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Steroid Use in Major League Baseball


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Damaged Goods - Sammy, Barry, Rafi and Mark
Approaching the end of the Steroid Era

Rick Gagliano | 8/3/05

The Bible tells us, "the wages of sin are death." Baseball employed a somewhat different metric during the Steroid Era (1998-2004), wherein the wages of using performance-enhancing drugs was a salary of somewhere between $3 and $8 million.

That's now changing, especially since Rafael Palmeiro recently became the highest=profile player to fail a drug test, resulting in a 10-game suspension. Palmeiro, generally thought to be a lock for the Hall of Fame, is now looking at the possibility of being locked out of the fabled halls of baseball immortality.

Palmeiro, who this past winter told a roomful of congressmen that he "never" used steroids, has recently retooled his testimony to "never knowingly," as though an athlete of his caliber is going to inject or ingest unknown quantities of anything.

Palmeiro will play victim on this one, but he's not alone, nor is his story over. He may soon fall prey to Roid Ravage - the seeming effect of discontinued use of the banned substance by major league ballplayers. Two other cases come immediately to mind. Barry Bonds - who hasn't played a lick since last season - and Sammy Sosa, the erstwhile corked-bat, otherwise squeaky-clean slugger the Chicago Cubs dumped on the Baltimore Orioles after the 2004 season.

Sosa's numbers are particularly telling. He was supposed to bat fourth in the O's lineup this season, behind Miguel Tejada, but that strategy had been jettisoned by the All-Star break. Slammin' Sammy was batting .225 with 9 homers and a mere 27 RBI, figures more likely to be posted by a good-fielding 2nd baseman in the 9-hole than a perennial All-Star batting cleanup. Sammy has been moved around in the lineup and is currently batting 5th or 6th. He has been what one might call non-productive.

Sosa, who will turn 37 in November, seems to have left his best years already behind him. The special pills or injections could only do so much, it seems, as Sosa's power numbers peaked in 2001, when he belted 64 homers, drove in 160 runs and batted .328 in 160 games. Every year since then, his games played, home runs, RBI and batting average have fallen. In 2002, he played in 150 games, hit 49 homers with 108 RBI while batting .288; 2003: 137, 40, 103, .279; 2004: 126, 35, 80, .253.

Thus far in 2005, Sammy has 13 homers, 35 RBI and is batting just above the Mendoza line, at .235. He's appeared in 85 of the Orioles' 106 games, many as the DH. At his current pace, Sosa will play in 129 games, hit 19 home runs, drive in 53, with an average somewhere south of .245, marking the 4th consecutive year that his batting numbers have declined.

Is this the kind of performance one would expect from somebody who is supposedly in his prime? Doubtful. Though Sammy will likely deny steroid use to his grave, the evidence is painfully clear: from 1998-2001, Sammy hit 223 home runs, drove in 597 runs and averaged .310. In the three complete seasons thereafter, plus this season's extrapolated figures, 2002-2005, Sammy's numbers will look something like 143 HR, 344 RBI, .264.

Sammy's numbers keep going down. In 2004 and 2005 combined, he'll have around 54 home runs and 113 RBI, well short of his total for his last solid season, 2001, (64 homers and 160 RBI), which he did with roughly 385 fewer at bats. Sammy's number of hits and slugging percentage also continue to slide during the 2002-2005 period. In 2001, his slugging percentage was an unworldly .737. This season it's hovering around .410.

All of this suggests that nearing the end of the 2001 season or shortly thereafter, something was happening inside Sammy's body, and it wasn't good. His production continues to deteriorate, as does his health, shown by the number of days off in recent years. From 1998-2001 he was like iron, missing a total of 11 games. In the four seasons since then, he'll have been absent over 100 times. Essentially, he's falling apart, a known result stemming from the overuse of steroids.

Palmeiro, who turns 41 in September, isn't showing the same pattern, though his slugging percentage continues to decline and last season was his worst since 1994. Of course, he can easily blame any decline on age, as can Barry Bonds, who is already 41 and will turn 42 during the 2006 season, purportedly the next time he will be seen on a baseball diamond.

If Bonds was using steroids to boost his performance, he most likely began taking them sometime in 2000. In 1999, he sat out 60 games due to injury, but came back in 2000 to post the highest home run total of his career, with 49. Maybe after seeing Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa explode the single-season totals of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris, Barry set out on his own quest in 2001, hammering 73 homers, eclipsing all the records, even those most recent ones.

Bonds continued to pound the ball from 2002 to 2004, hitting 46, 45, and 45 in succession and ending the 2004 season at 704 for his career. Another year like the previous three would vault him past the Bambino and oh-so-close to Hammerin' Hank Aaron's mystical career best of 755.

But something went wrong for Barry Bonds in the off-season. A knee injury - or was it those Congressional hearings on substance abuse in MLB? - kept him out of the opening day starting lineup. Barry, rehabbing, was out through the All-Star break, and just a few days ago (coincidentally on the same day that Palmeiro was outed), announced that he would miss the entire season. That must be one bad knee!

The question for Barry Bonds now is... does he risk insult, humiliation or exposure by playing ever again, or does he quietly announce his retirement between now and opening day of 2006? Bonds was one of the more obvious possible steroid abusers, linked to scandals at Balco and under the microscope over the past four or five seasons while blasting homers into the upper decks of stadiums around both leagues.

If he ever does play again - without the assistance of steroids - he'll be lucky to put up numbers similar to what Sammy Sosa is currently doing and the probing by press and fans alike could be overwhelming. Maybe we've seen the last of Barry Bonds, and, if so, we should be thankful for it. Seeing his name on the same page in the record book as the Babe and Aaron is bad enough. Seeing his name above theirs would be simply unbearable and a serious blow to the integrity and dignity of the game.

For once, Barry Bonds should take his pride and shove it, if he can live with the dubious honor of being the third most prolific home run hitter of all time. At least his records won't be altered or questioned as they now stand and he just might make the Hall of Fame, though that would also become a burning question around 2009.

As for the Hall, it will have to examine the case of one Mark McGwire after next season, when he will have been retired the requisite five years. Just two years after breaking the previous single-season home run mark twice (70 homers in 1998 and 65 in 1999), McGwire retired. He wasn't the same hitter in 2000 and 2001, hitting just 61 home runs in 186 games (of a possible 324) over the two seasons. His slugging percentage flopped from .746 in 2000 to .492 in 2001. At 37, his career was over.

McGwire has been accused of using performance-enhancers by former teammate Jose Canseco and others. His power numbers and subsequent fall-off from 1996 to 2001 would suggest that he was using something. The writers who make the determination for entrance into the Hall of Fame will certainly have a close look at McGwire's accomplishments in light of recent allegations, suspensions and scandals.

McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro and Bonds will all have their dates with destiny and the Baseball Hall of Fame. With any luck, the writers will simply leave them off their ballots, opting instead for players who demonstrated more purity, leaving the burning questions of propriety and justice to history.

So what are the wages of steroid use and abuse? Maybe we should ask Lyle Alzado, the once-ferocious All-Pro lineman for the Oakland Raiders who admitted to using steroids throughout his football career.

Well, we can't, because he's dead.