April 24, 2005


Absolutely, Power Corrupts (MICHAEL LEWIS, 4/24/05, NY Times Magazine)

In February 2004, a 24-year-old minor-league baseball player named Steve Stanley sat down and wrote a letter to President Bush. He had no talent with a pen, and he wanted badly to be understood, so he asked his wife, Brooke, to put what he had to say into words. He wanted to thank the president, whom he admired, for mentioning steroids in his State of the Union address, but he was also hoping to use his own case to advance the discussion. He was a small-boned, 5-foot-7, 155-pound center fielder who, even as he wrote, was succeeding in baseball because of his speed and his abilities to play defense and get on base. Even so, just over a year into his pro career, he was beginning to feel like a freak. He could live with being the least likely player on the field to hit the ball over the wall; what drove him nuts was the thought of bigger players using drugs to widen the power gap even further between him and them. The season before, he'd actually watched some hulking bomber taking batting practice hit a high fly ball to the warning track, turn to a teammate and, referring to a steroid, say, ''One cycle of Deca and that's out.'' And he had no doubt that the slugger would make sure that, next time, the ball left the park.

The putatively rigorous drug testing in the minor leagues, in Stanley's view, didn't reduce the use of steroids so much as it increased the energy players put into not getting caught. In 2003, players were going off into a separate room to fill a cup with urine; that was a joke. Last year, the testers followed the players into the bathroom; steroid users were said to fill false penises -- whizzinators, they called them -- with clean urine and stick them down their pants. The testing wasn't designed to catch cheaters but to create the illusion of trying to catch them. And never mind the biggest loophole of all: the off-season, when the testing of players was haphazard at best.

As the 2003 season's end approached, players could contact their dealers and arranged for shipments of Winstrol -- a kind of steroid with a half-life sufficiently short that it was undetectable a few weeks after the final dosage. A year into his professional baseball career, Steve Stanley had seen enough. In his letter to the president he -- or his wife -- made three observations: 1) the higher the level of the game, the more steroid-aided power he seemed to encounter; 2) steroids put a player like him, who refused to take them, at a competitive disadvantage; and 3) steroids were so deeply embedded in the game that the only way for baseball to be cleansed of them was for outsiders to take matters out of baseball hands.

When he mailed his letter to the president, steroids seemed to be Steve Stanley's problem more than baseball's. The people who judged baseball players, and made decisions about their careers, hardly gave steroids a second thought. Never knowing for sure who was on them, and having no good way of finding out, they were unable to calculate their importance. Anyone with eyes could see that, since the late 1980's, the shape of baseball players had changed. Anyone with a record book could see that, since the late 1980's, there had been a widespread increase in power, as measured by the number of doubles and home runs. But who was to say what caused the one, or that the one caused the other?

Of course, there's now some sketchy evidence that steroids have contributed mightily to the power surge. Clay Davenport, who studies minor-league players for the Web site Baseball Prospectus, has found that three of the four players with the most remarkable midcareer power surges in the last two decades are now famously linked to steroid use: Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Jason Giambi. (Giambi has gone from hitting 10 home runs in his entire college career to hitting 43 home runs off major-league pitching in a single season.) Ron Shandler, who has worked as a statistical analyst for the St. Louis Cardinals and publishes Baseball Forecaster, an annual survey of major- and minor-league players for fantasy leaguers, expresses his suspicions another way: he flags players who acquire power the same season that they've come back from vacation 20 pounds or more heavier. For instance, Shandler has noted that last season Adrian Beltre, in his final year with the Dodgers before becoming a free agent, reportedly showed up 20 pounds heavier than the year before. Beltre, whose career up to that point had been a story of unfulfilled promise, blasted 48 home runs, 25 more than he had ever hit in a single season -- for which he was rewarded, by the Seattle Mariners, with a new five-year, $64 million contract. (When a Tacoma, Wash., reporter asked if he had used steroids, Beltre laughed in denial.)

Another piece of evidence that steroids work is the reluctance of the players to part with their drugs.

Hard to say "no" to drugs when that $64 million waits.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 24, 2005 11:53 PM

This year Beltre is back to his old form. He has the same number of homeruns as Ichiro - one.

Posted by: Pat H at April 25, 2005 1:58 AM

Looks like Sheffield went off the juice this year too. Balls off his bat thiis year that, based on lastt year, look like easy homers to my eye are turning into 270 ft flyouts.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 25, 2005 10:58 AM