Drew Johnson has never used steroids. After three years of junior college baseball and now in his first year at Thomas University in Thomasville, Ga., the only thing that has ever motivated him is hard work. But during Johnson’s freshman year, 13 of his teammates used steroids, and they all saw more of the field than he did.
“So that was 13 spots that were taken up and here I was doing the right thing,” Johnson, 21, said. “But all these guys were getting playing time ahead of me. It wasn’t fair to me.”
In the wake of Alex Rodriguez’s recent steroid scandal, baseball lovers are again questioning the integrity of the game and what the consequences of steroid use should be. Many fans are looking to younger generations of players for a more wholesome, pure game. But as more major leaguers use steroids, they are influencing college athletes to do the same, experts said. According to the NCAA, steroid use decreased dramatically after year-round testing was instituted in 1990, but many college athletes explained that steroid use is still a major problem in baseball at any level.
Eddie Cardieri, the former head coach of the University of South Florida baseball team, believes that Rodriguez’ steroid problem will affect more than just his career. He’s setting an example for every player that dreamed of playing Major League Baseball.
“The goal of all the college players is to get to the big leagues and it becomes a vicious cycle,” he said. “Kids playing in college are seeing results of these major league players and are saying, ‘I gotta be like those guys.’”
Kris Castellanos, a freshman member of Florida State University’s baseball team, agrees that younger players are easily influenced by their baseball heroes.
“Guys are thinking that’s pretty much the only way to get there or that’s the easiest way to get where they want to,” he said.
Steroids will, in many cases, get a player where he wants to go. People that use them experience increases in muscle size and strength. Their muscles also recover faster after working out, allowing them to get stronger faster. Steroids also enhance endurance and decrease fatigue. Taking steroids could be the difference between hitting a fly ball to the outfield, and hitting a home-run over the fence.
College athletes and Rodriguez all note that there’s overwhelming pressure to have an edge on other players. And for many, steroid use is the only way to get that advantage.
“You feel like you have to take them to get to the next level,” Tyler Phillips, a sophomore baseball player at Tallahassee Community College, said. “It makes it very tempting to take them.”
Cardieri explained that steroid use affects the playing field of the game and leaves players who don’t use them at a very serious disadvantage.
“How would you feel if you were a pitcher and you had nine boppers coming to the plate that were all shooting up?” he said.
A lack of drug testing in colleges has also made it easier for players to use steroids. Junior college baseball and smaller universities’ athletic programs do not have the funds to administer steroids tests.
“I think they should put in place some group that will regulate all colleges and help fund them for the tests,” Johnson said.
Although Division I colleges test for drugs, they are not immune to steroid use. Castellanos explained that the NCAA oversees tests for steroid use, but they administer them so randomly that the option to use is still there.
“They’re so easy to get, it’s ridiculous,” he said with a hint of disgust in his voice. “I could have gotten them in a week easily.”
Cardieri explained that random testing is only one of the flaws in collegiate drug tests. The NCAA tests for a range of anabolic agents, masking agents and ephedrine, but more designer drugs are being developed for which testing is not available. For example, there is not yet a commercial test available for human growth hormone (HGH), which is taken by athletes to increase muscle size and allow tired muscles to recover quickly.
“In college they have testing, but they didn’t catch for human growth hormone, so that puts a big crimp in it,” he said. “Let’s face it — if players know they’re not testing for a certain substance, they’re more apt to do it.”
While there are college and minor league players that do use performance-enhancing drugs, there are many that steer clear for both health and moral reasons.
Steroid use can lead to serious health problems, including liver cancer, high blood pressure, and heart attacks. It also has physical effects like baldness and acne. Many steroid users experience aggression, mood swings and delusions. Additionally, HGH can lead to diabetes or to abnormal growth of organs.
“The biggest reason me and my friends don’t use them is because what they do to your body later on,” Castellanos said. “You won’t even be able to play catch with your son because your ligaments are torn.”
Many believe that stricter punishments for major leaguers who use steroids would serve as a warning to younger players.
Major League Baseball currently suspends players who test positive for steroids 50 games after a first offense, 100 games after a second offense, and lifetime after a third offense — although they can try to return after two years. Rodriguez has not yet been punished for admitting he used steroids, and stars like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens still hold their records even though they used performance-enhancing drugs.
“People like A-Rod and Barry Bonds should get a campaign that goes around and educates these kids on it,” Cardieri said.
Many young athletes also long to bring back the days of baseball that were fair, ethical and clean.
“I definitely think it hurts the face of baseball,” Johnson said. “Back then they played hard and now all people care about is money and advancing themselves.”
“Old-time players used to play and not use steroids and they set all these records,” said Castellanos. “Now their records get destroyed by people on steroids. It’s taking away the dreams of normal people who want to break records.”