Skip to comments.A Tainted Era? : MLB 1995-2002: Creatine, growth hormones, steroids
Posted on 06/17/2003 9:51:09 AM PDT by presidio9
Second of five parts: Medicine cabinet of horrors
If politics created a great divide between the owners and the union in forging an agreeable drug policy, consensus among the medical community was concrete: Creatine, growth hormones and, especially, steroids would not only enhance performance in incredible ways, but could severely damage and possibly kill a player, or cause sterility in an athlete's children or grandchildren.
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For too long, players used pride to resist the hard questions of the performance-enhancement drug debate. Regardless of the substance, you still needed the skill to play baseball. This wasn't football or weightlifting, in which increased brute strength could make a player better. Nor was it track, where additional fractions of seconds could turn a good sprinter into a great one.
This was baseball, and at the end of the day, you still had to be able to hit the ball.
``Everyone talks about being on the juice or whatever,'' Oakland A's third baseman Eric Chavez said. ``But you still have to be able to hit. If you can't hit, nothing is going to help. You can have muscles the size of my head.''
For a time, the ``relying on the skill'' argument sufficed to quell skepticism in the game. Outside of baseball, medical experts were determined to prove baseball wasn't only about skill, and that new supplements being introduced to the market not only made users stronger, but enhanced the skills specific to playing baseball.
Recovery is rapid
Anabolic steroids were the easiest issue to take issue with in baseball, because they are illegal in the United States despite their somewhat ready availability.
The effect of steroid use has been well-documented. Injected into the bloodstream, steroids provide immediate benefits to an athlete. They produce muscle mass quickly, allowing a person to double or triple his workout, putting a non-user at a clear disadvantage. Using steroids, an athlete could gain muscle mass without having to exercise.
Steroids have also been a prime target in both the medical and sports communities, having been banned in the Olympics, colleges and in the National Football League.
Plus, a steroid user can recover from workouts faster, another advantage since a non-user would need more time to recuperate from the wear of a game or workout. And one of the most important elements to steroid use is the ability to recover faster from injuries that did not previously heal.
The recovery, however, can be somewhat temporary, as certain parts of the body begin to break down.
``With steroids, one plus one equals three. An athlete could work out far beyond what they would be able to do without them,' said Dr. Robert Cantu, past president of the American College for Sports Medicine and medical director of the Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. ``Not only does the quality of the workout increase, but it allows a person to work at intensities that would normally break them down. That is not the normal evolution, and the downsides are pretty horrific.''
Medical experts have long been fascinated with Mark McGwire, the slugger for the Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals before retiring in 2001. McGwire's career, both in the positive and negative, exemplified the scrutiny displayed toward the power hitters of the time.
A prodigious home-run hitter from the day he entered the majors in 1987, McGwire averaged 38 home runs between ages 23-25, 34 between ages 26-28. Then, befallen by foot and back injuries, McGwire struggled in 1993 and 1994, pondering retirement.
Then came the start of The Era.
At a time most players lost power, McGwire turned into a modern-day Babe Ruth. Already a giant at 6-foot-5, 210 pounds early in his career, McGwire's weight grew to a concrete 250 pounds. From the years 1995-97, McGwire averaged 50 home runs, belting 58 in 1997.
In 1998, McGwire didn't break Roger Maris' 1961 single-season record of 61 home runs, he obliterated it by hitting 70, a record he suggested at the time would never be broken. McGwire has always denied steroid use, but during the 1998 home run chase admitted to using Androstenedione, a dietary supplement used to increase testosterone, and by extension, power.
At a time when most sluggers lose their power, McGwire averaged 57 home runs between ages 34-36, some 19 home runs per year on average more than when he was in his early and mid-20s.
McGwire's career will always be a mystery - one open to medical and casual cynics alike. He hit 65 home runs the year after his record-breaking campaign, but two years later, seemingly at the height of his power, he was gone from the game, unable to return from knee, foot and back injuries.
Danger at every turn
The side effects of anabolic steroids are, at the very least, chilling.
In men, the rate of heart attack is heightened, as steroids increase the amount of undesirable cholesterol - while reducing the high-density type - that the body produces. Acne on the face, trunk and back increase as well.
Steroids also attack the liver, which is then susceptible to tumors. The kidneys are vulnerable to disease, the size of the testes decreases and the libido diminishes, reducing sex drive.
Emotionally, steroids are well-documented to cause wild emotional mood swings. Dr. Richard Melloni, assistant professor of psychology at Northeastern University, has conducted extensive studies in animals and found that steroids turned hamsters violent.
``If you isolate a hamster, it will not become violent. Like human beings, it has to learn how to fight,'' Melloni said. ``With anabolic steroids, you can create aggressive behavior. Your brain is sort of like a computer circuit board. The circuits control certain functions, and very clearly, exposure to anabolic steroids activates those circuits responsible for inducing aggression.''
Melloni said it will take at least two more years of research to determine how long the aggressive cycles last. He added that in addition to increasing the level of rage, steroids also prevent the part of the brain that halts aggression at the same time, effectively, in Melloni's words, ``possibly making another person out of an individual.''
``It's a shame people are using these drugs. They do produce hormones for enhancing physical performance, but they come with all the negative baggage,'' he said. ``People need to know that you're not just playing with your biceps and triceps. You're playing with that lovely thing in your head that makes you what you are.''
Creatine tops the chart
If steroids posed an obvious danger, creatine, growth hormones, Androstenedione - legal products that mimic certain qualities of steroids - presented a more complicated problem. The safety issues of weight-loss supplement ephedra is a white-hot button in sports today, and University of Alabama researchers recently found that another popular fat burner/muscle builder - chromium picolinate - can cause sterility in the children and grandchildren of the user.
Androstenedione, the supplement that briefly tarnished McGwire's home run chase five years ago, has since been routinely discredited as a performance enhancer. To the anger of the anti-doping community, baseball's player union and owners then focused only on steroids.
``Andro, I don't like,'' said Clarence Cockrell, the strength and conditioning coach for the Oakland A's. ``It was a good idea, which was to improve the testosterone level, but it just doesn't work.''
Creatine, meanwhile, is the big issue in baseball. Widely used in every major league clubhouse, its effect on the body - at least in the minds of many doctors - is perfectly suited for baseball.
Creatine, a supplement available in pill or powder form, is produced naturally by the body and is also found in red meat. It enhances a body chemical called ATP, which provides energy bursts that allow a person to accelerate, or create torque from a stationary position.
Creatine is essential for providing that extra thrust of power, critical to hitting a baseball with an added jolt.
Thus, the use of creatine could explain to some degree how some players during The Era have added extra power to their game. Combined with the other phenomena over the past decade - year-round training, smaller parks, weaker pitching and smaller strike zone - creatine is potentially worth a few home runs a year.
As of now, medical experts are unsure of the longterm effects of creatine. However, they all agree that creatine can produce dehydration, diarrhea and gastrointestinal distress.
It also doesn't assist much in a sport where the athlete is in constant motion, such as soccer.
``That's why,'' said Dr. John Hathcock, vice president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a Washington-based trade organization that represents the supplement industry, ``you don't hear much about creatine use in basketball or hockey. It doesn't help those types of sports. Baseball players that use creatine would have a decided advantage because it speaks to the type of quick-burst motions that baseball requires.''
For aching muscles over a nine-month baseball season, creatine helped in the recovery process, allowing muscles to bounce back faster. But what really gave creatine an identity in baseball is a well-known truth: Unlike steroids, creatine will not help an athlete who does not work out rigorously.
This spoke to the baseball community, because a player such as Roger Clemens, for example, prides himself on working that much harder than his competition.
``That's the biggest difference, and it's why lumping everything in together is so embarrassing,'' said Bob Alejo.
Alejo, who was the strength and conditioning coach for the Oakland A's for a decade and is currently the personal trainer for New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi, is organizing a focus group of major league trainers. He has also worked at UCLA, helping world-class track stars such as Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Al Joyner.
``With a supplement like creatine, you have to work,'' Alejo said. ``If you eat doughnuts all day, creatine won't do anything for you. Steroids create muscle mass even if you do nothing. That's a critical difference.''
HGH: Fountain of youth
Human growth hormones, or HGH, are being touted as the new ``youth pill'' for their ability to simulate the level of hormone production of a 35-year-old adult to that of a person 25 years old. According to medical experts, human beings produce hormone levels that peak during the teenage years and decline steadily as a person grows older.
For example, a 35-year-old has lost roughly 75 percent of his hormone production.
Because the hormone level is again increased, HGH can reduce wrinkles, increase sex drive, produce muscle mass and body fat.
The last two benefits pose a new and difficult challenge for the sports world, for HGH chemically builds muscle mass in a way similar to an anabolic steroid, allow athletes to recover from injury more quickly and maintain sustained workouts.
But unlike steroids, HGH is legal and virtually untraceable, which makes it practically impossible to test. A player could then avoid using steroids and experiment with growth hormones, and still enhance his potential.
HGH is controversial because of the danger.
By injection, HGH is expensive - approximately $12,000 per shot - and the side effects of the injections are nearly as lethal as anabolic steroids. HGH injections are documented to increase certain cancers, diabetes, and affect bones in the hands, wrists and feet.
The most damage HGH can cause is not in adults, but in teens and young adults whose bodies are still producing hormones on their own.
The actual results of teenagers taking HGH produce the reverse effect. Instead of growing bigger, an aggressive hormone production can result in making a person shrink. HGH can also be responsible for the enlargement of the hands, feet, jaw, tongue and head. HGH recently became available in pill and liquid form - without the frightening side effects for adults of anabolic steroids or HGH injection - but experts say these versions are less powerful because pills lose their potency after digestion. ``Growth hormone used to be obtained by crushed pituitary cells,'' Cantu said. ``But it's synthetic now, which is good, because the old way had numerous troubling side effects.
``The bottom line is that growth hormone is extremely dangerous for young people,'' he added. ``There is a good chance their joints will close and they will wind up shorter. I don't think that's their intention.''
NEXT: A Band-Aid on the problem?
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