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Baseball's fast-lane drug


Former Orioles Jim Traber and Mickey Tettleton had just picked up their sons from football camp when the details of Jason Grimsley's affidavit on drugs in baseball crackled over the car radio.

As they listened to Grimsley's description of leaded (laced with amphetamines) and unleaded (regular) coffee in major league clubhouses, the old teammates laughed and laughed.

"That was giving away a secret of the clubhouse," said Traber, who played parts of four seasons for the Orioles. "But yeah, I knew about it."

Traber is now 44 and host of a sports talk show in Oklahoma City. He's not afraid to say that he tried amphetamines when he played, that the drugs were readily available from teammates or trainers' offices and that the vast majority of major leaguers probably used "greenies" at one time or another.

"I think we all basically thought it was just part of the game," he said. "I think everybody knew the drugs were illegal, but I think the only guys who didn't try them were ones who were so morally [upright] that they wouldn't do anything illegal."

Baseball's dependency on amphetamines has never taken center stage. Steroids and human growth hormone have become the celebrity drugs of this decade. In the 1980s, it was cocaine. But numerous accounts from 1970 on suggest that amphetamines were the most commonly used illegal substance all along.

Grimsley apparently linked several Orioles teammates to amphetamines, though the names of other players are blacked out in the publicly released version of his affidavit, given in April.

Will Carroll writes about medical issues for Baseball Prospectus and said that during a recent presentation in a major league clubhouse, he referenced estimates that 75 to 80 percent of players have tried amphetamines. The team's trainer shot him a look, Carroll recalled, and murmured, "Higher."

Traber said such numbers hardly sound crazy to him. Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar disagrees.

"I've never seen a coffee pot leaded or unleaded in my life," he said. "I don't know where these stories come from. There might be a player or two that's into that stuff and it gets magnified and all of a sudden, 80 percent of big leaguers are taking stuff. It's not like that, and that's the truth."

Like steroids and any other illegal substance, amphetamines are not allowed in baseball. But this is the first year that players have faced tests and penalties for using them.

"In a way, it's even more interesting than steroids in that it's taken for granted," said John Hoberman, a University of Texas professor who studies sports doping. "There has been no outrage over amphetamines."

That discrepancy reflects a cultural tendency to be selectively outraged, he said, comparing it to this country's divergent attitudes toward marijuana and alcohol. Perhaps amphetamines have drawn less scrutiny, he said, because ballplayers used them in the same way truck drivers or students do - just to get by.

"It's a get-out-of-bed drug as opposed to a hit-the-ball-500-feet drug," Hoberman said.

Dangers to heart

The dangers - increased blood pressure and heart rate, insomnia, interruptions to the heart's rhythm - shouldn't be overlooked, said Gary Wadler, an associate professor at New York University School of Medicine and member of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

"It's one of the quintessential performance-enhancing drugs," Wadler said. "In many ways, it gave rise to the whole doping movement. It's a very dangerous drug."

Amphetamine use spiked in the 1930s but became truly widespread during World War II, when the major armies gave stimulants to thousands of soldiers (pilots especially, in the case of the United States military). Cyclists apparently became the first athletes to use them extensively in the 1950s. During the 1967 Tour de France, English rider Tom Simpson collapsed and died on the 13th stage. An autopsy found alcohol and amphetamines in his blood.

By all accounts, baseball's relationship with stimulants had begun by then, though it wouldn't be outed for a few more years.

Pitcher's diary

Long before Jose Canseco started slinging steroid allegations, Jim Bouton's Ball Four pulled back the curtain on daily life in the major leagues. One of the locker room secrets the journeyman pitcher betrayed in his diary of the 1969 season, when he was with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros, was widespread use of "greenies," so named because of the color of the pills. What seemed most striking about Bouton's revelation was that he wrote so casually about snarfing pills.

"We've been running short of greenies," he noted breezily in his May 21 entry. "We don't get them from the trainer, because greenies are against club policy. So we get them from players on other teams who have friends who are doctors, or friends who know where to get greenies. One of our lads is going to have a bunch of greenies mailed to him by some of the guys on the Red Sox. And to think you can spend five years in jail for giving your friend a marijuana cigarette."

Later he wrote of a conversation with teammates about how many players pop greenies.

"Hell, a lot more than half," he quoted teammate Don Mincher as saying. "Just about the whole Baltimore team takes them. Most of the Tigers. Most of the guys on this club. And that's just what I know for sure."

Slugging first baseman Boog Powell was a member of the Orioles team referenced, and he said the players were plenty mad at Bouton.

"That was our sacred land," he said of the clubhouse.

But 36 years later, Powell said that greenies were around and that he tried them a few times. He noted that amphetamines weren't yet illegal in the late 1960s (they were first classified as controlled substances in 1970).

"It was available," he said. "I don't know that it was rampant like everybody seems to think. There weren't a bunch of guys just speeding all over the place. But there are always going to be some guys who do what's available to get an edge."

If anyone thought Bouton was just being provocative with his talk of greenies, a host of stars from the 1970s eventually would make similar claims about the availability and use of stimulants.

The subject came up when Pete Rose gave an interview to Playboy in 1979.

"Well, a lot of guys might think that there are certain days you might need a greenie, an upper," Rose said.

"Would you take one?" the interviewer asked.

"I might," Rose said. "I have taken stuff before."

He said he equated greenies with prescription diet pills.

"There might be some day when you played a doubleheader the night before and you go to the ballpark for a Sunday game and you want to take a diet pill, just to mentally think you are up. You won't be up, but mentally you might think you are up.

"It won't help your game, but it will help you mentally. When you help yourself mentally, it might help your game."

Other greats of the 1970s, from Johnny Bench to Mike Schmidt, would claim to have seen amphetamine use and to have experimented with it.

'Red juice'

In testimony during the cocaine trials surrounding the Pittsburgh Pirates, Yogi Berra's son, Dale, said he had received greenies from Hall of Famer Willie Stargell and batting champion Bill Madlock. The Pirates' John Milner said that when he played with Willie Mays, the legend's locker was the source for a stimulant called "red juice." Mays denied it.

Lonnie Smith made similar claims about Philadelphia Phillies teammates, including Rose, future manager Larry Bowa and Greg Luzinski.

In more recent years, players such as Chad Curtis and Ken Caminiti have said that amphetamine use remained widespread.

"I would say there are only a couple of guys on a team that don't take greenies before a game. One or two guys," Caminiti told Sports Illustrated in 2002 before his death two years later. "That's called going out there naked. And you hear it all the time from teammates, 'You're not going to play naked, are you?'

"And even the guys who are against greenies may be taking diet pills or popping 25 caffeine pills and they're up there [at bat] with their hands shaking. So how good is that? This game is so whacked out that guys will take anything to get an edge. You got a pill that will make me feel better? Let me have it."

Being the best

Traber, who played while Caminiti's career was getting started in the late 1980s, explained the psychology of drug use:

"When you're somebody like me and at 5 years old you told your mother you wanted to be a baseball player and that's all you've ever cared about your whole life, you're going to find out a way to be the best you can be. And when you're 19 to 24 years old, you're not thinking about your body, the long-term effects."

He said most players probably used greenies here and there, on a Sunday afternoon, say, after a late game Saturday night. "But there were people who use them every day," he said.

Traber said that as players became more obsessed with working out and perfecting their bodies, amphetamine use seemed to decline. He doesn't believe greenies have damaged the game as much as steroids.

"Even though they help your awareness and your acuteness, they don't make you stronger," he said. "But I am for getting amphetamines out of the game. We need to clean everything up, because the reputation of baseball is in the toilet."

The problem hit close to home for the Orioles when minor league pitcher Steve Bechler collapsed and died during spring training 2003. Bechler was not using amphetamines, but he was taking an over-the-counter diet pill that contained ephedra. In the wake of Bechler's death, several players admitted using ephedra-based products such as Ripped Fuel for pick-me-ups.

Though such products weren't illegal, their widespread use spoke to the same old boost-seeking culture. It's not so much that illegal amphetamines have a different effect from coffee or Red Bull (which players gulp in the clubhouse). They simply pack much more punch in a small dose.

Millar, who reached the majors full time in 1999, said the proliferation of energy bars, protein drinks and other over-the-counter boosters has largely eliminated the need for greenies.

"There's so many things out here today that those things are long gone," he said of amphetamines. "We always want to address the old teams and say this and that and drugs, but I think now with all the product, there's so much product. I mean guys get products every day from different companies. It's a product thing now. You don't need [illegal drugs]. They've always got a replacement drink. There's always a protein drink. It's the new generation."

Players look for products to combat the fatigue of travel and daily games, Millar said, but health store fare had largely pushed out greenies by the time he came up with the Florida Marlins.

Little change

As for speculation that the game would be diminished this season with steroids and amphetamines banned, Millar hasn't seen it.

"I think we've seen the ball go out just as easy as we had in the past 10 years; I think we see players stealing bases; I think we got guys throwing 100 mph," he said. "I've seen guys throwing harder this year than I ever have.

"I don't know where we're at talking about steroids and amphetamines. I mean, the game's the same. We've still got guys hitting home runs, throwing 100 mph, throwing one-hitters, giving up 12 runs. It's baseball, man. It's still a great game, and this isn't going to hurt it, either."

Amphetamines time line

1940s: The U.S. Air Force distributes the drug to World War II pilots.

1950s: Amphetamines become popular with world-class bicyclists.

1960s: "Greenies" are widespread in baseball, according to pitcher Jim Bouton.

1970s: Stars such as Pete Rose admit having tried greenies.

2002: Former major leaguer Ken Caminiti says the use of greenies is still widespread in baseball.

2006: Major League Baseball tests players for amphetamine use for the first time.

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