Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 01/22/2009

McGwire and Steroids: Together Again

Back on the original Male Pattern Fitness, at the original louschuler.com, I wrote from time to time about steroids, particularly steroids in baseball, and most particularly the Golden Age of steroids in baseball, when Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds all crossed the 60-homer line at points in their careers when they should’ve been in steep decline.

(There’s no easy way to search my archives, but I did find this post, analyzing the career trajectory of another blatant juicer, Rafael Palmeiro.)

Early on, I thought the most logical starting point for Mark McGwire’s steroid use is the 1995 season, when his slugging percentage jumped up to .685, the highest it had ever been for a season in which he played 100 or more games. By comparison, in 1987, his Rookie of the Year season, he slugged .618. He was 31 in ’95, an age at which he had no business recording a career-best power stat.

But after other sources — particularly Jose Canseco — asserted that McGwire had started much earlier, I assumed I’d guessed wrong, and that McGwire just figured out how to use the drugs more effectively by 1995.

Now his brother, of all people, is circulating a book proposal in which he says my original guess was pretty close. From the excerpt on Deadspin:

Shortly after I won the Contra Costa Bodybuilding Championships in May of 1994, Mark took the plunge. I accompanied him to Sacramento where we met with my supplier and trainer, who explained to him how the different drugs would work on his body and answered a myriad of questions from Mark. Given Mark’s curiosity and lack of knowledge about steroids I saw from Mark, I would be shocked if Mark did something like what Jose Canseco claimed happened back in the early years….

[M]ark began to use, but in low dosages so he wouldn’t lift his way out of baseball. Deca-Durabolin helped with his joint problems and recovery, while growth hormone helped his strength, making him leaner in the process. I became the first person to inject him, like most first-timers he couldn’t plunge in the needle himself. Later a girlfriend injected him.

That was a strike season in which McGwire played just 47 games, and there’s really nothing in his stats that suggests chemical assistance. Like I said, the numbers change dramatically in ’95. Consider these slugging percentages from the start of his career (leaving off seasons in which he played fewer than 100 games):

1987: .618

1988: .478

1989: .467

1990: .489

1991: .383

1992: .585

Now, let’s look at what happened after he started taking steroids, if his brother is telling the truth:

1995: .685

1996: .730

1997: .646

1998: .752

1999: .697

He was 35 in 1999, his last full season. (He had a monster half-season in 2000, slugging .746 before he got hurt.) You just don’t see that pattern — getting stronger later in one’s career — at any point in baseball history, except during the Golden Age of steroid use. 

So is his brother credible? The stat sheet says yes. Does it matter? I have to think that anyone who doesn’t believe McGwire took steroids wouldn’t be convinced by anything short of a confession from the slugger himself.

And even then, who knows if they’d believe him?

 

  • http://www.charleslloydfitness.com Charles Lloyd

    Maybe he did? Even still I dont understand how steroids make someone a better baseball player, if whey aids muscle growth by proving essential amino acids why isn’t it banned since its performance enhancing, so is Gatorade because of the sugar electrlites…if steroids enhance performance then why didn’t the MLB team owners just go to any Golds Gym or back alley powerlifting warehouse and recruit their next Mark McGuire?

  • http://www.louschuler.com Lou Schuler

    You don’t think that hitting a baseball farther makes someone a better baseball player, all else being equal?

    A baseball field has three defined zones:

    * the strike zone

    * the foul lines

    * the outfield wall

    The pitcher, no matter how hard he throws the ball, has to put it in the strike zone. The hitter, no matter how much control he has with his bat, has to put it within the foul lines to have a chance to reach base safely.

    The one area that’s infinite is what lies beyond the outfield wall. The fastest outfielder in the world can’t run past that wall.

    So the biggest advantage any player on the field has lies beyond that wall — if he can hit it over, it’s a home run. Any other type of hit involves an element of luck — the hardest-hit ground ball or line drive might end up in someone’s glove.

    Steroids give hitters that ultimate advantage: They help him hit the ball over the wall.

    They also help players in other ways, like recovering from injuries and maintaining strength throughout the very long season. Lots of perfectly legal aids do that as well — you mentioned whey protein. There’s also creatine, cortisone shots, and medical procedures that didn’t exist a generation ago, like Tommy John surgery. But those things aren’t as powerful as anabolic steroids, and everyone knows it.

    I’ve heard the argument that Lasik surgery gives some players an unfair advantage. I’ve had Lasik, and I can tell it helps in sports. For the first time in my life, I had peripheral vision.

    But if it’s legal and all the players can use it, I don’t see what the problem is. And more to the point, Lasik doesn’t make you stronger, so it doesn’t give you the ultimate advantage you get from steroids: hitting the ball over the fence, where it can’t be caught.

    I’ve heard people say that steroids weren’t officially against the rules in the ’90s, and that we’ll never know how many players were using them, on and on. But the truth is, these were illegal drugs after 1990, and baseball put them on its banned-substances list in 1991.

    Here’s a reference:

    http://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/rjmorgan/mba211/Steroids%20and%20Major%20League%20Baseball.pdf

    Granted, there was no testing program, which has led some fans to suggest that McGwire, Canseco and the others weren’t really breaking rules because no one was actually trying to enforce these rules. By that logic, though, if I leave my house unlocked and you break in and rob it, then you didn’t really break any laws, because I wasn’t trying to keep my house from being robbed. I don’t buy it.

    Another way to look at it: If McGwire didn’t think he’d done anything wrong, why didn’t he simply hold a press conference and explain that he was using the drugs? Why didn’t he admit it to Congress when he was under oath?

    These guys all knew they broke rules. Some may have been more careless than others about their steroid use, thinking (perhaps correctly) that fans and league officials didn’t really care. But nobody came out and admitted to ongoing steroid use while playing, which I think is a pretty good sign that they all knew they were doing something they weren’t supposed to do at the time they were doing it.

  • http://www.charleslloydfitness.com Charles Lloyd

    “Steroids give hitters that ultimate advantage: They help him hit the ball over the wall”.

    How does steroids help a baseball player hit a ball over the wall?

    That *almost* insinuates that if your not on steroids you have a less of a chance to hit a ball over the wall. If a fast ball is thrown at 90mph, it only takes about a 100 pounds of pressure in the bat *sweet spot* to send that ball over the wall, a 10 year old can generate that kind of leverage.

    If you notice all the great baseball players that you mentioned are 6 feet and over (ie above the national average height), a person at that height has a significant advantage over a shorter player in generating leverage on a baseball bat. Barry Bonds is 6’1, Mark McGuire is 6’5, Sammy Sosa is 6′, and Jose Canseco is 6’4.

    Steroids does not give you hand-eye cordination just like you said with your Lasik eye sergery, Steroids will help you recover faster from an injury or build muscle.

    I still don’t see how steroids will help you hit a ball over the wall. In order to do that you have to be a great baseball player. I can understand its a controlled substance and is illegal, but those rules were made by non-athletes who do not understand what steroids actually do.

    In a bicycle race like the Giro de Italia or the famous Tour de France, I can understand how it would make you faster, but in baseball im not convinced it will help you hit a ball over a wall.

    If you can ban steroids, they should also ban, creatine (but not really, creatine retains water in your muscle) Lasik eye surgery, Whey Protein and any other performance enhancing product, they might as well ban water since it keeps you hydrated in the summer sun.

  • http://www.louschuler.com Lou Schuler

    The effects of anabolic drugs on human performance aren’t really in dispute — it’s universally acknowledged that they increase strength and lean body mass. How would being bigger and stronger not help you hit a ball harder, and thus farther?

    And if you’re going to argue that steroids don’t make you stronger, then why do the top powerlifters and Strongman competitors take them?

    McGwire, Sosa, and Barry Bonds all hit home runs before anyone accused them of taking steroids. But they hit a lot more home runs during the period when they’re suspected of using them. In McGwire’s case, I showed the dramatic increase in his slugging percentages during that period. It’s also remarkable to see how consistent they are, especially compared to his early years.

  • http://www.charleslloydfitness.com Charles Lloyd

    This is what I said:
    Steroids does not give you hand-eye coordination just like you said with your Lasik eye surgery, Steroids will help you recover faster from an injury or (I meant and/or) build muscle. (with corrected spelling)

    Here is what you asked:
    And if you’re going to argue that steroids don’t make you stronger, then why do the top powerlifters and Strongman competitors take them?

    I didn’t say steroids don’t make you stronger, where did you get that?

    I did say steroids don’t make a person a better baseball player. If steroids make a person hit a ball over the wall then why didn’t everybody baseball player (using steroids/or not :p) hit 60+ homeruns? Bonds, McGuire and Sosa if they did use steroids were not the only people out there using them. They are being crucified for being the best at what they do.

    To answer your second question:

    So are you saying it’s not possible for a baseball player to improve with time?
    Usually with any job or sport a player/worker/business owner gets better with time or they are out of a job, how is this not the case with baseball? When should a baseball player peak? In his rookie year?

    Great website BTW Lou

  • http://www.louschuler.com Lou Schuler

    Charles, I can see that I took some shortcuts in my arguments here. I’m really rusty on the whole blogging thing, and still don’t know where to find some of my more expansive posts, where I got into all the things we’re talking about now.

    I wrote an article for Men’s Fitness magazine a few years back that included some slight but intriguing research suggesting that extra testosterone may improve hand-eye coordination. Another of the sources I interviewed for that article suggested that increased contractile tissue includes all the biological tissue that goes along with contractile tissue. So while muscle fibers get bigger, so do motor neurons.

    That helps explain how steroids might help someone improve as a hitter — bigger muscles, bigger motor neurons (which is to say faster motor neurons, since size is correlated to reaction speed), perhaps leading to better coordination.

    Another factor is aggression, which testosterone is known to increase. Anyone who’s played baseball understands that being too aggressive at the plate is a huge liability when you’re up against an experienced pitcher, but for a skilled player a bit more controlled aggression could be useful.

    I would never suggest that steroids alone make someone a better ballplayer. But when you start with a skilled but inconsistent slugger like Mark McGwire, and he undergoes a serious transformation process that includes anabolic steroids, you end up with a bigger, stronger, less-often-injured, and thus much more consistent slugger.

    That’s how steroids made him a better baseball player. He hit more balls, and hit them farther, and hit them more consistently.

    Your question about players getting better as they age circles back to my problem with taking shortcuts in this post. I started blogging about steroids in baseball in 2004, and all these years later, I forget that no one reading the blog on this new site will have read all those old posts.

    In the old posts, I used to note that ballplayers throughout the history of the sport have typically peaked right around age 27. That’s when they have their best all-around seasons, and it’s especially when you see the best power and production numbers (most home runs, most total bases, etc.).

    Sometimes a guy will peak earlier, like 25, and sometimes he’ll peak a bit later, but the overall pattern is there. It applies to ballplayers across eras, unless something dramatic happens in the middle of the player’s career. For example, after the 1919 season, baseballs became much livelier, leading to an unprecedented surge in home runs.

    The ball turned dead again during WWII, when most of the best players served in the military for at least a year or two. So military service is another source of anomalies in peak production.

    Then you have changes in rules and the size of stadiums that favored pitchers in the 1960s, and then a change back to favor hitters after the 1968 season.

    The next big anomaly came after the strike in 1994 and 1995, when steroids entered the game in a big way. That’s when you see players putting up personal-best slugging stats when they’re well into their 30s.

    These were certainly skilled players before they started using steroids. But when you see one pattern throughout baseball history, with players peaking around age 27 and then maintaining that peak into their early 30s, and then suddenly you have players peaking in their mid to late 30s, you know something has changed, and it’s probably not human physiology.

  • http://www.charleslloydfitness.com Charles Lloyd

    OK, Now I see where your coming from, I would love to read some of your old articles that you wrote, not only does it make sense logically (ie more muscle mass more neurons) it also makes biological sense.

    I also get your point on players peaking in their mid/late 20′s, however not all players were not hitting 60+ homers a year, but on the elite few, and its the elite few who are being crucified.

    I think credit has to be given to these player and I could also make the argument that your comparing baseball players during pre-WW2 when the life expectancy is less then it today, I would use an example:

    If life expectancy of a male pre WW2 was 50 (49.9 in 1910) years old:
    I would say: Prime player years would be as you say: 25~30 years old. (Or 10% of their life or 5 years)

    If life expectancy of a male today is 70 (73.3 in 1997) years old:
    I would say: Prime player years would be: 26~33 years old (Again 10% of their life or 7 years)

    Is this an unreasonable example? If modern medicine extends our life expectancy wont it not also extend a players prime playing years? If so we have to compare % apples to % apples. Its kind of unfair to compare a player from the early 1900 to a player in the late 1990′s. Does not Bigger, Stronger, Faster theory apply here?

    This can also be applied to Track and Field runners:
    Carl Lewis won his first Long Jump Gold metal at age 23 (I believe)
    Carl Lewis also won his last Long Jump Gold metal at age 34

    Using the example I used above and compare him to a track and field runner from the early 1900, I would suspect the results would be the same.

  • http://www.louschuler.com Lou Schuler

    All good points, Charles. Again, I fall back on the excuse that I take shortcuts in my arguments, having made them so many times in my blogs in years past.

    Certainly, there’s nothing magical about the age of 27. In Olympic weightlifting, where athletes are identified early and everyone has the same access to the same drugs and training methods, you see a peak around age 30, a few years of maintaining that peak, and then a decline. So I think that’s a good stand-in for power sports in general, which baseball certainly is.

    But even in the steroid era, you see an uncanny tendency for ballplayers to peak right around age 27.

    Look at Ken Griffey Jr., a guy who strikes me as a certified non-juicer:

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/g/griffke02.shtml

    He hits a peak at 23, deals with injuries, and then has his most productive seasons (based on total bases) at 27 and 28. The numbers drop after that.

    Alex Rodriquez, on the other hand, has been on a continuous peak, more or less, from age 20 to 32 — it’s hard to see any pattern there other than remarkable consistency:

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/r/rodrial01.shtml

    Juicer? No idea. I’d always guessed that he wasn’t, until he showed an uncanny ability to elevate his game at the moments when it most financially advantageous to do so. So now I’m not so sure. If I had to say yes or no, I’d probably guess that he dabbled when he needed to, but for the most part made it on talent, hard work, and focus. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we learned he’d done more than dabble, any more than I’d be shocked to see convincing evidence that he’d never touched anything stronger than andro.

    Getting to your points, certainly modern training methods, and improved health and longevity in general, help guys stay longer at their peaks. But even before this era, we saw a handful of guys peak early and maintain that level of production longer than we’d expect. Look at Willie Mays:

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/m/mayswi01.shtml

    He had 300+ total bases every season from age 23 to 35. His best season (52 home runs) came at age 34, but it’s barely better than his age-24 season, when he hit 51.

    I could go on all day about this!

  • Genetics

    This is completely off topic, but I have never seen two guys whose biceps looked exactly the same!!! This is definitely an argument for the role genetics plays in how your muscles develop. You can tell those two are related just by their arms. Weird.

  • http://www.charleslloydfitness.com Charles Lloyd

    LOL! Its all genetics…
    Lou, Now that A-Rod is in the mix, what do you think?