A player’s size is no indicator of steroid use

NEW YORK – If his personal trainer hadn’t been hit with federal indictments, Barry Bonds might have avoided all those questions this week about what kind of substances he has or hasn’t taken. Colorado Rockies pitcher Turk Wendell probably wouldn’t have felt brave enough to flat-out accuse Bonds of doping when he volunteered this statement on Tuesday in Tucson: “It’s clear just seeing his body.”

Added Rockies pitcher Denny Neagle, “The jury is always going to be out on Barry.”

But the indictments from the government’s investigation into BALCO in California have opened Bonds and other players to the kind of scrutiny few dared to make public until recently. Wendell is just voicing baseball’s newest conventional wisdom: the evidence is in the body.

“There are certain guys, you just wonder,” Cubs starter Kerry Wood said. “You also wonder how they’re going to be this year.”

This year, of course, is the first that baseball will have any sort of punitive testing program for steroid use.

But the eye is a terribly unreliable way to determine who is doping and who isn’t – just because a player arrives in camp bigger or smaller than he was last season is no guarantee that he ever used steroids – or isn’t using them now.

The holes in baseball’s testing are so large that a player can still pump his body with foreign substances and avoid detection. In some cases, he might not be breaking any rules. He can take human growth hormone (hGH) to swell his body, for instance, and baseball won’t test for it. He can take Andro (the famed Mark McGwire drug) to replace stronger anabolic steroids, and it won’t get him in trouble because baseball doesn’t test for it. Both substances are illegal in many other sports, but baseball’s union is strong enough to exact concessions on drug testing from the game’s governors.

“It’s a ridiculous system,” said Dick Pound, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The Players Association, which has remained mostly silent as players and the testing program have come under fire, bases its objections to drug testing on right to privacy issues. Besides, says the union, Andro is still legal (a pending Senate bill would reclassify it as an illegal steroid), and as long as John and Jane Public can walk into a store and buy it, players should be allowed to as well.

Human growth hormone is a trickier subject. Players can go to “longevity clinics” and get prescriptions for a substance that increases their lean muscle mass, reduces body fat and improves their general sense of well-being. hGH also increases their risk of developing certain cancers, possible heart, liver and kidney disease, and gives them bad breath, skin tags and increased bone growth in the hands, feet, brow and jaw.

There’s also another risk factor: It’s unclear whether hGH actually increases strength.

“There are certainly situations where it is easier to demonstrate that a certain hormone can increase muscle mass, but not strength,” says Peter J. Snyder, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s the same with testosterone, Snyder says, since there are few studies on whether it increases strength.

But athletes don’t need to conduct double-blind controlled studies and publish them in peer-review journals, making sure they meet ethical standards. They use their own bodies as lab rats every day, and have developed their own knowledge of what huge doses of steroids can do to the body.

They’ve even figured out how to avoid certain side effects. They take estrogen-blockers such as tamoxifen, a drug intended for women who are menopausal or have breast cancer, to avoid male breasts. They take diuretics to lose the water weight that comes with steroid use, and they combine different steroids to maximize the muscle-building effects.

Science is not entirely sure what hGH will do when taken in large amounts by healthy young people because it is unethical to test them. But studies in elderly patients who have seen a natural decline in their hormone levels show that they get bigger and look better with hGH, but don’t increase their strength. In order to do that, several experts say, the body needs testosterone, and the most effective method is artificial testosterone, or steroids. Andro can do the trick, too.

One veteran pitcher, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says he tried hGH for a few months, and that the doctors have it right: he got bigger and felt better, he says, but was no stronger and couldn’t throw a ball any faster. He got nervous about the possible side effects, he says, so he stopped using it.

“Just didn’t seem worth it,” he says.

But he could have thrown in a big shot of Andro, added some pop to his game, and no test he takes this season would nail him.