|Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big.|
|summary||Canseco used steroids and maybe we should too.|
Canseco, for those who spent the last 15 years hidden under a rock, played major league baseball for 17 seasons, from 1985 to 2001. He was most famous for belting massive home runs, but he was also pretty fast: in 1988 he became the first player in history to hit at least 40 home runs and steal at least 40 bases in a single season. For his career he hit .266, with 462 home runs and a .515 slugging percentage. He was a 6-time All-Star, won a Rookie-of-the-Year and MVP award, and picked up two World Series rings.
(How good was Canseco as a player? In his book Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, Bill James presents several methods of estimating how likely someone is to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. On the "Hall of Fame Standards" test, where 60 percent of players with a score of 40-49 have gotten into the Hall of Fame, Canseco scores a 38. On the "Hall of Fame Monitor" test, where a score of 100 indicates someone is likely to get in, Canseco scores an 103. So Canseco may not get elected to the Hall of Fame (and likely won't, after the publication of his book), but a reasonable case could be made that he belongs there. The answer to the question of how good Canseco was is "very, very good.")
What's important about Juiced, especially to the average Slashdot reader who may not know a baseball diamond from the Hope diamond? The answer is buried in the subtitle's heap of verbiage: "Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big." Canseco's book is about the growing user of steroids in baseball, something you hear a lot about today. But Canseco has an unusual opinion: steroids in baseball are not bad; in fact they are very, very good.
Spurred in large part by Canseco's book, the U.S. House Government Reforms Committee subpoenaed some of the biggest names in baseball -- including Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi, and Sammy Sosa -- to testify at a hearing on March 17. Allegations are flying that Barry Bonds was on steroids when he set the single-season mark of 73 home runs in 2001. The typical press reaction to this is one of disgust: words such as "tainted," "artificial," and "cheating" are common.
Not so fast, says Canseco. Steroids in baseball are good. Steroids help players get stronger, and enjoy longer careers. And it's not just baseball players who can benefit: steroids can help almost anyone live a longer, healthier life. His book is a wakeup call not just for baseball, or sports in general, but for all mankind. That's his view, anyway, but he makes a decent case for it, using himself as an example.
Canseco explains how he used steroids (which in this context really means a combination of steroids and human growth hormone) to transform himself from a skinny kid to the beefed up example of manhood that gazes soulfully at you from above a bulging bicep on the back cover of his book. He gained confidence as well, and there's no doubt his ego was pumped up: the book is full of references to how good-looking he is, with some attempts to balance those with descriptions of how ugly he was as a kid.
The book also has a B storyline, which is that the media discriminated against Canseco because he is Cuban, in comparison to the All-American image of Mark McGwire. The current media dismissal of Canseco's claims that McGwire took steroids only adds fuel to his conspiracy theory. If you read the book, you would be hard-pressed to doubt that McGwire took steroids on a regular basis. Canseco is not describing rumor or innuendo; he is talking about obtaining steroids and then personally sticking a needle containing them into McGwire's gluteus maximus, repeatedly, over a period of years when they were both with the Oakland A's, and then later injecting his Texas Ranger teammates Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, and Ivan Rodriguez.
A glance at the rookie cards of players like McGwire and Barry Bonds shows that those guys have put on a lot of muscle since they reached the majors (rookie cards are a good source of pictures since a hitter with no action photos from major-league games usually gets the basic pose of bent elbow, bat over shoulder). A Giambi minor-league card shows a lot of loose sleeve around the bicep. If Canseco is making all this up, he is doing an excellent job, and the fact that nobody is threatening to sue him over the book lends credence to the accuracy of his claims.
Remember, Canseco is not "accusing" anyone of using steroids, in the usual negative sense of an accusation. He is merely stating that people used them, and in fact applauds them, considering it a wise decision both medically and financially. Unlike almost every other media report, Canseco's book discusses steroid use in a factual way, absent the finger-pointing and hand-wringing. He presents steroid users not as cheaters, but as vanguards of a new era of athletic performance.
So how should a libertarian, "I'll believe it when I see it" cynic view the accomplishments of juiced-up baseball players? People are talking about asterisks on records, Hall of Fame bans, revoking MVP awards. Is this reasonable?
It's a fact that in sports where achievement is measured in objective terms, athletes today are much better than they used to be. Yet in sports where opinions are subjective, the older athletes are usually recalled as being better than their modern counterparts. In 1920, the year that Babe Ruth began hitting home runs at a previously unprecedented pace, the world record for the mile was 4 minutes, 12.6 seconds; today it is 3 minutes, 43.13 seconds. That doesn't sound like a huge difference, but if you picture the race as four laps of a quarter-mile oval, as it is usually run, the modern miler would finish almost half a lap ahead of his 1920 counterpart, an obviously dominating victory. Today a good college runner can run the mile faster than the 1920 world-record-holder. It would seem logical to assume that a good college hitter (a good college power hitter, anyway), if magically transported back to 1920, could hit more home runs than Babe Ruth.
Almost any baseball analyst today would laugh at that notion. I think they are wrong; I think a modern hitter, or pitcher, would in fact completely dominate their counterparts from early in the last century (even if you let the pitchers throw spitballs, which have now been banned from baseball, yet their erstwhile practitioners are considered crafty, not cheaters, and their statistics remain unblemished by any asterisks). It's documented that pitchers of yore could mostly take it easy out on the mound. In books like Christy Mathewson's Pitching in a Pinch, it was explained that pitchers could save their energy for the dozen or so times in a game that they really had to bear down.
I'm not saying that Babe Ruth or Christy Mathewson, if born today, could not become great major-league players. They obviously had natural talents that separated them from their peers. What they were lacking was all the knowledge that has been built up over the years. It's not just diet and conditioning -- it's all the miracles of modern life that keep us going. Even up to the 1970s, pitchers could never see video of themselves pitching (a huge advantage in correcting flaws in their pitching motion) unless they happened to pitch in the World Series. Jose Canseco had surgery three times for back injuries, any one of which presumably would have ended, or severely curtailed, his career 85 years ago, yet nobody accuses him of cheating for undergoing surgery.
One of the miracles of modern baseball medicine is "Tommy John surgery", named after the pitcher on whom it was first performed. It involves repairing the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow using a ligament from another part of the body. A pitcher who undergoes this surgery is not only avoiding a career-ending injury (the linked article above says that Sandy Koufax, who retired due to a self-described "dead arm," is thought to have had damaged UCL). The surgery usually leaves the elbow stronger than it was before. And more than 10% of major-league pitchers today have had this surgery. Are they cheating? Do they need an asterisk next to their records? There is no doubt that in the near future, athletes will undergo surgery not to repair injuries, but to prevent injuries that have not yet occurred. One day athletes with artificial limbs will be relegated to their own Olympics not because they perform worse than their non-bionic counterparts, but because they perform better.
The Olympics, of course, have taken a hard line on pharmaceuticals: popping a Sudafed before the big event will disqualify you. Nobody is suggesting that baseball go that far, but what is the dividing line between steroids and a lot of other substances that athletes put in their bodies? As Jim Bouton points out in his classic book Ball Four, baseball players have long been searching for that extra chemical edge. His diary of the 1969 Seattle Pilots describes rampant use of "greenies," or amphetamines. Bouton expounds further on this topic:
"I've tried a lot of other things through the years -- like butazolidin, which is what they give to horses. And D.M.S.O. -- dimethyl suloxide. Whitey Ford used that for a while. You rub it on with a plastic glove and as soon as it gets in your arm you can taste it in your mouth. It's not available anymore, though. Word is it can blind you. I've also taken shots -- novocain, cortisone, and xylocaine. Baseball players will take anything. If you had a pill that would guarantee a pitcher 20 wins but might take five years off his life, he'd take it."
The issue with steroids, of course, is that they really work. They're not magic: you still have to work out, hard. But you do get stronger, and according to Canseco, even more important is the increased stamina, the ability to hit as well at the end of a 6-month season as you do at the beginning. Canseco also points out that baseball players used to be known for drinking and recreational drug use. But a steroid-user can't afford to tax their liver with alcohol and drugs, and they don't need to mess around with greenies, so Canseco feels that the arrival of steroids also ushered in a time of "clean living" among baseball players.
Canseco presents himself as "The Chemist," the one who did the experiments with steroids, learned how to use them properly, and then passed his knowledge on to others. He maintains that he taught McGwire in Oakland, then Palmeiro, Gonzalez and Rodriguez in Texas (and that McGwire taught Giambi), and when Canseco returned to Oakland, he taught Miguel Tejada. Canseco views the $72-million, 6-year contract that Tejada signed with Baltimore in December 2003 as proof that Tejada made a wise decision to increase his physical ability (although Canseco adds a disclaimer in this case: although he claims to have taught Tejada about steroids and saw him grow bigger and stronger, he did not actually witness Tejada using steroids).
Fans, of course, do love home runs. I saw a baseball game in St. Louis in 1999, and I have never seen an audience so clearly devoted to a single player. The only jersey you saw in the stands was Mark McGwire's number 25. The fans loved him, and the place came alive when he was batting. And when, mirabile dictu, he cranked a four-bagger over the left-field fence, the place went nuts, and I bet every fan felt they got their money's worth. What about those kids, the ones in the stands, when McGwire is revealed to have feet of clay?
Canseco has an answer: we shouldn't worry about those kids having fallen heroes, because in his eyes, they aren't fallen. Furthermore, he accuses baseball's owners and management of being complicit in trying to hush up steroid use, in order to give the fans what they wanted.
Juiced, as mentioned earlier, has problems. Canseco states that young athletes should not use steroids, but beyond a blanket disclaimer at the beginning of the book, does little to discourage teenagers from attempting to emulate the professionals. He gives an unsurprisingly sympathetic and glossy account of his various run-ins with the law: gun possession charge, a couple of domestic violence cases, a bar fight, three months in jail in 2003. He tosses around the names of various steroids, but for someone who claims to know so much about the subject, he gives little background on them: how they were discovered, the legal uses for which they are manufactured, how suppliers obtain them.
But as background reading for today's steroids controversy, and as a potential harbinger of the future of our species, it's worth a look.
You can purchase Juiced from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.