Friday, February 13, 2015

Rob Goldman, Historical Writer - 

The first time I heard about steroids was years ago, when I was in high school. It was during football season, so I was spending a lot of time inside the weight room. But it was my Baseball coach who pulled me off to the side for a talk. From out of the blue, he turned his discussion to the harmful effects of steroids. He implored me to exercise caution and good judgment if I was exposed to them. Caught a little off guard by his suspicious tone, I couldn’t help but be a little defensive. Does he assume I’m on steroids because I play Football and spend a lot of time lifting weights? My long hours in the weight room had cast a shadow of suspicion on me. I barely knew anything about steroids and certainly hadn’t come into contact with them. I had just turned 16 that summer, and going into my junior year I came back to school almost six inches taller and about 25 pounds heavier. Puberty kicking in, combined with my weight-training work, caused a change in my appearance that was dramatic. Looking back, I realize that my coach had a difficult task in trying to protect me and others from the negative influences out there. I am grateful for his concern and for taking time to explain the harmful affects of steroids to me.

Whenever I speak at an event, the topic of steroids is invariably the most popular subject matter. Performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) like steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) came on to the scene during the peak years of my career. I suppose any book written by a player from my generation is faced with addressing the issue. It’s tough to have played in an era that has so much suspicion and speculation surrounding it. I would like to think that the majority of players were clean, but clearly some aspects of the game changed. Sure, there might have been some whispers along the way, but I guess that most of us were in denial that it was as big of a problem as it turned out to be.

Looking back, I suppose there were tell-tale signs along the way—home-run records being broken, middle relievers unexpectedly throwing the ball three-mph harder, or average utility players suddenly hitting more home runs than they ever had before. At the time, though, we looked at these spikes in performance and rationalized, “That’s just a juiced ball.” Now, of course, we know it wasn’t the ball that was juiced. It was tough to understand to what extent the game was being influenced by PEDs. Was it just the big power hitters? How could it possibly help a pitcher? Of course, new revelations have slowly emerged, revealing that it wasn’t just hitters but pitchers, too. And young guys, old guys, MVPs, and bench players. PEDs weren’t just limited to a few players or even a particular segment of players. Everyone who used them saw a benefit in their performance. It raised the level of play on the field, making it more and more difficult for those who chose not to use them.

Today, I have a better understanding of why the threshold for determining power hitters changed during the middle of my career. When I first came up to the big leagues, if a player hit 30 homers and drove in 100 runs he was labeled a power hitter and ended up one of the top 10 hitters in the league. I fell into that category my rookie year, and continued to perform at that level during the bulk of my healthy playing days. I always prided myself on taking care of my body by getting my rest and sticking to a weight-lifting program both in and out of season. This was “performance enhancement” as I understood it, and it paid off for me. Something began to change, though, in the late ’90s. I kept up my typical production, but I was moving down the list of top hitters instead of toward the top. Typical power-hitter numbers of the past couldn’t even land you in the top 10 anymore! That bar was raised from 30 to more than 40 home runs over a short period of time. On the top end, there were guys hitting 50, 60, and in 2001, a new record of 73 home runs. A major-league record that stood for over 50 years was suddenly broken by three different players in a five-year span.

I began to rationalize that my own decline was due to some of the injuries I had developed. So when I started feeling healthy, I always wondered why I wasn’t benefiting from the so-called “juiced ball” that people talked about. It didn’t seem to be going any farther for  me—actually, it was becoming more difficult for me to do what I was accustomed to doing in the game. My perceived lack of production really started to take a toll on me mentally. In 2001, after my first shoulder surgery, my drop off in production almost put me over the edge. Now, I realize I was fighting more than just myself. The playing field was becoming more and more unbalanced for those who tried to play it the right way.

Looking back at the late ’90s you can see that it was a new era of competitive advantages and rewards. The growth of the game raised the financial stakes to astronomical heights for those that could separate themselves from the pack. The financial incentive outweighed the risk of any potential side effects from PEDs. Like anything else in society, the lust for fame and fortune trumped what was legal, moral, and healthy. For some players, it was too tempting an opportunity to pass up.

Of course, I realize that as long as baseball has been around, there have always been those that have found a way to take advantage of the system and not get caught. There have always been individuals who have pushed the envelope. But corked bats, pitchers using foreign substances, and scuffing the ball were pretty much the extent of what constituted cheating. I believe that using steroids goes way beyond those other forms of cheating. Steroids made players become more than nature intended them to be, dramatically elevating their performance level. It created an unhealthy culture in the game that screamed, “Get on the program or get left behind!” It was a perfect storm for abuse, and Major League Baseball, as well as the rest of the world, got blindsided. Who could have anticipated the bodybuilding phenomenon, fueled by steroid use, would manifest itself in professional baseball?

I have always been determined to never compromise my faith or my principles. I always relied on my God-given talent when I took the field. So the idea of using PEDs to enhance my performance was
a line I chose not to cross. As I became more aware of the problem of steroid use, I discovered that for some players it wasn’t all black and white. Some of them were guys I respected on and off the field, players who were truly faced with career-jeopardizing decisions. To them, it wasn’t about becoming the league MVP or signing a huge free-agent contract. It was about trying to keep a job when you know your competition is on the juice, or because you’ve endured a career-threatening arm injury, or simply trying to stay in the lineup while hurt in order to fulfill your contract obligation. I would never make a blanket statement about steroid use. But to truly comprehend the difficult moral and ethical decisions these guys struggled with, I guess you have to put yourself in their shoes. It’s easy to condemn steroids, but the pressure to perform at a consistently high level is tremendous. Faced with losing the job, I can better understand their rationalization.

The game seemed to change overnight in the steroid era. I can understand the baseball purist leading the charge for the past legends of the game. There has been talk about changing the record books
and putting asterisks next to some players’ names. I wouldn’t endorse it. I don’t think there are any realistic answers for dealing with the inflated numbers of this era. Where can you draw the line of certainty? We will never know. As names continue to come out, it will be up to the fans to determine the historical significance of each player’s production during this time.

In the future I am confident the game on the field will return to normal levels of play. The hard lessons learned through the so-called steroid era have developed new measures for testing and have raised public awareness as to the dangers of the drugs. Our national pastime is in a much better place today to protect the long-term interests and health of its players and the game. But, like many of you, I have to wonder: On a level playing field, where do the great players of my era stack up against the history of the game? Are they even superstars without steroids? We may never know. One thing I do know is this: My 299 home runs don’t compare much with the great home run
hitters of the game, but I’m proud of each and every one of them.

© Always an Angel, Playing the Game With Fire and Faith By Tim Salmon with Rob Goldman, Triumph Books, 2010
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