the schedule.
As most of you know, I worked as a security guard at Wrigley Field for a number of years. Now, I don’t even pretend to think that it gives me some kind of special knowledge about all things baseball; but working there did teach me two things very well.
First, what those men do on that field night after night is incredible. The longest homestand I ever worked at Wrigley was about 10 or 11 games. That meant 10 straight days of spending approximately 10 hours per day in the boiling summer sun. Needless to say, I’m not an athlete, but that will wear you out quickly.
Now imagine you’re a big-league ballplayer. Sure, you’re in a little (Okay, a LOT) better shape than me. But your schedule goes a little something like this:
You just got done playing a three-game series in San Francisco. It’s about 11 p.m. Pacific time when you leave the ballpark and you head straight to the airport. You hop a plane to Colorado around midnight if you’re lucky. Lets say you land at 1:30 a.m. Pacific time, but as it turns out, you’re in Mountain time now and it’s actually 2:30 a.m.
So you get to bed, hopefully, by 4 a.m. after you consider getting off the plane, on to a bus and over to the hotel. Now you catch some z’s – maybe six or seven hours worth – and get to the ballpark the next day to do it all over again. In thin air, right after you were literally at sea level the day before, you’re now a mile in the sky.
So you play your three days in Colorado and it’s time to go back to Chicago. So you do it again, you leave the park at 11 p.m., get to the airport by midnight, hop a plane to Chicago and arrive – if all goes well – by 3 a.m. Except it’s actually 4 a.m. because you went through another time change. So now you get home by 5, fall asleep, and surprise – it’s a day game. You better hope you caught a few hours of sleep on the plane, because you need to be at the ballpark by about 8:30 a.m.
Or, even if it’s a night game, you still probably need to be at the park by 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Obviously, that’s a worst-case-scenario, but still. That kind of life would suck. Now take into account that you get something in the range of five to six off days a month and you start to see why these guys need a little extra boost once in a while. That’s why you see guys drinking Red Bull in the bullpens like it’s, well, the closest thing they can get to an amphetamine.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not promoting steroid or amphetamine use – I’m saying it makes sense. It’s understandable. And it’s certainly not the worst thing to ever happen to baseball.
Oh, and in case you forgot, it’s also the second thing that Wrigley taught me. Steroids aren’t the only method of cheating going on in the big leagues right now. There’s also at least some level of pine tar misuse going on.
I can say with 100 percent certainty that on one occasion, while working in the visiting bullpen, I saw a major league pitcher – who shall remain nameless – rub pine tar on his arm in a thick, even layer, and then get up, warm up, and go into the game. Without ever rubbing the pine tar off. I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that this particular player used pine tar to better his pitches on that day.
And he’s not the only person I ever saw at least toying around with the substance in the bullpen.
My point, here, folks, is that the steroid hysteria is ridiculous. Should players be using steroids? No. Do I question the intelligence of people who do, considering the proliferation of steroid testing in the big leagues? Sure. But are they the worst problem baseball has ever seen? Not even close. They might not even be the biggest cheating problem in the big leagues today.
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