Baseball gets all juiced up

Soon after he arrived in Venezuela for winter baseball sometime in the 1970s, a young Bobby Valentine heard someone talking about “red juice.”

“I didn’t know what the hell `red juice’ was,” he says. But Latino players swore by it, and Valentine decided to give it a try.

“It was exciting,” he says. “It gave you instant sweat. Instant adrenaline.”

He did not become a regular red-juicer, he says. And while he never found out exactly what was in the concoction, after 30 years he has a pretty good idea.

“Red juice” was packed with amphetamines, the Latin American version of the “greenies” that were to become so popular among baseball players in the United States.

Red juice was exotic 30 years ago. Today, amphetamines are still illegal but are so common they are almost quaint, taking their place among a growing list of substances available to the modern player.

A walk through a Major League clubhouse, in fact, is a walk through a pharmaceutical wonderland.

In the backrooms, the more adventurous still inject anabolic steroids and human growth hormone. Some take androstenedione, the “Mark McGwire drug” that is a legal precursor to anabolic steroids.

Baseball is just now turning its attention to anabolic steroids, discussing in the ongoing labor talks whether the illegal substance should be tested for and banned.

But the list of legal and illegal products that players take to increase muscle, reduce fat, sharpen reflexes and give them an edge is staggering.

“It’s the nature of the game, of professional athletes in general,” says Jeromy Burnitz, who is known for his refusal to use steroids or supplements. “There’s so much money to be made, the competition level is so high, you resort to whatever you can. A lot of guys have gotten a lot bigger and I think it’s cheating.”

For those who do not want to take illegal steroids there is creatine, a legal and popular supplement that helps build muscle mass. No definitive studies have been done to determine whether it is safe, but in the absence of such evidence players swear by it. San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds recently attributed his increase in size and strength to creatine.

Many take Hydroxycut, a popular weight-loss and energy supplement that contains caffeine and ephedra, a stimulant that has been associated with several deaths when used improperly.

There are also countless vitamins, herbal remedies, protein drinks, fat burners and, of course, greenies. Some clubhouses have separate pots for “coaches’ coffee” and amphetamine-laced “players’ coffee,” a whole different take on leaded and unleaded.

If these athletes were in Olympic competition, they would be tested for everything, since any substance believed to artificially enhance performance is banned. But in baseball, even the most reviled drugs and treatments are not subject to testing without probable cause. To begin screening programs, players and owners would have to agree on a system covered by the collective bargaining agreement.

The hazards of legal supplements are also numerous, but are often ignored, thanks to the passage in 1994 of the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act, which deregulated the manufacture and sale of supplements.

A Harvard study of androstenedione that was released two years ago, for example, showed that some products claiming to contain the steroid were filled with contaminants. “One had no andro at all,” says Joel Finkelstein, an endocrinologist and associate professor at Harvard who headed the study.

But even when players are aware of the dangers, it doesn’t always matter, New York Mets outfielder Jay Payton says. “Most guys, if you told them that at age 65 you’d have liver damage and heart problems and all that, they’d still say it’s worth it for this life,” he says.

Payton says he uses creatine and Hydroxycut, although he says he has never used illegal steroids or growth hormone. But even the dangers of ephedra do not deter him from using a product that helps him “get up” for a game.

“You hear of maybe three or four people in a year dying from it, but it’s not enough to scare someone off,” he says. “I’m in bigger danger just crossing the street.”

Yet some players throw their bodies out of whack for years at a time by overloading on supplements that can be helpful in moderate doses. And some deny themselves the benefits of certain supplements by improperly combining them with others.

Creatine, for example, was shown in a 1996 Belgian study to lose its muscle-building abilities when combined with caffeine. Hydroxycut contains caffeine, so a player using both supplements needs to make sure he is on one at a time to get the benefit of creatine.

But even medical professionals are impressed with how much the players figure out on their own.

“These guys are really sophisticated,” says Ron Livesey, a physician who is a partner in Anti-Aging Medicine Associates of Manhattan, a longevity clinic. “They’re more knowledgeable than some physicians.”

Part of the reason is that players turn themselves into both lab rat and scientist, testing and observing themselves in unscientific experiments that no university could ever perform.

It would be patently unethical to conduct studies on behavior known to be so dangerous, but players have developed their own rules.

For example, players figured out that andro increases both testosterone and estrogen, meaning they grew breasts as they developed muscles. So they started taking estrogen blockers like Tamoxifen, making sure their bodies only absorbed the testosterone they craved. Thus some hulking major league All-Stars take the same drugs as women with breast cancer. Players who take anabolic steroids and/or human growth hormone who wanted to avoid the inevitable water retention began taking diuretics to drain the fluid from their body.

“I think they’re much more educated and I think they have agents who are very much more educated,” Valentine says. “When I was playing, we had very little advice as to what to take. Now there’s a whole system with strength training and conditioning and nutrition that we provide.

“And there are outside sources, like agents, that we don’t know about. We monitor, but we have no idea what goes on and the extent of off-season programs.”