‘Roids and Greenies

(An aside: it is crazy to think that baseball’s “Steroids Era” began as late as 1994, and ended as early as 2004.  Anabolic steroids were used in baseball long before 1994.  As Craig Calcaterra recently reminded us, Congress first linked anabolic steroids to baseball back in 1973U.S. weightlifters were using anabolic steroids in the 1950s; football players were using anabolic steroids in the early 1960s.  It’s silly to imagine that baseball players took 30 years to catch up with performance-enhancing athletes in other sports. It’s equally silly to assume that anabolic steroids disappeared from baseball with the advent of drug testing in 2005.  Rest assured, any baseball player who wants to use anabolic steroids can continue to do so, with little or no risk of failing a drug test.  More on this in a later post.)

I include in the Tolerance Camp some of my favorite baseball writers, including Jayson Stark, Rob Neyer and Craig Calcaterra.   The IIATMS staff include vocal supporters of the Tolerance Camp: see here and here and here, for example.

Most of the arguments of the Tolerance Camp make sense to me, but one does not.  Tolerance Camp member Jim Caple wrote the following:

[H]ow can you reasonably justify withholding a [Hall of Fame] vote for steroid use but not amphetamine use? Amphetamines became illegal two decades before steroids did. That was also about when we learned amphetamine use was rampant in baseball, thanks to “Ball Four.” In other words, a whole lot more players used amphetamines and for a whole lot longer than ever took steroids… Don’t tell me amphetamines are a performance-enabler, not a performance-enhancer. That’s simply a convenient rationalization to excuse amphetamine use by your favorite players. If a substance helps a player perform in any way, it is a performance enhancer.

Rob Neyer has made a similar argument:

[T]he argument for using amphetamines is actually worse than the argument for using steroids … it’s probably true that some players, perhaps including [Mark] McGwire, were able to return to the lineup (or the rotation, or the bullpen) sooner than otherwise because they used [anabolic steroids] illegally. In those cases, the drugs really were performance enablers; the players literally wouldn’t have been able to perform, at all, without the drugs. Amphetamines, though? Those were, for a number of decades, purely performance enhancers ... Players used amphetamines so they could play better. And to be completely frank, anybody who tells you different is either lying or foolish.

Oh, boy.  As we’ll discuss below, the people that Rob thinks are “either lying or foolish” include many experts on this subject.

Rob does not help the “Tolerance Camp” cause by making simple, sweeping and disputable statements about the nature of amphetamines.   I do agree with Rob that amphetamines should be classified as “performance enhancing”, though for reasons that Rob might not anticipate, I’d prefer to classify amphetamines as “performance altering”. If given the opportunity, I’d ignore these categories altogether, because PEDs like amphetamines defy easy categorization.  Drugs like amphetamines do not behave in ways that make for convenient arguments about who should (and should not) be Hall of Fame inductees.

For the moment, let’s toss the categories out the window, and look at the facts instead. With all of the facts in hand, it becomes impossible to compare amphetamine use to the use of anabolic steroids.  These two drugs are not remotely similar.  No good can be accomplished by blurring the important distinctions between these two drugs.

Anabolic steroids are drugs that mimic the effects of the male hormone testosterone.  They increase protein synthesis within cells, which helps build larger muscles.  It’s well accepted that use of anabolic steroids, in combination with adequate diet and high intensity exercise, can result in gains in muscle strength.  Whether this increased strength enhances performance in a sport like baseball is an open question – most people assume that it does, but we have no scientific proof.

What about amphetamines?

(The following discussion relies on material from sources available on the web here, here, here and here, in addition to the sources cited specifically below.)

While anabolic steroids enhance performance by helping an athlete build muscle, amphetamines (sometimes called “greenies” in baseball circles) affect performance by stimulating the athlete’s central nervous system.  Amphetamines trigger increases in the user’s blood pressure, heart rate, cardiac output and breathing rate.  As a result, athletes that take amphetamines experience increased alertness and wakefulness, and decreased sensation of muscle fatigue.  Studies show that amphetamines can increase reaction time and cognitive function, and improve an athlete’s endurance (at least to the extent that the athlete is willing to work longer and harder without reporting exhaustion).

So, amphetamines are performance enhancers?  Not everyone thinks so.  For example:

“Ironically, the majority of research indicates that amphetamines do not enhance physical performance.”  McArdle, Katch and Katch, Essentials of Exercise Physiology.

Athletes use amphetamines “despite the lack of evidence regarding any ergogenic or real performance benefit.” Central Nervous System Stimulants and Sport Practice, British Journal of Sports Medicine (available for viewing with free 30 day subscription).

A review of the literature on amphetamine use in sport can be a confusing experience!  In the same piece, you can read that studies of the performance-enhancing effects of stimulants have yielded “primarily positive” and “somewhat equivocal” results.  The British Journal of Sports Medicine piece I mentioned above – the one that cited the lack of evidence showing performance benefits from using amphetamines – itself mentions a number of such benefits, such as improved reaction time, muscular strength and acceleration.  In fact, confusion seems to rule both sides of this debate.  One of the strongest advocates of banning amphetamines from baseball – WADA advisor Dr. Gary Wadler – has stated that amphetamines “do not create extra physical and mental energy” and “are notable for distorting the user’s perception of reality and impairing judgment.”

I’m only a well-traveled non-expert in the field of PEDs, but I think a few different factors combine to confuse the issue of whether amphetamines are performance-enhancing.

First: different people react to drugs in different ways.  One example: stimulants can tend to make users nervous and jittery (think of the classic stereotype of a person who’s had too many cups of coffee).  But if you give certain central nervous stimulants to people suffering from an attention deficit disorder (either ADD or ADHD), the stimulants actually have a calming effect.  Differences in the results reported by these studies may reflect differences in the subjects studied: these subjects may (or may not) be athletically active, or well-rested, or well-adjusted.  Stuff that might enhance performance under certain circumstances may have a different effect in other circumstances.

Second: as we’ve pointed out, the primary effect of amphetamines is on the central nervous system.  This might permit a user’s body to function better (for example, increased reaction time), but it’s also clear that amphetamines affect the user’s brain.  Amphetamines affect an athlete’s sense of things: the athlete feels better, more alert, more wakeful.  The user may not be any faster or stronger, but he is willing to push his body harder, for longer, with a more positive attitude.  Is a drug performance-enhancing simply because it changes an athlete’s feelings? Is a drug performance-enhancing if it does not improve the athletes’ speed or strength, but simply causes the athlete to use his existing body harder?  It all depends on your definition of performance-enhancing.

But there’s a third reason why amphetamines may not be performance-enhancing: we have not described all of the effects that amphetamines can have on athletes that use them.  Amphetamines can make users irritable.  They can impair judgment.  They can interfere with the user’s ability to sleep.  They can result in an inability to focus, inattention, increased reaction time, depressed reflexes, poor balance and coordination and an inability to follow directions.

But wait a minute!  We said above that amphetamines increase alertness, reaction time and cognitive function.  How can the same drug produce opposite effects?

Good luck trying to get a cogent and expert answer to this question!  As best as I can tell from the available studies, amphetamines tend to have positive effects when they’re first used, in relatively small doses.  But over time, the user grows resistant to the drug’s effects: the user builds up tolerance.  Larger doses of the drug are required to produce an effect … but those larger doses seem to be the doses that are more likely to produce negative effects.  I can’t find an expert who will say this … but it appears that if amphetamines are performance-enhancing, they may be performance-enhancing only for a short time, or only for the occasional user.

Another fact to consider: amphetamines obscure pain, and while this is commonly listed as a performance-enhancing benefit, masking pain may be more performance-impairing than performance-enhancing.  Amphetamines can encourage athletes to ignore injuries, thus compounding the severity of these injuries.

Actually, the full description of the effects of amphetamines is far more negative than I’ve painted so far.  The medical risks of taking amphetamines include hypertension, stroke, glucose intolerance, paranoia, hallucinations, convulsions, heart rhythm abnormalities, heatstroke, cardiac arrest and sudden death.  Amphetamines have contributed to the deaths of numbers of athletes, including cyclist Tom Simpson.  (The death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler was linked to use of Ephedra, which can have an effect on athletes similar to that of amphetamines.)  The risks of using amphetamines are compounded if the user combines amphetamine use with barbiturate use (amphetamines to amp up, barbiturates to calm down sufficiently to get a night’s sleep).  Amphetamines act “abnormally” after barbiturate intake.

What’s worse, amphetamines are potentially addictive – much like more infamous but related central nervous system stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamines (crystal meth).  In scientific studies, most animals allowed to self-administer amphetamines will do so until the drug finally kills them.

We’ve all read about the dangers of the non-prescription use of anabolic steroids, and as a rule I hate to play the game of which drug is the more dangerous.  But in this case there’s no question or controversy: amphetamines are far more dangerous than anabolic steroids. One author calls amphetamines the most dangerous illegal drug in the United States.  Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor and leading expert on PEDs, put it this way:

Amphetamines can stone-cold kill you immediately.  They’re highly addictive and you can overdose on them. They can cause psychotic episodes. They can lead to stroke and heart attack. In my judgment, they dwarf anabolic steroids as potentially dangerous drugs.

This is the biggest problem I have with the argument that anabolic steroid use in baseball is “just like” amphetamine use.  An athlete who uses anabolic steroids is taking a health risk in exchange for a possible benefit in terms of enhanced athletic performance.  Such use is cheating, it is against the rules, but if you put issues of morality to the side, it might be argued that the benefits of anabolic steroid use are worth the risk.  No such argument can be made in favor of amphetamine use.  Not only are the benefits of using amphetamines less clear, but the risk inherent in such use is way, WAY too high.  No sensible athlete has any business going anywhere NEAR this stuff.

This is why the question of whether amphetamines are performance-enhancing is the wrong question to ask.  Given the dangers of using amphetamines, we need to ban their use in sport even if athletes wrongly believe that they are performance-enhancing.  It’s not a question of fair play.  It’s a question of public health.

So, let’s return to the question of baseball’s Hall of Fame.  If we have dozens of current Hall of Fame members who were amphetamine users, does that justify the election of dozens of additional Hall of Fame members who were users of anabolic steroids?  To borrow a phrase from Rob Neyer, I hope it’s obvious by now how foolish it is to ask questions like this.  Some players who used amphetamines may have received a benefit of performance-enhancement, and some probably did not, but all of them used amphetamines at a risk to their personal health that dwarfs all other considerations.  Asking about the performance-enhancing benefit of amphetamines is like asking about the nutritional value of arsenic, or asking if playing Russian Roulette is an effective way of learning about statistical probability.  To ask such a question is to demonstrate that the questioner is missing a larger and more important point.

If the guardians of the baseball Hall of Fame feel that it’s part of their job to measure the potential value of amphetamine use, then I’d suggest that something has gone horribly wrong somewhere.  Perhaps someone is taking this job too seriously.  Or perhaps the job is no longer worth performing.

____________________________________________

Let me add a post-script to address three matters that I expect may come up in the comments.

First: if amphetamines are so dangerous, then how is it that generations of baseball players survived their encounter with amphetamines without frequent hospitalization, institutionalization and interment?  I don’t have a good answer to this question.  The use of “greenies” by baseball players was first mentioned prominently in the book “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton, and Bouton has said (famously) that in his day “greenies” were “handed out like candy.” It’s hard to believe that baseball players gobbled amphetamines as if they were M&Ms, without obvious and catastrophic consequences.  Perhaps Bouton exaggerated, or perhaps these “greenies” consisted of “No-Doz” or something else milder than amphetamines.  We have little hard evidence on this subject.

Or perhaps we should not discount the amount of abuse that an athlete’s body can tolerate without completely falling to pieces.  I’m reminded of a famous cyclist named Jacques Anquetil, who reportedly perfected the so-called “Anquetil cocktail” consisting of a painkiller and morphine or palfium.  Anquetil would inject this cocktail directly into a painful muscle – reportedly, he’d do this in the middle of a race, while riding his bicycle.  Then he’d take amphetamines to counteract the effects of the morphine and a sleeping tablet at the end of the day to counteract the effects of the amphetamines.  I’d expect that anyone engaging in this practice would end up in a rubber room, or a crypt.  Instead, Anquetil ended up on the top podium step for the most prestigious bicycle race in the world, the Tour de France.  In fact, he won the Tour five times.

We can’t learn much from the fact that athletes can try something dangerous and get away with it.  As they say on TV, “don’t try this at home.”

Second: in my usual fashion, I’ve addressed questions about a supposed performance-enhancing drug by looking at the best science I can find on the subject.  But many folks are of the opinion that when it comes to PEDs, the athletes know better than the scientists.  For these folks, amphetamines are clearly performance-enhancing, because if they weren’t performance-enhancing, athletes would not have used them.

If you read or write about PEDs, you’re often going to confront the question of who knows best, the scientists or the athletes.  This question comes up in debates about human growth hormone, or HGH: the scientists cannot find an HGH performance-enhancing benefit, but athletes (and others) keep using HGH anyway.

There are probably things we can learn from both the science and the practice of PED-using athletes, but I personally believe in the science.  The “common wisdom” about what’s good for athletes is commonly wrong, whether you look at the advice Burgess Meredith famously gave to Rocky in the first “Rocky” movie (“women weaken legs!”) or more tragically, the long standing practice of some coaches denying water to football players in training camp.

I particularly doubt any ballplayer’s expertise on the subject of amphetamines.  As I pointed out above, amphetamines are known to impair judgment, so I’m more likely to believe the evidence provided by the men and women in the white lab coats and less likely to believe the testimony of potentially judgment-impaired amphetamine users.

Third: in my main piece above, I put all baseball writers into two camps: the Zero-Tolerance Camp and the Tolerance Camp.  It’s probably unfair of me to jam hundreds of writers into two camps – there is an ongoing debate about anabolic steroids and the Hall of Fame, but I’ve probably taken some liberties in forcing everyone into one of two Camps.

There are two writers worth mentioning who have managed to resist even my effort to polarize this debate.  There’s Ken Rosenthal, who won’t vote for any Steroids Era player the first time they appear on a Hall of Fame ballot.  This particular stance makes no sense to me.  I understand that there’s prestige attached to election to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.  But as Rosenthal himself admits, if every writer adopted Rosenthal’s position, no reputed steroids user would get enough votes to appear on a second ballot.

Ken Davidoff makes a good argument for distinguishing between steroids use prior to and after baseball’s formal adoption of drug testing in 2005.  I give Davidoff credit for taking a nuanced stand on what I consider to be a complex issue, and for successfully resisting my instinct to paint everyone as either a steroids hawk or a steroids dove.  But I don’t agree with Davidoff’s selection of 2005 as a cutoff date.  Baseball first explicitly banned steroids in its 2002 Collective Bargaining Agreement.  Moreover, the non-prescription use of prescription drugs has been banned by baseball since 1971 .  Davidoff correctly argues that we have only “haphazard” knowledge of who was and was not using anabolic steroids prior to the commencement of baseball’s drug testing program in 2005.  But our post-2005 knowledge remains haphazard – all experts acknowledge that drug testing catches a small percentage of users, and at least some experts point to the likelihood that drug testing will yield some false positive results.  In fairness to Davidoff, I don’t believe he has adopted a hard and fast rule on this subject – for example, he’s willing to reconsider voting for Rafael Palmeiro on his 2012 Hall of Fame ballot.  But if Davidoff is looking for a bright line date to distinguish between tolerable and intolerable use of anabolic steroids, I’d suggest that he use the date February 27, 1991 – that’s the date that federal law placed anabolic steroids in Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act, making non-prescription possession of anabolic steroids a federal crime.

45 thoughts on “‘Roids and Greenies

  1. Damian

    Just read the post and I have a lot to think about, but I just wanted to thank you for posting. Very thoughtful and informative.

  2. williamnyy23

    Using the internet, you can find studies that say A or B about both anabolic steroids and amphetamines. In fact, you could probably switch the names in the quotes you referenced above. What matters, however, is the context, and the fact of the matter is there haven't been many (if any) conclusive and authoritative studies on the topic (for good reason).

    I am unclear as to how this piece dispute Neyer's take. His point is that amphetamines are cheating, just like PEDs, and because there is no evidence to suggest one helps more than the other, there is no basis for distinguishing between them in terms of the Hall of Fame.

    I definitely respect the opinions stated above, but that's all they really are. The scientific evidence one needs to make an authoritative argument simply doesn't exists, so instead of playing doctor, I think we all have the responsibility to be consistent.

  3. Obviously greenies and steroids don't have the same effects, if they have any effects at all, but I think that's probably drawing too fine of a distinction. Ultimately, we don't truly know the effects of either of them on performance, and probably never will, but ultimately, whatever the effects, the INTENT was there to chemically enhance performance in the use of both of them. Ditto for vitamin shots, goat testicles, and whatever else athletes have tried in the past century. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and thousands of other baseball players took some sort of substance with the intent of chemically enhancing their performance. If you want to moralize about "cheating," I don't see any reason for differentiating it.

    And wouldn't it be nice if we could get people to realize that there have been anabolic steroids in baseball since the mid-to-late 1960's?

  4. Rockdog

    One of the best articles written on this issue, and much more thoughtful than most of what shows up in the mainstream press. Should be required reading for HOF voters. I am not sure what the right answer is for dealing with PEDs in terms of HOF voting, but the current writers seem to be taking a very simplistic view on a very compex subject.

  5. LarryAtIIATMS

    Rockdog and Damian, thanks! I INTENDED this piece to get people thinking. In particular, if I can get everyone to react like Rockdog and realize how complex this topic really is, then I'll have accomplished my purpose.

    WilliamNYY23, there's always going to be less information on PEDs than we like. Amphetamines are really too dangerous to allow for much in the way of PED testing, and besides, they're kind of a dead PED issue now, because they're so easy to test for. (Testing for anabolic steroid use is a lot trickier.) But we know more than enough about amphetamines to know that they're very dangerous drugs, and that the danger and the known performance-inhibiting effects of the drug make the drug an extremely poor choice for athletes looking for an "edge".

    How is it that I dispute Neyer's take? Neyer thought that the big question was whether amphetamines should be classified as performance-enhancing or performance-enabling. I think these categories are dumb and misleading when it comes to drugs like amphetamines (another dumb category: "recreational" drugs). But if you're going to put amphetamines into a category, the correct category is "dangerous" drugs. If you're determined to lump amphetamines into a group with other drugs, amphetamines belong with drugs like cocaine, not with anabolic steroids.

    Another beef with Neyer is the idea that amphetamines have the same potential to boost performance as anabolic steroids. Personally, I think that the potential boost from steroids use has been wildly exaggerated by the mainstream press, but notwithstanding, anabolic steroids have the much greater potential for boosting performance. Again to quote Professor Yesalis from Penn State: Prof. Yesalis argues that steroids are fundamentally different from any other way that an athlete might seek a competitive edge: “These drugs, meaning anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, and so forth, they will take you places that you’ll never get to naturally. It’s not even arguable.” http://bigthink.com/ideas/23934

    Ultimately, I'm with Neyer and others who argue that steroids were so much a part of the fabric of sports culture that we cannot reasonably expect athletes to have steered clear of them. It is in this sense, and only this sense, that anabolic steroids can be compared to amphetamines. Amphetamines were EVERYWHERE in the 1950s and 60s: they WERE handed out like candy to members of the military, they were commonly used as weight loss aids, students used them like Red Bulls to pull all-nighters. We start to enter a gray area of moral judgment here, but amphetamines were once accepted by the mainstream of America in a way that anabolic steroids never were.

    More on this in a separate comment addressed to Brien.

    • williamnyy23

      With all due respect, I don't think "We" know enough about amphetamines to judge their performance enhancing impact, especially when discussing them in such broad terms. I don't think we can be any more certain about them than anabolic steroids, which is why I am very comfortable treating them similarly (both in terms of PED effect and morality).

      I also don't think it's fair to concluse that amphetamines are more dangerous than anabolic steroids…again, there simply isn't sufficient data to say that definitively.

      As for the PED effect, I don't think anyone doubts that anabolics add more muscle, but that doesn't mean they help a baseball player more than amphetamines. Also, I think we've kind of moved beyond anabolic steroids because it is much easier to test for them. Instead, so many are obsessing about HGH and there is no evidence to suggest they help performance, contrary to comment you quoted. Here is what Dr. Thomas Perls of Boston University says on the issue:

      cont.

      • williamnyy23

        People equate it with youth, so it becomes the darling of the so-called anti-aging industry. Growth hormone is just something they’ve added to anabolic steroids in these multiple drug cocktails because it’s such a huge moneymaker, but in my opinion, based on what we know, it does very very little for you." http://www.popsci.com/entertainment-gaming/articl

        Finally, I disagree that anabolic steroids weren't as mainstream. It is a little misleading to say they weren't as mainstream in the normal culutre because there is little reason for a non-athlete to take them, but among athletes, I think they were widely accepted.

        Everyone is free to an opinion, but there is no data to support anyone who want to make a definitive statement about anabolics, HGH, and amphetamines…not in relation to each other or with regard to their PED effect.

        • LarryAtIIATMS

          williamnyy23, I go through considerable pain to document nearly everything I say about PEDs in my posts. (I fly faster and looser in my comments.) I've DOCUMENTED my statements about the dangers of amphetamines and the comparative danger of amphetamines and anabolic steroids. I've given you a considerable amount of material that you can click through and read if you're sufficiently interested, and if you INTERPRET this material in a different way than I do, then post your interpretation. If you need the space and you're willing to document your opinion the way I've documented mine, I'll petition the powers that be to let you guest post.

          As far as testing for anabolic steroids … I have spent a huge portion of my life learning how they test for anabolic steroids. Rest assured, it is quite a difficult thing to test for them, that is, if you do what most experts recommend and use isotope ratio mass spectroscopy to determine a c13/c12 ratio for the carbon atoms in a variety of different anabolic steroid metabolites. Yes, I know that the last sentence was complete technospeak, but what it comes down to is determining the neutron count in carbon atoms in the steroid byproduct molecules, to an accuracy that is pretty damn astounding. In comparison, testing for amphetamines is quite easy.

          I've posted here at length about HGH. There's no scientific evidence that HGH does anything to help a normal adult get stronger. You should not conflate HGH and anabolic steroids. The evidence is pretty damn conclusive that anabolic steroid use can make an athlete bigger and stronger. We don't have terrific evidence that the strength gains possible from anabolic steroid use will help a guy play better baseball. We can DEDUCE that it can, but if you've read my stuff here you know that I downplay the extent to which anabolic steroids can enhance baseball performance.

          As for amphetamines … I don't know what else I can do to prove to you that amphetamines are a mixed bag, with effects that can be both performance-enhancing and performance-inhibiting, but that the stuff is far too dangerous to play around with. Yes, I get the fact that the real world use of greenies by baseball players may have been performance-enhancing beyond our wildest dreams. I've ADDRESSED the question of who we should believe, the scientists or the athletes. My advice is to believe the scientists. The athletes who used amphetamines were playing around with an addictive drug that affects judgment, and their testimony on this subject is simply not to be believed.

          Look. I know you as an A+ commenter, here and elsewhere. You can do better than play the "everyone has an opinion" card. Feel free to dispute anything I say, particularly when I say something that can't really ever be proven (such as how "mainstream" a drug might have been). But when I take the time to pull together the science for you, I'd appreciate your responding to the science.

          • I think William and his Captain's Blog are certainly worthy of all our reading, every day. As such, if William would like to contribute here in response, the door is open.

          • williamnyy23

            While you’ve provided links that are in agreement with your opinions on this topic, I am not sure that qualifies as documenting the claims. After all, there is no definitive documentation. It’s not really a matter of how your or I interpret the evidence as much as the fact that there really isn’t much evidence to draw any meaningful conclusions about the relative safety of various amphetamines and anabolic steroids, not to mention their relative effectiveness as a performance enhancing drug. I am not trying to engage in a debate centered around definitive conclusions, but instead am pointing out that our inability to do so requires that we not make definitive statements that draw strong distinctions.

            Also, I would point out that I didn’t conflate HGH with anabolic steroids. Prof. Yesalis did. In fact, you quoted him as saying, ““These drugs, meaning anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, and so forth, they will take you places that you’ll never get to naturally.” Now, I wasn’t aware that you disagreed with Yesalis until reading the comment above, so I guess we have no disagreement on this topic.

            cont.

          • williamnyy23

            I think we can all agree that considered broadly, there are a wide variety of drugs that can be both performance enhancing and performance inhibiting. In fact, you can extend that to any form of enhancement. For example, a pitcher who uses a little pine tar on his hand might get a better grip of his curveball, but if he applies too much, or places it in the wrong spot, it could prevent him from affecting the desired result.

            Aside from the morality question, which is really what so many HoF voters seem hung on (i.e., cheating), I really don’t think the players’ beliefs matter much at all. I also think we should believe the scientists, and again maintain that they have not been definitive on the topic. Using another example, it’s almost like a defense and prosecutor bringing in their own expert witness to testify on a subject that has little scientific consensus. Both can make a convincing argument, but absent definitive proof, each one is just a theory. Now, when DNA evidence is presented, the science validating the evidence removes the need for expert witnesses. In the case of PEDS/amphetamines, we have lots of expert witness, but little definitive validation.

            cont.

          • williamnyy23

            Finally, I may be “better” than “everyone has an opinion”, but on this topic, that’s basically what it boils down to. That’s why I don’t think it makes sense to respond to the science. A search of “amphetamines and athletic performance” on Google unveils so many links that could support just about every argument on the spectrum, so I am not sure what would be gained. Of course, you’ve already stated that point, which is I guess what confuses me most about the post. On the one hand, you seem to be making definitive statements, but on the other you acknowledge the massive contradictions that still exist.

            In summary, I think the only place I really disagree with you is the extent to which you think amphetamines should be considered performance enhancing drugs relative to anabolic steroids. Personally, I admit that I have no idea how to come to that conclusion (also, it begs other questions like anabolic still require players to workout, but amphetamines require no complementary commitment), and am always leery of others who make conclusive arguments on the topic.

          • williamnyy23

            Instead, I prefer to look at them as both potentially harmful substances with the potential to aid performance that were widely used and tacitly accepted despite being against the rules. On that basis, I believe they should be treated similarly.

            And with that, I'll stop taking up all the bandwidth on this topic, but not before mentioning that I did think the post was both interesting and exhaustive.

  6. LarryAtIIATMS

    Brien, good comment, but we need to dive deeper into what you mean by "intent" and "cheating". I have a plane to catch, so more is to follow, but: are you saying that a baseball player "cheated" if he took a placebo thinking it was a performance-enhancing drug?

    • Hmmm. Well, first of all you have to define cheating, and that's sort of hard to do in the sense of baseball isn't it? After all, "cheating" has been celebrated as a part of the game since the very beginning of the game. So let's back away a bit and deal with this just from the spectrum of logical progression.

      IF you believe that using a chemical substance to enhance your performance is cheating, then any player who took the placebo under the pretense that it was a "performance enhancing drug" was, at the least, attempting to cheat by definition. Whether or not they cheated is a bit of an abstract question, especially since it ultimately rests on the scientific veracity of the substance. I'm not really sure it's fair to say players who took steroids cheated but players who took vitamin shots didn't just because the latter was total quackery. But in any event, the intent is the same in both events and, while I can't speak for Rob, I think that's basically the crux of what he was driving at in criticizing the double standard between use of steroids and use of greenies. It's certainly the point I would make in defense of steroid users.

    • I guess I don't know if you can say that or not (if you try to shoot someone but unknowingly have a toy gun, you can't say that you "murdered" that person, though you meant to), but following a logical progression, if you think that using chemical substances to enhance performance is cheating, then a player who takes a substance believing it will enhance their performance is, at the least, intending to cheat.

      • LarryAtIIATMS

        Brien, you're starting to get to the heart of why this discussion makes me so uncomfortable.

        I get your argument and would refine it somewhat, because I don't think anyone is going to take seriously an argument that groups anabolic steroids users with people who took placebos. But I can see grouping together all players who ACTUALLY used an illegal drug (illegal under baseball's rules or applicable law) with the INTENT of enhancing performance. This is, at least, an argument that is logically coherent and consistent. It also avoids what I consider to be the near-impossible task of classifying drugs based on their performance-enhancing effects.

        (more to follow)

        • LarryAtIIATMS

          The problem with the argument is that it only addresses the question of cheating. I think that the HOF voters are reacting against more than cheating when they refuse to vote for actual or alleged users of anabolic steroids. I think they're also reacting to their fear that the use of steroids enabled these players to perform at something well beyond their "natural" abilities. For these voters, the extent of a drug's performance-enhancing effect DOES matter. And we cannot fairly say that all illegal drugs have the same performance-enhancing capabilities. We probably CAN say that we don't know what affect these drugs can have on performance on the field, but that's a very difficult argument to make to sportswriters who THINK they perceived anabolic steroids turn Barry Bonds into some kind of home run hitting Frankenstein.

          (more to follow)

          • LarryAtIIATMS

            MY preferred argument begins with the idea that everyone's use of PEDs was DIFFERENT, even when we're talking about the use of the same drug. I don't like lumping together all users of PEDs, and I don't even like lumping together all users of the same PED. Andy Pettitte's admitted use of HGH to try (probably unsuccessfully) to heal more quickly from an injury looks different to me than A-Rod's use of anabolic steroids (again, without any evident effect on his performance) to try to justify his big contract. If you believe the drug testing (and I generally have my doubts), then Palmiero's use of anabolic steroids after his denial of such use to Congress probably falls into its own category.

            (more to follow)

          • LarryAtIIATMS

            Personally … I do not believe that I can tell who was and was not using anabolic steroids, not before 2005 and not since 2005. We have a handful of admitted users and an undetermined number of undisclosed users of anabolic steroids, and I can see no reason to treat these two groups differently. For me, the argument begins and ends right there. You might not agree, but at least my argument does not require us to consider the performance-enhancing potential of a drug like amphetamines, which is a drug that should not be classified as anything other than dangerous.

  7. Tynamite

    Amphetamines are a performance enhancer for athletes. Anyone who has taken adderall and played a sport (or beer pong in college) when it is not prescribed to you will tell you that. Or studied for that matter. It just puts you in the zone. Makes you concentrate harder. Players kept taking it because they saw a difference in their play. I also think @BrienJackson was right on. The INTENT is there.

    • LarryAtIIATMS

      Tynamite, your personal testimony about amphetamines and beer pong is duly noted. I can imagine more stupid things that combining beer and amphetamines in an effort to achieve performance enhancement, but at least I can say that this is the stupidest new idea I've heard today.

      I also have no doubt that athletes who use amphetamines perceive that they are performing better. It might even work for a while, until the tolerance builds up and the nasty effects of this garbage begin to kick in. Of course, I know people who'd swear that they drive better when they're intoxicated, or that their comedy becomes world-class when they're stoned. The testimony of people under the influence is close to worthless.

  8. Mark Smith

    In regard to the HoF vote, I have a question. One of the arguments frequently used in support of having steroid users in the Hall is that amphetamine users are already in, essentially saying it would be hypocritical to have one group in and the other out. I, however, wonder if that's true. We learn new things all the time, and I think we learn from our mistakes. So just because amphetamine users are in doesn't mean it's right to let in steroid users if we agree that both are cheating (or as Brien stated, had the INTENT to cheat). In the same vein, the Yankees don't need to drastically overpay every FA just because they have done so before.

    In the end, I'm not entirely sure what to think, partly due to some of the dialogue Larry, Brien, others, and I have had on the subject. On one hand, PEDs (steroid or amphetamine) are illegal and are a form of cheating, and trying to cheat seems to be more than enough to ban someone from any HoF, regardless of the existence of a character clause. Players are expected to play by the rules, and if they do not, they should be punished. HoFs are there to represent the best in the sport, not cheaters.

    It's not that simple, however. Declaring motives for players' use of anything is sketchy territory. I doubt that anyone ever used PEDs to cheat the game or show it a lack of respect. Some may have done it for money and fame, but I don't think those are the only motives. For some, baseball is where they have job skills. For some, baseball is the game they love, and while they want to make money, it's mainly a "I do it here or at Place X" with the implication that Place X isn't much fun to work for. For others, they may feel a sense of obligation to perform–for the fans, for their teammates, to provide production for their large contract. Most of the time, we see PED users as these evil entities, but I don't think most of them used for purely selfish motives. But just because that wasn't their intent doesn't mean they shouldn't be punished. The child didn't mean to break the crystal vase, but when you've told him/her not to, it doesn't matter that he only wanted to water mother's plant. But the question becomes what should the punishment be, especially for those not caught, and I don't know if there's a good answer.

    • "So just because amphetamine users are in doesn't mean it's right to let in steroid users if we agree that both are cheating (or as Brien stated, had the INTENT to cheat). In the same vein, the Yankees don't need to drastically overpay every FA just because they have done so before. "

      That's a good point, but I'm not sure it's complete. After all, it's not like we collectively condemn amphetamine users the way we do 'roiders. For the most part, the great players who popped greenies like they were watered down coffee are still celebrated as being titans of the game. So there's really a double standard any way you slice it, not just specifically relating to membership in the Hall.

      • Mark Smith

        That's fair. I guess my thought is that most people who argue for steroid users use amphetamine users as their point, and I don't think that's a particularly strong arguing point. But for the Tolerance Camp, they do seem to view both groups similarly. Again, I'm not sure what we should do. In the end, I'll give the players a pass on the usage, for the most part, but I can't say that I'm particularly convinced of what's right or correct, though I've seen quite a few "wrong" arguments.

        • I'm not sure I'd make that argument. On the one hand, I would note that there's no precedent at all for using "cheating" as a pretext for denying someone admission into the Hall. For another, I'd note that if you want to moralize about the evils of steroid use, you have to do the same for amphetamine use, even if it's after the fact now.

          What the HoF issue boils down to in most cases, however, is the idea that a user doesn't belong because he wouldn't have been good enough without steroids, and it's only the cases of people like Bonds and Clemens that have taken the discussion in a more disciplinary direction for the sake of avoiding the spectacle of trying to decide which users were "good enough" without and which weren't, which would have been too absurd even for the Pearlmans of the world, I think.

          • Mark Smith

            But the "precedent" thing is what I'm talking about. There is no precedent, but just because there's no precedent doesn't mean we can't start one now (again, not saying we should). But I agree that you would probably have to do something about the amphetamine users to be intellectually consistent.

            I'm just confused.

  9. jay_robertson

    If (allow me to call "amphetamines/bennies/greenies" speed, for the sake of brevity) – speed is so dangerous, why do over 10% of school children take it on a regular basis, with approval and guidance from their doctors? –if it didn't work, why would parents keep paying to give it to their children?

    And if Adderall (which is just a combination of dexedrine and benzedrine – bennies, for those who listen to "truck driving" songs) is not a performance enhancer, how is it that over a hundred MLB players have "exemptions" allowing them to take that drug for their AAD? If it didn't work, WHY BOTHER? – since, supposedly, its highly dangerous, etc.

    As Larry and others have said – speed of some sort has been around for decades; in WWII, it was even in combat C-Rats. Pilots still get it on a regular basis. Take the brand name off it, look at the contents – it is the same thing truckers used for years, and likely ball players too. And our children – in school, under Doctor's orders!

    Steroids are bad. OK. Speed can be bad (unless you're a young student without any say so, or a clever MLB player.) OK. Shoot – do we also take Dock Ellis's name out of Cooperstown, take away his no-hitter, simply because he was using his favorite PED? LSD.

    If the point of this is to say we shouldn't have blanket exclusions from the HOF, just because they may have used PEDs, then I'm with you. Simply because players have used every edge they could ever since day one. It is awfully hard to say THIS PED is bad, and THAT one is ok. If we were to exclude everyone who used anything, I'm guessing Ramero Pena might make it into Cooperstown.

    • LarryAtIIATMS

      Jay, there are legitimate medical uses for amphetamines. You mention ADD (so did I in my main post), and the treatment of narcolepsy is another such area. The fact that a drug can be used safely under the supervision of a doctor to treat a diagnosed condition does NOT make it safe to use the same drug outside of a doctor's supervision for some other purpose.

      Let's assume that some of the baseball players with TUEs (therapeutic use exemptions) for amphetamines have doctored up phony ADD diagnoses so that they can get use amphetamines without sanction. What does that prove? It proves that these players want to use amphetamines. It doesn't prove that amphetamines are performance-enhancing. I've addressed the question of whether we can believe the testimony of amphetamine-using ballplayers, in my main post and in my comments. I tend to trust the scientists.

      By the way, the ADD drugs are engineered a bit differently. It is NOT all the same stuff with different labels, Jay. That's just not correct. And as I wrote in my main post, amphetamines AFFECT ADD sufferers differently. The fact that amphetamines are used successfully to treat ADD does not say anything about their use in the general population. Also, remember that any kid who takes amphetamines for ADD is doing it under a doctor's supervision and a doctor's monitoring. Baseball players who drank clubhouse coffee laced with amphetamines did not have the same protection.

      I DON'T think pilots "still get" amphetamines on a regular basis. If that is the case, I haven't seen it in the stuff I've read, and if you have documentation for this, please provide it. Yes, the military used the stuff liberally during WW II, and the drug was still popular with soldiers in Vietnam.

      Yes, Jay. I get the argument that if amphetamines are as bad as I say, then we should have seen more evidence of baseball players suffering from the effects of using this drug. Point taken. I anticipated and addressed the point in my main post. You are suggesting that maybe, it's possible for an adult to fool around with amphetamines without falling apart. I can't say for certain that this can't be done. All I can do is to point to the unanimous medical opinion that amphetamines are highly dangerous and should not be used outside of a doctor's care. If this opinion is overstated, so be it — it would be highly irresponsible of me to report anything else. To be certain, there's no conceivable way that I could depart SO FAR from the reported science as to suggest that ongoing non-medical use of amphetamines might actually do someone some good.

      • jay_robertson

        Well stated, Larry – its obvious why your name has the @IIATMS suffix, and not mine.

        Here is one old link – http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/… — where it says amphetamines usage by pilots was ended after Desert Storm; didn't know was that long ago. BUT – read the first paragraph of the 3rd section (aptly entitled "Using drugs to enhance performance in sports may be “immoral,” but war is not a sporting event. ") They tested helicopter pilots, on simulators, and there were demonstrable differences between performance with placebos and with the real thing. Hence my assertion that there likely ARE benefits. –I'm as likely to believe military researchers as I am some British scientists.

        Here's a link to another more recent abstract – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20681231.

        There are also a number of articles linking the use of stimulants to snipers; but you have the same access I do – probably better – so I'll leave it to you, if you need more proof of military use.

        I'm with you – I'm not advocating usage of amphetamines by the general public on a daily basis – but it is still generally prescribed. (and honestly – Adderall = dextroamphetamine and amphetamine – this from the NIH website – not just "street" info.) I'm not a chemist – if it helps parents to think the drugs their doctors pass out are different, that's fine with me. I'm sure there IS a difference – the pharmaceuticals are without a doubt purer and more consistently potent.

        Back OT – kinda – still say keeping folks out of the HOF for use of one drug, especially one that wasn't on the banned list during the period of usage, seems hypocritical in view of all the other drugs that were and are still used.

  10. mikeNicoletti

    Great piece, if for nothing but the narrative it has opened up!

  11. Todibus

    Great article, but I think you may be going at this debate too logically. My sense is that most of the reactions against putting steroid users or suspected steroid users into the HOF has no basis in the scientific facts of the drug or in comparing steroids to any other enhancing or enabling substances. People are reacting purely on their emotions of being cheated or made a fool of for believing in McGwire, Sosa and Bonds during those great HR years. I remember being enthralled at the feats of those players and, dare I say it, proud to be a fan of the game. Finding out that those feats were chemically enhanced was not only disappointing but, I suspect, embarrassing, for many people who were on that bandwagon. If this is the case, then of course we will see illogical arguments from the HOF voters – they're voting their disappointment, anger and need for revenge, not the facts.

    And BTW, my feeling is that we should ignore the steroid issue when considering HOF entry and simply judge the player on their on-field performance. If MLB wants to take any actions to deny players the right to appear in the HOF (e.g., Pete Rose), that, to me, is the appropriate way to go.

    • LarryAtIIATMS

      Todibus, good comment! Yes, most of the HOF voters are reacting purely on the basis of emotion. I think you're right in some part that these writers feel duped, but also I think there's been a shift in opinion on the acceptability of anabolic steroids. As a point of comparison, look at the situation in football. Think of the numbers of football players who've failed steroids testing — Shawn Merrimen, Bill Romanowski, Deuce McAllister, Deion Sanders, Rodney Harrison, Dana Stubblefield. You have admitted steroids user Mike Golic, who's a respected ESPN commentator. We don't much like this, but we put up with it. I think that steroids use in baseball was tolerated in much the same way, until the records started falling and particularly when the guy breaking the records was a guy no one liked (Barry Bonds).

      I agree, I see no logical way to approach this question other than to ignore the steroid issue and vote HOF based on what the player did on the field.

    • Joe Gualtieri

      "People are reacting purely on their emotions of being cheated or made a fool of for believing in McGwire, Sosa and Bonds during those great HR years. I remember being enthralled at the feats of those players and, dare I say it, proud to be a fan of the game. Finding out that those feats were chemically enhanced was not only disappointing but, I suspect, embarrassing, for many people who were on that bandwagon."

      I'm so tired of this revisionist history.
      1. I became a baseball fan in the early 90s. Jokes about Canseco being on 'roids were common. So PED use wasn't unknown.
      2. Nearly everyone assumed Brady Anderson was on something in '96.
      3. McGwire was CAUGHT using PEDs in '98. 99% of the world decided it didn't care and that the rest of us were spoil-sports.
      4. No one outside San Fran was caught up in the magic for Bonds, as everyone knew he was juicing and that was the tipping point, leading into the congressional investigations and MLB finally getting testing in, as those who chose to ignore McGwire's cheating in '98 finally came around.

      • I suppose you can call Andro a PED if you want, but let's be clear; in 1998 Andro was neither a controlled substance according to the government nor a banned substance according to baseball. You might not like that McGwire was using Andro, but you simply can't say he was cheating because of it.

  12. Thephilipbrown

    Initial note: the names I use here are arbitrary & I'm not saying that anyone did or didn't use PEDS or greenies, just using names.

    Several players from the 60s-80s (greenies era) used greenies. We don't know if Bob Gibson or Pete Rose or Nolan Ryan or Hank Aaron whomever used them. We do know that the problem was rampant in baseball. Let's say 80% of players used them. Yet nobody questions their candidacies or numbers.

    However, these writers feel it necessary to basically paint everyone from the steroid era (80s-00s) as a user. Let's say the same 80% were on PEDS. We THINK we know who did but we don't know who didn't. Did Junior Griffey? Did Edgar Martinez? Did Bagwell? Frank Thomas? Greg Maddux? Rickey Henderson? What about Derek Jeter? We have no idea.

    If 80% of each era presumably cheated, why is one punished & not the other? I'm not sure if it's as much hypocrisy as it is laziness to investigate. I thought the hall of fame was the great players of their era. And if 80% were cheating, isn't it reasonable to assume that the best players were going to be the best if 0% cheated anyhow?

  13. MikeD

    Great article, although I'm not quite sure how to internalize it just yet. I've never assumed that amphetamines have the same impact as steroids or HGH, but I do think both offer the chance to enhance performance. Steroids might be more likely to do this, then again amphetamines might be more likely to do the same compared to HGH.

    Yet the argument seems to NOT be about which helps performance more, if at all, but one of morality for some people. That's the key to their argument. Use of the word "cheater" gives them their defense. In the mind of the "No Tolerance" camp, there is no difference in Andy Pettitte taking HGH to try and recover faster, even though the evidence indicates that it did nothing to help him recover, than Barry Bonds, who appeared to be on a cocktail of carefully administered drugs to improve performance. It's laziness on their part.

    I understood Rob's argument and after reading his post today on ESPN, which linked back to here, I'm positive that I understand (and agree) with his point.

  14. LarryAtIIATMS

    Joe, Philip and Mike, I'm working on a new post to try and answer your questions. The short answer is that we're not REALLY dealing with the reality of the PEDs, or with the question of cheating or intent. What we're dealing with is fan perception. You cannot explain the different reactions to amphetamine use and anabolic steroid use (or for that matter, cocaine use) based on the pharmacology or by reference to rule-breaking. It's simply that the vast majority of us are frightened by anabolic steroids, feel sorry for cocaine abusers and scarcely give a damn about amphetamine use.

    The magic word is "perception". Yes Mike, "morality" is a related concept.

    I'm trying to get up a new post that says way, way more about this magic word.

  15. Eli

    Fascinating article, and awesome conversation going on. Re HOF voting – let's remember that a very large percent of the voting that goes on is based on emotion – as Todibus said. I'd like to pull that further, though. Tinkers, Evers and Chance are in the HOF largely because of the poem. Gaylord Perry is in the HOF, despite being an admitted cheater, because of his cavalier attitude about it alongside his accomplished resume. Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Ron Santo and other deserving players failed to get into the HOF – due largely to lack of emotion. Writers even say things like, "He doesn't FEEL like a Hall of Famer."

    The emotion is also the underlying factor why PEDs don't make waves in football. Baseball's records are hallowed (emotion again!) – football's are not. So when you have players who have challenged the most hallowed records in sports, are obnoxious about it, whose bodies look cartoonish AND are linked with PEDs… the emotions tend to push voters against these guys. The intellect fills in the gap with whatever excuse you want.

  16. sittingcurveball

    I think it is wrong to blame steroid users prior to the explicit 2002 ban with any zeal. Prior to that, the only MLB rule they broke was that they violated a United States law. In other words, prior to the explicit ban of steroid use in 2002, the people who used steroids were on the same moral ground as law-breakers like Orlando Cepeda (drug possesion), Dwight Gooden (fleeing police), Denny McClain (money laundering), Gustavo Chacin (DUI), Tim Lincecum (marijuana) and Darryl Strawberry (solicitation of prostitution).

    So, it seems like calling a player a cheater for breaking the MLB of rule of "not breaking any United States laws" is only applied for certain US laws like steroid use, and… and… well, that's it. That that argument doesn't seem right.

  17. LarryAtIIATMS

    Eli, good comment, you're anticipating some of my comments in my upcoming post.

    Curveball, funny! Gotta say, I've never understood the argument that the steroids users of the 1990s were "only" violating federal criminal law. Never understood until maybe tonight, because I'm about to post an argument that in essence forgives all anabolic steroid use prior to 2005. Be prepared to rake me over the coals for doing so, I probably deserve it. Ah, the difficulty of finding any sure ground from which to make an argument on this topic!

  18. Does aggregating and commenting on your post make up for not actually reading it in the being supportive department?

    • LarryAtIIATMS

      Yup, these are my readers. Also my family.

  19. LarryAtIIATMS

    But the opinion seems unanimous that this stuff is dangerous, that it's highly addictive, and that the negative side effects of amphetamines are considerable. With all that, is it possible that baseball players were able to use amphetamines to achieve a considerable performance-enhancing benefit? OK, you got me. I can't say that this is impossible. In particular, the less frequently amphetamines might have been used by a particular ballplayer, the more likely I think that the player might have derived a performance-enhancing benefit. From what I've read and cited (and again, I'm not cherry-picking), I don't see how a ballplayer could have ingested a steady diet of amphetamines without running headlong into the performance-inhibiting side of the drug.

    I don't agree that the science supports just about every argument in the spectrum. Let's stay nuanced. The fact that this drug is hard to understand doesn't mean that we know nothing about it. Let's say instead that there's much we don't know, but we know that the drug is potentially dangerous and has effects that are both positive and negative for athletic performance.

    (more to follow)

  20. LarryAtIIATMS

    Point taken about Prof. Yesalis. I think he was talking about the use of HGH in combination with anabolic steroids, which is of course the way it is used by most people trying to get stronger. Prof. Yesalis did not say (at least I don't think he said) that HGH has any proven performance-enhancing effect when used alone. Yesalis is an interesting guy — he definitely thinks that anabolic steroids are performance-enhancing in baseball, and he also thinks that for most people there's little health risk in using them. I would never base any discussion of PEDs on what Yesalis has to say, because he's a bit extreme in some of his opinions (not saying he may not be right), but I always look to what he has to say.

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