By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Among people who watch big league baseball for a living, there are differing opinions as to whether there has been any change at all.
"I think the overall effect of the greenies was to make [a player] think he was stronger, more rested and better able to perform," said ESPN and Comcast SportsNet television analyst Buck Martinez, a former manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. "I think it was in their heads more than a physical thing. The [quality of play this] season doesn't seem to have changed one bit."
One scout for a National League team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the league has asked team employees not to discuss drug policy, agreed with the "it's-all-mental" theory, saying: "I don't see any difference. If guys aren't doing [amphetamines] now, their bodies have probably gotten used to it, and they probably didn't need them in the first place."
Arroyo said, if anything, some players have reported better results without the drugs. "I've heard two guys talking about why they're having so much success as hitters. And both of them attributed it to not using greenies -- it's made them more relaxed at the plate, less jumpy," he said.
However, an AL scout said he sees a visible effect. "I see everyday players getting more days off, or more days at designated hitter, he said. "And I see some awful performances on day games." One NL team official added: "I definitely see it. Look at how many veterans, older players, guys who are career .300 hitters, who are hitting .240 this year."
Statistically speaking, there is little outward evidence of a major change in the way the game is being played since the amphetamine ban went into effect. For example, contrary to popular wisdom at the start of the season, the most durable starting players do not appear to be taking more days off.
In 2005, 71 players played in 150 or more of their team's games -- or 92.6 percent of a full 162-game schedule. This season (through Sunday), 82 players had played in 92.6 percent or more of their team's games. The number of players who played in 100 percent of their team's games has fallen from 10 last season to seven so far this season; however, both numbers are up from 2004, when there were only four.
Likewise, relief pitchers -- the group believed to be the most dependent on amphetamines, because of the quick-response nature of their job -- seem to be appearing in games just as frequently. In 2005, 21 relievers appeared in 75 or more games (46.3 percent of a full 162-game season); this season, 22 pitchers are on the same pace or greater.
"One thing I'm not surprised to see is a lack of change in playing time," Will Carroll, author of "The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems," and a contributing writer for Baseballprospectus.com, said in an e-mail. "Many expected there to be fewer players going every day, taking more [days] off, etc. I thought all along that doing this would be an implicit admission by managers that they knew about the amphetamine use.
"Managers seem much, much more likely to say, 'You figure out how to do what you need to do [to play], and I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing.' "From Coffeepots . . .
Amphetamines are said to have first entered baseball clubhouses in the 1940s, when players who had served in World War II returned home, having been introduced to the drugs during combat as a way to remain alert. Players from the 1950s and 1960s have said the drugs were openly dispensed by team trainers during that era.
Still, they remained largely out of the public view until the 1970 publication of "Ball Four," Jim Bouton's tell-all memoir of the 1969 season in which he broke the code of silence about the widespread availability and use of amphetamines in baseball clubhouses.
"We don't get them from the trainer because greenies are against club policy," Bouton wrote. "So we get them from players on other teams who have friends who are doctors or friends who know where to get greenies."
By 2005, former outfielder Chad Curtis, who played for six teams during a 10-year career that ended in 2001, said on the HBO broadcast "Costas Now" that he estimated 85 percent of big leaguers had used amphetamines at least once -- despite the fact amphetamines, since 1970, had been classified as illegal without a prescription under the Controlled Substances Act.
In the House Government Reform Committee's report on former Baltimore Oriole Rafael Palmeiro, triggered by his testimony at a March 17, 2005, hearing and his subsequent positive test for steroids, former Texas Rangers trainer Dan Wheat told investigators the drugs were "prevalent" in baseball. Wheat "once asked a player, 'Of the nine players on the field, how many took greenies today?' " according to the report. "The answer from the player was eight."
This year, pitcher Jason Grimsley, in an affidavit released after his home was searched by federal investigators, described separate pots of coffee in clubhouses, one labeled "leaded" -- which meant it was laced with amphetamines -- and one labeled "unleaded." The revelation prompted howls of ridicule and outrage around baseball.
"This thing about the coffeepots being marked -- I'm not saying the stuff isn't in there. But I have never been in a clubhouse where the coffeepots are marked like that," Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "Guys are misspeaking when they take a brush like that and paint everybody. Like anything, some people do [use drugs], but the majority does not."
However, Grimsley's only misstatement may have been in his details. According to one team executive, the coffeepots were not labeled, but it was well known among players which pot was which -- something this person said he knows firsthand, because he once drank from the wrong pot and wound up being taken to the hospital in an ambulance with a racing heartbeat.
In fact, it was the dangers of amphetamines, expressed to him by team doctors and trainers during conversations last season, that ultimately convinced Selig of the importance of getting them out of the game.
"They came in separately on two different occasions and said, 'You have to do something about this, or somebody is going to die,' " Selig said. "They expressed more concern about [amphetamines] than anything else."To Espresso Machines
While many players shared the view that the notion of baseball without amphetamines would have an ugly effect on the field, they say they are adapting.
"Guys are substituting -- getting things at GNC that are legal," Washington Nationals veteran first baseman Robert Fick said. "Obviously, it doesn't give you the same ride. But it probably helps. And espresso -- that's the biggest thing. It seems like every clubhouse now has an espresso machine."
Likewise, clubhouse refrigerators in 2006 generally are well stocked with energy drinks.
"Sugar-free Red Bull," said Minnesota Twins designated hitter Rondell White, when asked what players were using for an energy boost this year.
"More energy drinks," said former Orioles catcher Javy Lopez, who was traded to the Boston Red Sox this month. Lopez also showed a reporter a container in his locker labeled "Phosphagen Elite" -- a legal supplement containing creatine -- that he said he uses.
As a service to players, MLB and the players' association have arranged to have a laboratory, NSF International in Ann Arbor, Mich., test supplement products to certify they are clean, and they have encouraged players to use the service.
Baseball's list of banned stimulants also includes drugs -- such as Ritalin and Adderall -- that are used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. However, players who can prove they have been treated for the disorder for a significant period of time can receive a therapeutic-use exemption (TUE) to continue using the drugs. Among the players who reportedly have received TUEs are Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Derek Lowe, Chicago Cubs pitcher Scott Eyre and San Francisco Giants pitcher Noah Lowry.
Critics point to this potentially exploitable loophole, as well as the absence from baseball's banned list of certain other stimulants -- of which, NYU's Wadler said, there are "hundreds of thousands around the world" -- as evidence that baseball's policy does not go far enough.
"We have a lot of [attention-deficit disorder] drugs floating through clubhouses and a policy that doesn't test for the strongest and most misused -- modafinil," said Carroll, the author. With stimulants, "more than steroids, there are better, more accessible alternatives."