Game has changed since Steroid Era but some views have not
Ten years after former NL MVP Ken Caminiti told SI he felt like "Superman" on steroids, part of an admission that prompted the biggest reformation in baseball since the Black Sox scandal, is it possible that some people still believe steroids didn't enhance performance? The answer is yes. Steroid apologists exist among media, fans and players, and they form the flip side to what generally is considered one of the most corrupt eras in the sport's history.
"No, I don't consider it cheating," said former major league pitcher Dan Serafini. "I think it just helps the better player with longevity and a chance for guys to stick around longer."
In this week's issue of
The real story of The Steroid Era is not the superstar players who already had world-class ability and piled steroid enhancements on top of it, but the hundreds of men whose dreams hung on one perverse decision in an era when drug use went unchecked: to cheat or not to cheat. The times were complicated, but too many observers, especially in the media, create a false, even playing field in their mind by asserting, "Well, everybody was doing it." It's an insult to everybody who played the game clean, whether or not they ever get close to a Hall of Fame ballot. Many of them never even got to the big leagues.
"It's cheating, that's all," said Brett Roberts, one of the four Miracles who was one phone call away from the big leagues in Triple A. "I'm glad you're doing this [story]."
Serafini, a lefthander and former number one pick out of high school, also pitched on that Miracle team. He was busted for steroids in 2007 after briefly pitching for Colorado. He said a doctor in Japan, where he had pitched earlier that season, prescribed them for him to recover from an Achilles injury. Serafini said that was the only occasion in which he used performance-enhancing drugs.
"I don't even like to call them performance enhancers," he said, "because they didn't help me. They just made me feel better taking care of an injury."
I find it absurd that we can be sitting here 10 years from Caminiti, 11 years from Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs, 14 years from the McGwire-Sosa illusion of a home run race and almost a quarter of a century from Ben Johnson smashing and losing the world record in the 100 meters and there are people who set aside steroid use as benign. But Mark McGwire told Bob Costas of MLB Network that steroids didn't help him hit home runs, they just helped him stay healthier. Jeff Bagwell told ESPN.com that if the fringe player or the superstar player chose to use steroids, "I have no problem with that." And now Serafini said, "I would never throw another player under the bus thinking he was cheating. He's doing whatever he can to make the fans clap and scream and yell."
I told Serafini he had an interesting point and, while I believe it is dead wrong, it does represent the view of a certain segment of fans, not to mention steroid users themselves. It's important to hear it. The position is that ballplayers are entertainers -- Serafini used the exact word -- who are doing nothing more than trying to better themselves and to be available to play more often.
"Steroids don't make you a big leaguer," he said. "They keep you playing and keep you healthy. It's your natural ability that gets you there . . . I'm saying I don't think it's that big of a deal as to what the media is making out to be. I don't think there should be an asterisk by Barry Bonds' name for cheating and I don't think Roger Clemens should be busted for HGH or kept out of the Hall of Fame, because he still busted his ass."
Right away I thought about Naulty, and told Serafini that. Naulty told me he gained 68 pounds and added 10 miles an hour to his fastball because of steroids. He wound up pitching for the world champion 1999 Yankees while his three pitching friends from the Miracle were out of baseball by then. His manager at Fort Myers described Naulty as a fringe player in the low minors and Naulty himself said he never would have gotten out of Class A ball without steroids -- especially throwing 86 mph. Did he "work hard," the favorite cover story of steroid users? Yes, but as Naulty said, the steroids allowed him to work out "like a fiend."
I told Serafini all of this and here was his response to Naulty's self-assessment: "That's [bull]. If he wants to call himself a cheater, that's too bad. I think he's cutting himself short by calling himself a cheater."
Another player on the 1994 Miracle, catcher Jeff Horn, told me he later used steroids and only then was he able to consistently hit hard, inside fastballs. Horn, now a doctor, said, "When I had the stuff in me I could get to those pitches easier. You do things you otherwise couldn't do."
I told Serafini about Horn. Serafini was friends with both Naulty, a former roommate, and Horn.
"I feel sorry for them," he said. "I wish they didn't feel that way."
And what about Roberts, his roommate and a former NCAA basketball scoring champion at Morehead State who pitched clean and never got to the big leagues?
"Brett Roberts was good," he said, "but he didn't have the mentality to pitch in the big leagues. He was a great athlete but wasn't high on confidence."
You should know that Serafini hasn't given up on pitching and has a fascinating story of his own. He is the consummate journeyman lefthander. I caught up with Serafini by telephone as he was driving from Mexico to his home in Nevada. He is 38 years old and looking for a Triple-A job even though he hasn't pitched in affiliated baseball since his flunked PED test was announced in November 2007. In five seasons since then he has pitched for an independent team in Bridgeport, Conn., and for two teams in Mexico, with a combined 4.41 ERA in those five years.
He was driving home because he left Mexico shortly after being traded to another Mexican League team, and he decided he wanted to move on. His combined ERA in Mexico this year was 7.88.
Serafini told me he is throwing "90 to 94" miles per hour and feels great, with no aches and pains ever since a year ago he started taking pills made from the velvet of deer antlers. ("I'm not on any drugs," he said, noting that players in Mexico are subject to both blood and urine tests for PEDs.) In his 21 years of organized baseball Serafini has been the property of at least 17 organizations in the United States, Japan and Mexico. He pitched in 104 major league games with the Twins, Cubs, Pirates, Padres, Reds and Rockies, compiling a 15-16 record and 6.04 ERA.
Of the 2,747 pitchers who pitched in at least 100 big league games, Serafini has the eighth-worst ERA of all time.
"I got busted for steroids in Japan," he said of his 2007 recovery from the Achilles injury, before he was a September callup by the Rockies. (He obtained one out in three games with Colorado.) "I got back to the big leagues with Colorado not because I was on steroids but because I was one of their best lefthanders out of the bullpen and they needed help. I earned it. [Steroids] didn't help my career. Look at my numbers . . . It's not a miracle drug."
Serafini is right about that. Steroid use and its effects can vary widely. There are many steroids to choose from with different target results. Doping regimens vary from the experimental to the elaborately calculated.
The greatest myth about The Steroid Era, thanks to the vapidity of many Hall of Fame debates, is the idea that players are being judged on a morality issue. It's not about morality; it's about competition. It's about what happened to the game on the field. It's where the Caminiti story began. During the 2001 season, multiple players sought me out to complain that steroids had become so prevalent that clean players were put at a competitive disadvantage. The few early adopters had given rise to a preponderance of players who wanted the competitive advantage they did. The clean player faced two options: cheat or be disadvantaged. No player should ever face such a dilemma. The game should not be decided by who has the best chemist.
"You were at a total disadvantage in the era I played in if you played clean," Naulty said.
That's when I knew steroids had established a complex root system in the game. It was the voices of the clean players -- the ones the "everybody-was-doing-it" crowd doesn't even recognize -- that spurred the report on what was the worst-kept secret in baseball. Caminiti provided the biggest break. He became the first player to acknowledge his steroid use and had no regrets about it because steroids had become so prevalent.
The union squirmed. Two weeks later Donald Fehr, then the head of the players association, was called to testify at a Senate subcommittee hearing in the Russell Building, the magnificent Beaux Arts building whose cornerstone was laid in 1906, across the street from the Capitol. It is the building where Frank Capra set his 1939 classic
Fehr did not give the Russell Building another Camelot moment, let alone another Jefferson Smith moment. He gave a rambling answer of more than 600 words on problems of "perception," education and the regulation of
"And so I think we have problems on a multiplicity of levels," he said.
The owners had asked the union for steroid testing in March of 2002 and got nowhere with it. But with pressure from the public, Washington and players themselves, the union suddenly gave up its stance that random testing was an invasion of privacy. Less than three months after the Caminiti story and the Senate hearing, the union agreed to testing protocols. It took another five years to reach a policy with real teeth -- 50 games for a first suspension (Serafini was the second player to be so disciplined) -- but the players at least came around to the importance of protecting the integrity and fairness of the game.
The changes in the game under testing are overwhelmingly obvious. Last year there were 507 fewer home runs and 1,600 fewer runs than there were in 2002. In the last nine years before steroid testing, players crashed through the 50-homer threshold 18 times. In the nine years since testing, they have done so only six times. Sixty home runs? Forget it. No one has done it with testing after it happened six times in just the last four years before Caminiti said the emperor had no clothes.
And yet people want to believe steroids didn't alter performance? Didn't put dirty players at an advantage over clean players? Yes, many other variables also have changed over the past decade: strike zones, ballparks, a generation of pitchers, blah, blah, blah. All true. But nothing changed the game like the steroid spigot getting turned on and then off. And yet . . . there remain many people like Serafini.
"Steroids aren't illegal," he said.
Yes they are, I tell him.
"You can get them prescribed."
Yes, I tell him, to treat a confirmed medical condition. Playing baseball better: not a medical condition.
"Not only that," he said, "look at how many guys get cortisone."
It's a corticosteroid; it's not an
When Serafini got called up to the big leagues the second time, in September of 1997, he saw an image in a hallway of the Metrodome that has stuck with him: McGwire and Canseco, then of the Oakland A's, hanging out in T-shirts and sliding shorts.
"They were the biggest dudes I had ever seen," he said. "Did steroids help them out? Maybe."
Serafini said he was 6-3, 160 pounds when he was drafted. (He was listed as 6-1. Serafini went to the same high school as Bonds and later trained briefly with him. He calls Bonds "an idol among idols.") Serafini said he was so skinny that when he showed up for his first camp a Twins instructor asked him if he had AIDS. Serafini now weighs 220 pounds. He said he gained about five or 10 pounds a year and in 2003 found a trainer and dietician who helped him gain about 15 pounds with a program that "helped build my testosterone level naturally." If Serafini did not consider steroids cheating, and if testing didn't exist in the minor leagues until 2001, why would he not use steroids back then?
"I thought I didn't need it," he said. "I was 21 and threw in the low 90s, a first-round pick. I didn't think I needed it. I wasn't interested in throwing a hundred miles an hour."
There is a story within the story of the four Miracles that particularly stuck with me. Later in that 1994 season, a fifth pitcher with average stuff drafted out of a four-year college joined the Fort Myers staff. Shane Bowers was a 21st-round pick and a fourth-year sign out of Loyola Marymount. He reached Triple A in 1997. One night in July, the day before he was scheduled to pitch and after charting the game that night, he brought his chart into the office of Salt Lake City manager Phil Roof. Larry Corrigan, the Twins field coordinator, was in the office.
"Thanks," Bowers said.
"No, seriously. That's a big-league chart."
Bowers looked confused.
"You don't even know what I'm talking about," Corrigan said. "You're not pitching tomorrow. You're pitching Saturday against the Orioles in Minnesota."
It happened that fast. Twins starter Bob Tewksbury was hurt and they needed a starter. Bowers happened to be throwing well at the time.
"I was in the right place at the right time," he said. "It was nothing I was expecting."
Bowers made five major league starts. He was 0-3 with an 8.05 ERA. He pitched clean.
"That wasn't one of my things," he said of steroids. "I didn't know much about it. I heard more about it now with the media attention. It wasn't a big topic like it is now. If guys were taking steroids, that was their own decision they made. I was just thankful for the chance to play pro ball."
Here's the image that sticks: When Bowers returned to Triple A, the pitchers there debriefed him as if he had just come back from Mars. The gulf between the minors and majors is enormous in every way, especially in how a career is judged. He told them that Kirby Puckett was a great guy, that there were a ton of free spikes and equipment, that everybody in a major league lineup was a great hitter -- not like just the three or four in Triple A -- and that the money was outrageous. Minor league pay was so abysmal that the Miracle pitchers would take their paycheck to a bank, cash it, and slip the money in their pocket. In the majors, Bowers received a check for $8,800 in take-home pay.
"I can't cash this," he told his buddies. "I can't just put this much money in my pocket. I've got to open a bank account now!"
Bowers never pitched again in the majors.
"I was an overachiever," he said. "I had my degree already. If it didn't work out, I could go to grad school. I don't have any animosity. I can see how someone feels bad if [steroids] kept someone from getting up . . . Someone once told me, 'But
Roberts didn't get there, but was happy for Bowers.
"Gosh, Shane, everything he was doing that year was perfect," he said. "I was really happy for him. He's a nice guy."
If there is any consolation for Roberts it is that he did it clean while coming as close as one phone call to being in the show.
"I can look myself in the mirror knowing I busted my butt and gave 110 percent and never once cheated the game," he said.
It's the sensible approach. But there is another side that still exists, even 10 years after Caminiti and steroid reform. There remain people such as Serafini who don't view steroids as cheating the game and cheating those who played it cleanly.