Cocaine, Amphetamines, and Steroids

I like to see this site as a place where the status quo is taken on. As much as I dislike Barry Bonds the person, I hate watching anyone end up being the scapegoat for a large group of offenders. We have all heard the rumors of future Hall of Fame pitchers who used steroids, let alone most of the top power hitters of the past 2 decades. I’ve been of the mindset that as soon at MLB starting testing for them, throw the book at any players who found using PED’s. But to treat players like pariahs, who used prior to testing is wrong, as they were just competing in the marketplace where it was encouraged.

And then we come to the idea that the past greats wouldn’t have used steroids. From reading Lawrence Ritter’s Glory of Their Times, I feel pretty confident that many of the top players during the turn of their century would have thrown their Mother* down a flight of stairs, if it would have given them 10 points on their batting average. (*Lou Gehrig was definitely an exception.) We know from Jim Bouton’s Ball Four that greenies (amphetamines) were prevelant in the clubhouse during the time he played. During the Pittsburgh Drug Trials of the 1980’s, Bonds’ Godfather, Willie Mays, and another Hall of Famer, Willie Stargell were described as providers of the drug. An excellent piece written by the Dallas Morning News’ Gerry Fraley discussed much of the history of amphetamines in MLB, featuring an illuminating quote from David Wells’ book Perfect I’m Not.

Those little buggers will open your eyes, sharpen your focus and get your blood moving on demand over and over again. I won’t ever object to a sleepy-eyed infielder beaning up to help me win.

While speed doesn’t show the physical effects that steroids do, it is hard to argue that they haven’t given an edge to many players. While it appears that I was erroneous in stating that Tim Raines’ career was enhanced by cocaine, as Jay Jaffe torched me on Baseball Prospectus for, I do think the question of benefits that players from who used the drug is being underrated. Jaffe brings up an interesting question in his Unfiltered piece.

…while there may possibly be some short-term performance benefit to using cocaine, the high potential for addiction, the rapid buildup of tolerance requiring greater quantities, and the deleterious physical effects of continued usage make this a route of performance enhancement that can’t be taken seriously. Think about it another way: of the hundreds of professional athletes who have found trouble with the white lady, wouldn’t you think at least one ego-inflated Canseco type would come forward to tell us how it improved his career?


Here are some names of players from Raines’ playing era that were at least alleged (if not convicted) of having had involvement with cocaine: Lonnie Smith, Vince Coleman, Tony Phillips, and Willie Wilson. What benefit would a player get from offering up that cocaine helped me play better? At least, with steroids, it is drug that is prescribed by doctors and is not seen as the scourge of society.

Jaffe’s article is well-done and does a great job of outlining Raines’ career being a slam dunk Hall of Fame career, which I agree with wholeheartedly. The one minor point I have a problem with in Jaffe’s effort to campaign for Raines is when he speaks about Raines’ "youthful dalliance" with cocaine. I have to say that carrying coke in the pocket of your uniform and not sliding feet first because you are worried about breaking the vials of powder in your pocket seems a bit more than a dalliance.

Finally, let me offer up to people that want to go to a online journal which discusses PED’s in sports, check out Steroid Nation, which is written by Gary Gaffney, an M.D. from the University of Iowa’s College of Medicine. In September he discusses an interview done with Jim Bouton. Gaffney brings up an important point on the subject of drugs and athletes:

Amphetamines certainly constitute a performance enhancer. Stimulants improve concentration and motor coordination. There is little room for a hierarchy in PED rankings.

While using Tim Raines’ as an example seems to be improper, I still believe the notion that cocaine and amphetamines has helped players achieve better results on the field. I’m sure that there were players who were negatively impacted by these drugs, as well, but the same I’m sure can be said for steroids. There is a reason that people in many different professions have used these substances and that is because of the energy boost they provide. Athletes have taken short-cuts to achieve success for as long as they have been available for them to use. We might not like this, but it is fact of life and it isn’t going to change just because of drug testing, which can’t even detect some PED’s.

12 thoughts on “Cocaine, Amphetamines, and Steroids

  1. 1.  I’m not sure if this was brought up in the last thread, but I think there’s a couple very good reasons why no one’s thanked cocaine for making them a better ballplayer, besides the one you mention above.

    First, there’s the issue of timing. Cocaine’s positive effects on the mind are very real, but they don’t last very long. If the goal was to keep themselves wired, they’d have to snort once every 30-45 minutes or so. While that’s more possible in baseball than any other sport, it’s still a difficulty.

    Also, much like how someone crashes after eating too much sugar, when the euphoria and stimulation wears off, the user often feels exaggeratedly sluggish and inattentive.

    And finally, why take cocaine for performance enhancing performances, when amphetamines (A) have a longer duration due to a different mechanism of action, (B) are much, much cheaper, and (C) are already more prevalent in baseball clubhouses?

    Also, just because a guy was a cocaine addict, doesn’t mean he wasn’t using amphetamines, too, perhaps as a means of mitigating the “crashing” feeling when a dose of coke wears off. People who take one drug illegally usually have few qualms with taking two. If he was taking both simultaneously, he would likely give more of the credit for his success to the speed.

  2. 2.  Good points, Blackfish. The level that amphetamines have played a part in professional sports is seriously underrated. Will Carroll has done some great reporting on the subject.

  3. 4.  1 I think BackFish has hit the nail on the head on why cocaine shouldn’t really be considered a PED. While it does provide a stimulant like effect, a player could simply use amphetamines for the same boost, which would not only last longer, but have less tragic long-term results. Basically, I think it is very clear that cocaine users took the drug for the recreational high, as opposed an possible performance enhancement.

    With steroids and HGH, however, the goal is to gain some kind of performance enhancement. So, even if steroids/HGH don’t really help much, the motive is still cheating. It’s kind of like the corked bat…every physics study I’ve seen suggests a corked bat actually hurts the batter, but the action is still abhorant because it’s an overt attempt at cheating.

    Having said all that, I do agree with your point about challenging the conventional wisdom. For starters, I don’t think we know how much steroids/HGH aid performance. Sure, they probably aid in recovery from injury and strenuous workouts, but is that really so bad? Instead of giving HGH such a stigma, wouldn’t it make as much sense to study its positive uses (if any exist). Who knows, in 10 years, team trainers may be prescribing HGH to injured athletes (and maybe even doctors to regular patients). How ironic would it be if Barry Bonds’ legacy winds up being as a trailblazer in injury recovery, much like Tommy John with his surgery?

  4. 5.  I have to quibble with your belief that cocaine users took it for just a recreational high. I remember the landscape of the time period between 1978-1986. This was before the crack cocaine epidemic had changed the concept of cocaine. It was a sexy drug. If you were young and you had a lot of extra cash, there was a good chance you were partaking. It was an elite drug and people used it to feel more energetic and more confident.

    I had a reader send me an email saying he remembered one former player, who was promoting a book mention on the Tonight Show that cocaine had improved his focus and strength. Since I didn’t hear the same quote, I’m not going to name the player, but I believe the reader who offered it up. The idea is very logical. The drug does make you feel that way. Why do you think Lawrence Taylor was willing to use so much of it, despite already being the most destructive force in NFL history.

    Did amphetamines have a much larger effect on Major League Baseball. Sure. They were practically sitting in candy jars in the locker room or being brewed in the coffee pots. Cocaine didn’t lend itself to such open aired use, but don’t think that there weren’t times on the 1979 Pirates and many other teams when the team bathroom looked like something out of Studio 54.

  5. 6.  I know a few guys who are/were former MLB players and one had a interesting story about one Former Dodger/Yankee/Blue Jay Right Fielder who started off each and every day with a 40 oz cup of coffee spiked with 3-4 greenies.

    4 As far as cheating goes, players try to overtly cheat every single day. Don’t you think Robbie Alomar knew that he actually had to touch the base while turning the double play when he actually was straddling the bag to avoid getting creamed??

    The bottom line is that PED’s affect people in different ways some seem to help (Bonds), sometimes they seem to hurt by keeping a player off the field (Canseco)…there is no certainty in ingesting these substances. Today’s ballplayers should simply stick to all of the legal performance enhancers: Laser eye surgeries, legal nutritional supplements, video of every pitch an opponent has ever thrown, improved bats and a dozen other things that are only available recently and serve no purpose but to artificially improve performance.

  6. 8.  6 “… one Former Dodger/Yankee/Blue Jay Right Fielder who started off each and every day with a 40 oz cup of coffee spiked with 3-4 greenies.”

    My guess? RAUUUUUULLL!!

  7. 9.  So Scott, basically the only difference between now and then is today’s overwhelming media hypocrisy towards today’s generation of players, when certainly the previous two (and possibly more) clearly had their own PED problems?

  8. 11.  9. Ding, Ding!!

    While the execution of my point I wish would have used a better example, my point was opening the eyes of others who never knew about baseball’s long history of PED’s before steroids. It also was trying to open the eyes of a lot of people who were around, but have decided to look the other way on amphetamines and steroids.

    Now that MLB has an actual drug testing policy, I’m all for throwing the book at players who use. My issue sits with going solely after players from the past 15 years who used steroids when the league, the players, and the fans basically turned a blind eye to them, until just the past 4 years. Hell, the whole subject makes my eyes get so wide open it makes my pupils feel dilated. Hey, who rolled that dollar bill up…how did that mirror get there…why are my gums feeling numb…

  9. 12.  A favor if possible. When mentioning players on cocaine, in addition to the standard black players you mention, how about mentioning a white guy too (Paul Molitor fits the bill of a speedy player). I’m not calling anyone racist, but there is a definite racial bias (likely at a subconcious level) when cocaine is brought up.

    And just picking out names of fast black players doesn’t mean that’s the target audience. I would bet there were a few hundred cocaine users in the 1980s. I’m quite sure that there were not a few hundred speedy players.

    It’s like trying to pick out steroids users, and saying Giambi, Canseco, and others. But, half the players who fail steroids testing are pitchers.

    And in the hierarchy of PED, I don’t think there’s a soul out there that would argue that, given the choice between amphetamines and cocaine, that they would not choose amphetamines.

    As for the overall effect, the pros/cons of cocaine to performance in baseball, I would bet on the cons to far outweigh the pros (just guessing), and the opposite for steroids and amphetamines.

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