'Greenie' Monster Tamed?
Friday, August 25, 2006
Last week, the baseball season passed the three-quarters pole in its grueling schedule of 162 games spread out over 183 days. With the late-summer heat and the accumulated fatigue taking their toll on players' bodies, it is the time of year when in past seasons the use of amphetamines, long considered an integral part of the major league experience, would typically be at its peak.
However, this being the first year of baseball's ban on amphetamines -- also known as "greenies," "beans" and several other nicknames -- players no longer have that option, a reality that some observers believe has had a subtle effect on the game.
"I definitely know there are some guys who get to a Sunday day game, after a Saturday night game, and say, 'Man, I wish I had a greenie.' I've heard guys say that," Cincinnati Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo said. "So there's probably been some small effect. But I don't think it's been as noticeable as people thought it would be."
Baseball's steroid-testing program is now in its fourth season and its third incarnation, having been strengthened twice under pressure from the federal government. However, until last November baseball had resisted banning amphetamines, synthetic stimulants that, some within the game argued, were not true performance-enhancers -- an assertion that is contradicted by leading authorities on the use of drugs in sports.
"There was a huge outcry [in the scientific community] when baseball claimed there was no evidence that amphetamines were performance-enhancing," said Gary Wadler, a professor of medicine at New York University and a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency. "But stimulants can be potent performance-enhancers."
What baseball officials knew for certain was that amphetamine use was so widespread -- at various times in recent years, players have estimated the usage rate to be as high as 85 percent -- it had become an accepted part of big league culture. Steroids get more publicity, but baseball insiders knew amphetamines -- which can increase a person's energy, alertness and sense of well-being -- had a bigger impact on the game on a day-to-day basis.
Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig was asked during the all-star break last month about the belief that the quality of play would decline this summer because of the amphetamine ban. "I know there are some people who feel that way," he said. "I hope the quality of play does not change. You can do a lot of other things -- [such as] get a good night's rest."
While the current steroid-testing policy in baseball carries strong penalties -- 50 games for a first offense, 100 games for a second and a lifetime ban for a third -- the new amphetamine policy is milder. First-time offenders are neither identified publicly nor punished, but instead are subject to counseling. A second positive test results in a 25-game suspension.
There have been no two-time offenders identified thus far this season, and Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president, declined to say how many first-time positives there have been. Selig, too, has declined to give a specific number, but he has said repeatedly that "the testing is working" -- which implies there have been at least some positive tests.
The lack of transparency in baseball's testing policy makes it difficult for experts to assess the progress of the sport's effort to rid itself of illegal drugs. Amphetamines are illegal without a prescription.
"I would like to know, in the aggregate, what the testing has shown," Wadler said. "If there has been zero positive tests, that's important information. If there have been amphetamines, that's important. If there have been other stimulants besides amphetamines, that's also important. I really need to know the data. I'm not passing judgment, but those are the questions that come immediately to mind."
Despite forecasts of doom that greeted the start of this season -- one American League executive predicted during spring training that everyday players would take liberal days off, and afternoon games would feature players appearing like "zombies" -- there has been little measurable evidence of amphetamine testing having a quantifiable effect on the game.