Sports

Recovering Ballplayer Vol. 8: Performance Enhancing Drugs and the Secrets We Keep

Sometimes positive drug tests can threaten baseball's self-image. Nobody has a better view of PED use than the teammates of players who are using.

by Fernando Perez
May 11 2016, 6:50pm

Adam Villacin

It is perhaps more intimate to be a teammate than it is to be a friend. You may keep lies for your friends, but you probably don't shower with them. You don't have to ask a teammate how he got all the acne on his back because, if you're paying attention, you already know. You're around one another for too many hours of the day for anyone to successfully keep his guard up. Those who try only wind up garnering more attention.

As teammates, you are closer than friends for a season, or for a few. Then comes a demotion, or promotion, or a trade, and once that immediate proximity is gone, it's as if you suddenly become less than friends.

In the minor leagues, when you're competing directly with your teammates for promotions, the idea of "team" is more abstract. It's more difficult to exuberantly high-five and butt-pat the guys wearing extra shirts to flatten the profile of their artificially inflated chests. But as teammates we keep secrets—nobody likes a snitch.

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The first home run I saw that was an obvious lie was disarming: its queer sound, its confusing flight pattern, and a murmur from an opposing crowd I had never experienced. The homer added to our score, but it clearly made several players on the team uncomfortable.

I've been thinking about performance enhancing drugs lately, in light of the recent wave of suspensions across Major League Baseball. Dee Gordon. Josh Ravin. Chris Colabello. Privately, players discuss the changes that our peers make to their destinies by taking PEDs. While some members of the media like to sensationalize and grumble about how PED users undermine the fabric of the national game, baseball players are the only class of people who are actually cheated out of anything.

As such—and as people who make their living doing the same jobs as PED users, and showering next to them—ballplayers are uniquely qualified to talk about this. Sometimes, the teammates of a PED user are even better qualified to talk about it than the user himself. The cheater rarely concedes that the drugs made a real difference—the changes to his body and mind become part of his body and mind. After all, it is the athlete, not the PEDs, that times a fastball or breaks off an unhittable slider. PEDs can do a lot, but they can only do so much.

When a fellow ballplayer gives you reason to believe they are lying, discussing it isn't salacious. It's natural. Privately, scouts, writers and players do this, but to play baseball is to have a more intimate view of careers with none of the post-production sheen that even the writers with the greatest access must wade through. From dugouts, clubhouses, buses, apartments, and hotel rooms, we have firmer grounds on which to speculate.

Often, we don't even have to speculate. In my experience, players have been quite cavalier about their exploits, knowing a code is in place that compels teammates to keep secrets. Baseball is an ongoing comedy of manners. This is what makes our faux-ignorant worldview about PEDs so unremarkable and so consistent. Among all those whose lives are wrapped up in the fate of the league, there is an evenly distributed incentive to play dumb. Just look at the willful, selective ignorance of deeply embedded writers like Tom Verducci et. all.

Sometimes a player is so swollen or detached from reality that their use of PEDs allows us to cast them as cartoon villains, as in the case of late career Barry Bonds or pre-redemption Alex Rodriguez. Often, they are too marginal to matter, like the recently suspended Ravin. Sometimes, though, positive drug tests can threaten baseball's self-image.

After a long career as a journeyman, Chris Colabello finally stuck in the majors. Then he tested positive for PEDs. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When I was a prospect, Jim Hoff, a baseball man with 50 years of experience as a player, manager, and field coordinator at every level (who insists he'll be buried under the mound on one of the Rays backfields at their minor league complex) told me just before my call-up that it's easy to make the major leagues, but it's not easy to stay. Actually, it's not easy to make the majors at all, but for athletes of a certain ilk, it is inevitable they'll get called up.

Many players who are able to dominate in AAA are simply not good enough to hold their own in the major leagues. The random nature of hitting allows impostors to stick around for a while and feign serviceability, often protected by a lack of organizational depth at their positions or by possession of other skills, like speed. Once the league learns your strengths and weaknesses, and compiles them in scouting reports, however—once you have to compete with veterans who have more experience and name recognition, once young prospects begin to nip at your heels—well, then it can seem like you're treading water.

Taking drugs is a way of refusing your lot. The junior college pitcher isn't ready to give up on baseball and get a real job, so he takes a shot. Low and behold, he's drafted and in the system, through a door he doesn't deserve to have walked through. Maybe he stops taking PEDs and falls to the back of the pack in the minor leagues. Then, another cycle, improved performance, a promotion. To the writer or the scout or the stat-head, these are just up and down years, natural development. But teammates know.

Do contracts like A-Rod's make PEDs a worthwhile gamble? Photo by Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Their first two seasons as major leaguers, Dee Gordon and Jemile Weeks were quite similar. Weeks hit .303 in 406 at-bats with the Oakland A's. Gordon hit .304 in 224 at-bats for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The sophomore slump hit them both squarely: Gordon hit .228/.280/.281; Weeks hit .221/.305/.304. Both players spent most of the next year in the offense-friendly Pacific Coast League, where they fared pretty well—not exceptionally well, but pretty well. Once you fail at the major league level, decent success in AAA will earn you the ticket back to the majors if the need for a replacement at your position should arise.

In 2014, Weeks and Gordon's paths diverged. Weeks signed with Baltimore as an insurance policy to their middle infielders, and Gordon made the All-Star team. Despite this impressive accomplishment, Gordon's play was inconsistent and he frequently was benched. That offseason, the Dodgers saw a great opportunity to trade Gordon since his stock was so high—evidence that the very team who drafted and developed Gordon, thereby having the most intimate view of him, may have thought their player reached his ceiling. Gordon was traded to Miami, where he enjoyed an even better season in 2015. He won the batting title, and his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. More predictably, Jemile Weeks signed with the Red Sox as another organizational depth insurance policy, which paid out in the form of a handful of big league games.

Gordon tested positive for exogenous testosterone and clostebol earlier this year. After his appeal was denied and then dropped, he entered the baseball's version of a no contest plea: "Though I did not do so knowingly," he began. (Ravin said he took something in his cough medicine; Colabello says his positive test is a mystery.) The MLB Players Association warns its athletes that performance-enhancing drugs are found in many over the counter supplements at faux-health stores like GNC. The wording of Gordon's statement allows him to suggest that his drug use was an accident without having to prove it. We can maintain our airs about the purity of the game. We might even feel bad for the suspended player because, hey, perhaps it really was a mistake.

While Gordon is serving his suspension, the drugs are still coursing through his system. His body takes a rest from baseball's physically taxing stop-and-go; he lifts weights, practices baseball (albeit away from Marlins facilities), maybe catches up on some reading, some partying, some Netflix and/or the chilling, and on July 28, when he is reinstated, he returns to the starting lineup.

He won't be paid during his suspension, but he still keeps the rest of his $50 million contract, all of it guaranteed, that the Marlins offered him in January as a reward for his miraculous* 2015 season. As for the rest of us? We are supposed to believe in the miracle of Dee Gordon as an All-Star second baseman, and assume that after his career year, he would choose to start doping in 2016, in the first fucking year of his new guaranteed contract.

J.C. Romero celebrates after recording the final out against the author's Rays in the 2008 World Series. Photo by EPA

Players like Justin Verlander have vented their frustration with the system, especially the issue of athletes who have tested positive playing through their appeal, like Gordon did. The MLBPA has sought to protect offenders' rights and to take advantage of due process as in the case of Ryan Braun. This is their job. While MLB has continued to lengthen suspensions in an effort to dissuade cheating, the league is still stuck dealing with the unhappy losers of games in which an opponent is later found to have used PEDs.

What about collective punishment, like a MLB pledge to vacate wins for PED use? If teams had to face the consequences when their individual players violated the joint drug agreement, that would certainly change the atmosphere in clubhouses—it might act as a deterrent to cheating. It would also be messy and unfair, like baseball's pitcher-administered system of retaliatory justice.

Perhaps my Tampa Bay Rays team would even be awarded a world championship.

Early before practice one spring training morning following our loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2008 World Series, it was revealed that the Phillies reliever J.C. Romero had failed a drug test during the postseason. During that postseason, Romero threw seven scoreless, high-leverage innings, using a miraculous 98 mph fastball and a brand new slider that looked dizzying from my spot on the bench. As was customary, during spring training, a players union representative was to explain Romero's grievance to each team; each team's players, as card-carrying union members, were implored to stand in solidarity with him. Except this crowd was the team that lost the World Series on account of Romero's performance.

The late MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner, who had a great sense of humor, tried his best to give Romero's case its due diligence and with a straight face, as the conference room of Rays players called bullshit. (Literally: one of our team veterans called out "BULLSHIT!" amid the uproar.) Weiner's presentation was interrupted by our team's remembrances of how hard Romero was throwing, impromptu discussion on how the testing was inadequate, and how the rules enabled cheating in the postseason since you could appeal and then continue pitching. Wasn't it worth cheating at that point in the season if you'd only sit out regular-season games when you lost your appeal?

The country is crawling with disgruntled athletes leapfrogged by cheaters, understandably envious of the riches and the praise that cheating players go on to receive. It was a peculiar team bonding moment over J.C. Romero. I thought about Romero constantly while my career crumbled after major surgeries. He'd be standing on the mound, doing that ambient shimmy he did seemingly in order to make certain he looked cool as fuck before he even started his windup. He did. I think I just wanted to be him.

But not that badly, I guess. When Andy Pettitte tested positive HGH, he said wasn't looking for an edge, he was trying to heal. "I felt an obligation to get back to my team as soon as possible." His rationale isn't far from the junior college player trying to get drafted. Or the Triple A player trying to not only make it to the majors, but stick.

Unlike Andy Pettitte, I didn't feel an obligation to get back to my team as soon as possible. In hindsight, accepting my fate and fading away had its allure to me. Playing baseball poorly and in pain, didn't seem as interesting as a mystical new life away from the field. Not everybody feels that way. For most ballplayers, sticking around is the whole point. Some guys will do what they have to do just to avoid what nature has in store for them. Until we have a flawless testing system in place, everyone will be in a dark.