THE JUICE

Recently, both Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti have been outspoken on the issue of steroids in baseball. Canseco said 85% of major-leaguers used steroids. He refused to back down from that figure, and by the way, he has a "tell-all" book coming out soon, so won't you buy one? Caminiti said half of all MLB players use the juice, then he backed down from that once he realized it might hurt the comeback he was kicking around. You're a clubhouse pariah wherever you go now, Ken, and it's your own fault. Regardless of their accuracy or motivations, both men have raised an important issue for all baseball fans:

How many major-leaguers take steroids?

Baseball is byzantine in its drug policy, sensibly banning things like cocaine and heroin, while doing nothing about steroids. I don't remember hearing about anyone having their career year while snorting coke every day, or being a heroin fiend. But steroids are different: their effects on performance have been known for years. More muscle = more home runs. It's one of many explanations for the power surge of recent years.

Caminiti claimed to take steroids for their healing effects, since he was suffering from numerous muscle injuries. The muscle mass and strength he gained were just side effects, I guess. How dumb does he think baseball fans are? Taking steroids to facilitate healing is like taking heroin a sleep aid: it'll work, but there are better things available. Caminiti couldn't have been stupid enough to think that he wouldn't experience muscle growth and strength gain while on the juice. He said he felt like he was cheating during his MVP season of 1996, mainly because he was cheating.

Other names have been bandied about as possible juicers. Since their names are always mentioned on one side of the fence or the other, let's look at the big sluggers of the last five years:

Barry Bonds: He was a skinny, speedy outfielder when he came up with the Pirates. His power bat matured with the Giants, but he's gotten noticeably bigger in the last few years. His power numbers have been on the rise, culminating, of course, in last year's record of 73 homers. He also managed to play thru a torn hamstring this year, an injury that has sent plenty of other men to the DL. He's most likely a juicer.

Mark McGwire: Even as a more slender slugger early in his career, Big Mac posted impressive power numbers. He was noticeably bulkier later in his career, when the homers started coming more frequently. Androstinedione, an OTC dietary supplement similar to Creatine, was found in his locker during the '98 season, starting a debate about the place of supplements in baseball. I don't think McGwire was a juicer, but I think he did take a lot of supplements.

Sammy Sosa: Another guy who gained a lot of mass and began hitting more homers. Sosa's bulking up wasn't as rapid as the others, though. He morphed from a speedy outfielder with power to a powerful outfielder with some speed. I think Sosa hit the juice a little, but he's probably been free of it for a few years now.

Ken Griffey, Jr: It took Griffey a few years to find his power stroke, though his injury history of the past two seasons mars his record. The fact remains that he has gained only 12 pounds in about as many seasons. Griffey is almost certainly not a juicer.

Alex Rodriguez: Another hitter in the Griffey mold: it took him a few years to really find his power, but he's been pouring it on ever since. A-Rod also hasn't gotten appreciably bigger since he debuted, and his power trend is reasonable for a young superstar who displayed such impressive skills as a rookie. Another one who is almost certainly not on the juice.

By my estimation, that's two prominent sluggers who have used steroids at some point during the last few seasons. Across baseball, power numbers have been up for years; no one really had a problem with home run hitters hitting homers, but when middle infielders and former banjo hitters started jacking out 30 a year, it raised some eyebrows.

If I had to pick a number as the percentage of MLB players who have used steroids regularly in the last five years, I'd place it around 35%. Anything more, especially figures in the Canseco range, are simply unbelievable. Anything less just doesn't account for people's tendency to look for an edge wherever they can, and since the steroid edge is legal in baseball, they wouldn't really be cheating. It's perfect for a player lightly burdened by conscience.

The other question that's been asked is, what is MLB going to do about steroids? They're illegal in every other professional sport, and are banned in most amateur competitions, as well. Bud Selig has used the tried and true "No comment" defense since Canseco and Caminiti made their claims, but eventually, he's going to have to make a decision. Steroids should be banned, plain and simple. Their effects on the game have already been seen: bloated home run totals, a dearth of quality pitching, and the gaudiest offensive numbers ever posted in the game's history.

The reality is, home runs and offense sell tickets. While true baseball fans appreciate a good 2-1 game, economics forced many true baseball fans out of the stadiums years ago. These days, the arts and croissants crowd cheers for the longballs between sips of Chianti in the club level, and watches the game when they aren't brokering deals over their cell phones. A new generation of baseball fans, raised on Sports Center and its clips of homers and flashy catches, goes to the games just to pop for these moments. The artistry and strategy of a good pitcher's duel is lost on them.

Baseball isn't going to shoot itself in the foot, at least not on the steroid issue. The powers that be know offense is king right now, and that baseball has enjoyed a general upswing since that trend really got hammered home in 1998. Expect Bud Selig to take no action banning steroids, Creatine, andro, or anything else players use to make themselves bigger and stronger.

Like it or not, it looks like steroids are part of the game.

Dr. Tom