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Baseball's real drugs are found in pill form

Joseph A. Reaves

The Arizona Republic

Jul. 3, 2005 12:00 AM

For all the publicity and congressional hearings, the drugs of choice in baseball never really were steroids.

At least not on a wholesale scale.

That dubious honor belongs to amphetamines - the little pep pills known as greenies, beanies, uppers or any of a half-dozen other disarmingly cute names. advertisement

Amphetamines have been illegal, except with a doctor's prescription, since 1970, two decades before steroids were placed under the same restrictions.

Because they're illegal, just about everyone in baseball's tightly guarded inner circle is reluctant to talk about amphetamines, now more than ever given the ongoing high-profile crackdown on steroids.

But the reality is amphetamines have been for six decades, and still are today, a wink-and-nod constant in professional baseball - an important driving force in the game.

"These little buggers will open your eyes, sharpen your focus and get your blood moving on demand, over and over again, right through a full 162-game season," former Yankees and current Red Sox pitcher David Wells wrote of amphetamines in his 2003 book, Perfect I'm Not.

"A lot of guys will buy them in a seasonlong stockpile at one time. We're talking about hundreds of pills. With that in mind, it really ain't hard to get connected. Stand in the middle of your clubhouse and walk 10 feet in any direction. Chances are you'll find what you need."

Earlier this year, former Diamondbacks pitcher Brian Anderson, now with the Kansas City Royals, said he'd describe amphetamine use in baseball as "widespread."

Expanding tests to include amphetamines already has met resistance from the Major League Baseball Players Association, which currently negotiates drug testing with owners.

In 1970, the year amphetamines were banned, former pitcher Jim Bouton caused a brief national stir by writing in Ball Four, his classic book on clubhouse culture, that "a lot of baseball players couldn't function without (greenies)."

At least five current and former players have joined Bouton in recent years admitting amphetamines are widespread in baseball.

Future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn agreed with Wells and Anderson, telling a reporter last month that "greenies" were "everywhere" before he retired in 2001.

They became widespread during World War II when the U.S. Army gave them to soldiers to ward off fatigue, increase alertness and maintain aggression.

Greenies moved into baseball clubhouses for pretty much the same reasons.

Wear and tear

Dr. Gary I. Wadler, a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency and lead author of the acclaimed book, Drugs and the Athlete, says baseball players take amphetamines for one reason: because the pills do what they are supposed to do.

"They improve reaction time, increase arousal, enhance endurance, mask pain and boost self-confidence," Wadler said. "They put you in the zone."

Yesalis, who is writing a book on amphetamines, agrees players pop pills largely because they work, but believes that in some cases "beaning up" is simply the thing to do.

"Literally, since World War II, amphetamines have been part of the culture of baseball," he said.

Despite the longstanding legal prohibition, some baseball insiders take a tolerant view.

"You have to remember this is the only sport in the world where you have a 162-game regular-season schedule," said a major league front-office executive who agreed to speak only if his name were withheld.

"People don't understand the wear and tear and grind. Baseball's like nothing else. You might have a night game on the West Coast, get on a plane, land at dawn with a three-hour time change, then have to go out and try to hit a 100 mph fastball in front of 50,000 people in Yankee Stadium."

Opponents of drug use in sports are equally passionate.

"I hear the 162-game thing all the time and it falls on deaf ears," Wadler said. "First of all, these athletes travel first class and stay in first-class accommodations. They have the best food and training facilities. How does that compare to someone who's holding down two or three jobs at the same time and working 20 hours a day? Are you telling me he or she should be taking amphetamines? I don't have any sympathy for that argument.

"With estimates that as many as 80 percent of these guys out there have used them at one time or another - it's almost as if you don't use them you're not a good teammate."

No one really knows how many professional baseball players are using amphetamines. The evidence is mostly anecdotal.

One-time Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis, in a story about how he's cleaned up his life, admitted he used hallucinogenic drugs between starts and took between five and 12 pep pills before every game he threw for 12 years.

And ex-Cubs outfielder Brian McRae said he always had to be careful which of two coffee pots he drank from in the clubhouse before a game - one that contained regular dark roast and the "leaded" pot that held a simmering soup of uppers.

Fans unconcerned

Those revelations have done little to raise awareness about amphetamines. Most fans remain oblivious or indifferent.

A half-dozen people stopped in downtown Phoenix last week said they didn't know enough about amphetamines in baseball to even offer a comment. The one fan who ventured an opinion said he knew amphetamines were illegal, but couldn't care less.

"I'm sure they all cheat, so it's not cheating," said Greg Davey, 26, of Tempe. "If we're gonna start nitpicking about every single athlete, where does it stop?"

Under an agreement negotiated in January with the players union, Major League Baseball now tests for steroids, ephedra and recreational drugs such as cocaine. But not for amphetamines.

"It's time to put the whispers about amphetamine use to bed once and for all," Selig wrote in April to Donald Fehr, head of the players union.

Selig proposed a 50-game suspension without pay for any player caught using steroids or amphetamines, 100 games for a second offense and lifetime suspension for a third.

In addition to three bills already pending in Congress, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., a former pitcher and member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, said this week he plans to introduce a fourth, which would impose Olympic-style penalties on professional sports. Amphetamines are banned from the Olympics.

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