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Baseball and amphetimines

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sunday, April 02, 2006

There are days when the 13-year veteran feels his strength sapped by the demands of those 162-game seasons.

That's why even this three-time All-Star used to swallow a "greenie'' now and then to stay in the lineup.

"Players use amphetamines to be the player they can't be when they're tired," said the veteran, who asked that his name not be used.

For decades, amphetamines — "speed" on the street — have helped baseball players face the rigors of their sport: Six-game weeks. Day games immediately following night games. Cross-country flights. Hundreds of repetitions in the batting cage and batter's box, on the mound and in the field. The stress of a pennant race in the August heat.

But baseball's crusade against performance-enhancing substances has pushed the pills out of the clubhouse and onto the banned list as part of the sport's sweeping new drug policy.

Beginning this season, players will be tested for amphetamines. And many major-leaguers believe that our national pastime will never be the same.

"It's going to have a lot bigger effect on the game than steroid testing," said Chipper Jones, the Atlanta Braves' All-Star third baseman. "It's more rampant than steroids. ... I think the fringe players will be weeded out."

In recent years, players have estimated that between 50 and 80 percent of ballplayers have used amphetamines. A USA Today survey last year found that 35 percent of players thought at least half were using them. The ban will heighten the physical and mental strain of the season, the aforementioned veteran said.

"The manager comes to you and what are you going to say?... 'Oh, no, sorry. I can't go today.' I used it on days when I felt shut down, to keep my name in the lineup," he said. "You're going to see a lot of guys asking the manager for a day off."

Greenies, a nickname coined by ballplayers because of the color of the pills, were introduced to the game in the 1940s. These amphetamines speed up the heart rate and have been proven to fight fatigue, increase alertness and sharpen reaction time. Athletes have used them to challenge the limits of endurance — and mask the accompanying pain.

Amphetamines also are addictive and can cause heart attacks and strokes. They contributed to the first documented deaths from performance-enhancing drugs more than 45 years ago.

Players have ordered pills on the Internet or brought them to spring training after playing in winter leagues in Latin America, where amphetamines are available over-the-counter.

Now, there's a rush to figure out other ways to survive the season.

The veteran player points to the energy drink in a bright blue bottle atop his spring training locker.

"If they ever ban that, then I'll definitely have to say something," he said.

An open secret

Steroids have all but ruined baseball's image. So when the owners finally toughened up the drug policy, they decided to target more than the anabolic substances that have made headlines in the long-ball era.

Commissioner Bud Selig, in a letter to players' union chief Donald Fehr last year, made clear his intention to erase all traces of performance-enhancing drugs.

"It's time to put the whispers about amphetamine use to bed once and for all,'' Selig wrote. "To the extent that our culture has tolerated the use of these substances, the culture must change."

One player said Fehr has told union members that the Congressional hearings on steroids scared owners into including greenies in their accelerated anti-drug campaign.

No matter the motivation, amphetamine abusers now face severe consequences.

The first positive test will result in a series of random tests. A second offense calls for a 25-game suspension. A third and you're out 80 games. A fourth violation goes to the commissioner, who could impose a lifetime ban.

Despite the risk, some players still might seek magic in a bottle.

"I know if I walk in the clubhouse tomorrow morning and I say, 'I'm not going to be able to get on the field until I have some,' I feel fairly certain I could find some," Jones said of the pills. "Until recently, it's been sitting up in plain sight. ... You see what you see."

Greenies have long been baseball's worst-kept secret. They were considered harmless pep pills until 1970, when the drug that doctors classify as "artificial adrenaline" was made illegal in the United States without a prescription.

"It's not a big deal between ballplayers and that's probably because nobody's ever had a serious consequence," Baltimore Orioles catcher Javy Lopez said. "The day there is, the day someone dies, then you're really going to see people running around."

Few players, Lopez said, consider the risk.

"The way a lot of guys think is... advance your career, make your money, take care of your family, follow your dream and pay the consequences later with your health," he said.

For years, players satisfied their needs in pill and liquid form. In many clubhouses, one coffee pot was labeled regular and the other "hot,'' meaning the java was spiked with amphetamines.

The ban will prompt some players to experiment with potential energy boosters. Before the weight-loss drug ephedra was outlawed, players would mix it with coffee to create "an amphetamine-like effect without violating any laws," according to Dr. Gary Wadler, a member of the prohibited-list committee of the World Anti-Doping Agency, who testified before Congress last year.

Was that concoction safer than straight greenies?

"I'll just remind you of Steven Bechler," Wadler said.

Bechler, an Orioles pitcher, died of a heart attack in Fort Lauderdale after using ephedra during spring training three years ago. An autopsy confirmed that the drug contributed to the heatstroke that killed him. Bechler, 23, had thrown fewer than five innings in the majors.

'Cat-and-mouse game'

As soon as ephedra was banned, in came Synephrine, also called "bitter orange," and it was easily mixed with coffee for a heart-racing kick.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game," Wadler said. "Chemical gurus make a lot of money doing this."

Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., who has played 18 seasons in the big leagues, said he'll stick with old-fashioned stimulants like espresso. Alomar knows that fans are fed up with drug use among athletes, but he doesn't think they understand the stamina and mental edge it takes to play in the majors.

"There are going to be days that you're going to need to take stuff to play — supplements, coffee, Red Bull," he said. "Maybe it doesn't really work, but in your mind, it's what you need."

Doctors say the biggest risk of amphetamines is addiction — both physical and mental. Players come to believe they cannot perform without the drug. Plus, as the body becomes accustomed to the amphetamines, the drug becomes less effective over time. That means a higer dose is needed to create the same rush.

"I've seen a guy who may or may not pinch hit in the eighth or ninth inning pop two before the game and another in the fifth inning," Jones said. "It's part of their pre-game ritual. Some guys have to have it."

When players overmedicate, they can become aggressive, throwing bats, kicking water coolers, destroying the clubhouse when things go wrong.

"The saying was the guy had to 'work his greenie off,' " said former major-leaguer Jim Bouton, who in 1970 wrote about amphetamines in baseball in his classic tell-all memoir, Ball Four.

Amphetamines, often used to treat narcolepsy, also can disrupt a player's sleeping habits. Some suffer from bouts of insomnia, going several days without sleep. The drugs also are used to control weight; one player said a teammate had to seek counseling because he had lost too many pounds.

Through the years, players have devised home remedies to come down from the high. The most common belief is that a glass of milk, about 20 ounces or so, does the trick.

"I don't know if it's an old wives' tale, but it's what I've heard — 'Dude, will you get him a glass of milk to settle him down?' " Jones said.

Bouton said the testing will have a widespread effect that may be difficult to discern.

"You're not going to notice it — the reason is amphetamine use is so widespread it's going to affect everybody equally," he said. "So many guys take it, it's going to balance itself out in the end."

WWII sparks pill craze

If baseball players aren't alarmed by the sight of teammates taking pills between innings or gulping cups of juiced-up coffee, it's because they've been numbed to the use of amphetamines through the last 60 years.

The abuse dates back to World War II, when pilots and infantrymen were given pills to help them stay alert in battle. They were legal, sold over-the-counter and used to treat everything from asthma to fatigue.

Professional athletes called into service began using amphetamines during games at military bases. When the war ended and athletes returned to their teams, they brought along the pills.

They used the name "greenies" because Dexedrine, one brand name, came in green tablets. The equally common Benzedrine came in orange pills.

"They spread like wildfire when all of those guys came home," said Dr. Charles Yesalis, who co-authored the article, Anabolic Steroid and Stimulant Use in North American Sport between 1850 and 1980, in the December issue of Sport in History.

When Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner returned to the Pittsburgh Pirates after flying Navy seaplanes, he found amphetamines in the training room.

Before the second game of a summer doubleheader, a trainer gave a weary Kiner some Benzedrine pills.

"All the trainers in all the ballparks had them," Kiner said.

In an era when a premium wasn't placed on off-season conditioning — players were discouraged from lifting weights for fear of becoming too bulky and losing flexibility — ballplayers sought stamina in pill form. Big-league roster spots were precious and players would do anything to keep them.

"You needed to perform your best and you were going to use everything that's legal to help you do it," Kiner said. "You worked to get that job and you wanted to stay in the lineup. If you got out of the lineup, you might never get back in."

Jim Brosnan, who pitched for four teams from 1954 through '63, chronicled life in the majors in his 1960 book, The Long Season. He said most players used greenies to recover from hangovers and instill confidence.

"It seemed to help," he said. "If you thought it would help, you tried it. I did. But it didn't always help me."

By the late '60s, amphetamine use worldwide was rampant, especially in sports.

The first documented cases of deaths from performance-

enhancing drugs involved amphetamines. During the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Danish cyclist Knud Jensen collapsed and died during competition. Seven years later, English cyclist Tommy Simpson died from heart failure during the Tour de France.

Autopsies revealed that each athlete had high levels of amphetamines in his system.

When Congress passed the first legislation to combat drug abuse, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, amphetamine prescriptions dropped 88 percent within two years, Wadler said.

But baseball players kept taking pills.

"Most players saw amphetamines as harmless," Bouton said. "But the professional athlete does a lot of things to his body that they don't think of as harmful."

The war sparked the greenie craze, but winter ball kept it going.

Even after the United States regulated amphetamines, they were still available over-the-counter in Latin America. And they still are today.

Just about every major-leaguer who has played in Latin America has experienced the heart-pounding high of a greenie-loaded pot of coffee.

When the Orioles' Lopez was 17 and a bench warmer for the San Juan Senators in the Puerto Rican winter league, he downed a cup of coffee and heard a veteran warning another rookie about drinking out of the engrinado pot, the one spiked with greenies.

"I was scared," Lopez said. "I had never smoked in my life, never had a drink, never taken any drugs. And to me, greenies were a drug. I just kept listening to my body to see what would happen, ready to run to the trainer."

Now, Major League Baseball has considered asking the winter leagues to test their players, too, said Jesus Campos, the Marlins' director of scouting in the Dominican Republic and also the general manager of the Cibao Giants. Last winter, Major League Baseball conducted surprise tests of major-leaguers on Campos' team.

"Nobody escapes," Campos said. "Whoever gets caught, it is not for a lack of education."

Baseball is urging franchises to educate prospects in their Latin American training academies about the dangers of amphetamines and the risk of suspension or worse. Baseball provides a list of banned substances using the Spanish street names of the illegal drugs and supplements.

That's a good thing, said Dario Paulino, the general manager of the Braves' operations in the Dominican Republic, who estimates that 40 percent of the Dominican players signed by major-league teams have used amphetamines.

"You as a player, in an effort to be the next Sammy Sosa, are going to do what you think you need to do," Paulino said. "Our challenge is to educate against that."

The Braves require prospects to take a drug test before they sign a contract. The Marlins do not, so some amphetamine users could slip by until they fail an MLB test.

"That's a battle for us," Campos said. "That's what we're dealing with here in the Dominican Republic and Latin America."

The 2006 season brings a new period of adjustment for many major-leaguers. Coincidence or not, home-run production dropped last year after the advent of steroid testing.

With the amphetamine ban, many players expect regulars in the starting lineup to ask for more days off.

"It's going to prevent people from playing the number of games they want to play because they relied on it for so long," said Atlanta's Jones.

Bouton believes that cynical fans and observers will react to a player's slump the same way they did to a drop-off in homers — by assuming that the player must have been on drugs. He blames the owners and players for making matters worse by not addressing amphetamines before this season.

"They should have done something a long time ago," Bouton said. "The players who aren't taking drugs need to be protected from the ones taking them.... You've said to the public, 'Let's ignore it until the absolute last minute.' Now, everybody suffers, even the guy who's not taking anything."

Some players believe they are being unfairly scrutinized for using a drug that provides nothing more than an energy fix.

"I'm not saying, 'Go be a dope fiend,' but it's a 162-game season, day games after night games.... Guys are not machines," Braves outfielder Brian Jordan said. "I'm not promoting using it, but you need something to get you going."

Without a greenie boost, players will seek alternatives to get them through the season. Coffee. Energy drinks. Eating better. Working out more.

Will it be enough?

"You have to have the desire to succeed and you can do that without cheating," Jones said. "Well, some people can."

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