I grew up in a leafy residential neighborhood less than a mile from Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs. All my friends—virtually everyone I knew—were Cubs fans. If there are tics, habits and emotional dependencies common to fans of every sport and franchise, there is also something specific to the community of the faithful surrounding each individual team. Cubs fans are known for being happy, prosperous and good looking. They enjoy drinking, sunbathing, and having fun at the ballpark with their incredibly sexy girlfriends. Disturbingly, at least for those of us who hate them, they appear relatively unfazed by the stunning ineptitude of their team, which has set a standard for ingenuity in managing to avoid winning a World Series since 1908.
Chicago’s other baseball team, the White Sox, played on the South Side, where nobody I knew lived. They played in a ballpark nobody liked, in a neighborhood you had to lock your doors just to drive through. The stands were mostly empty for Sox games; those who did show up were neither attractive nor happy, though they were often drunk. For several years, my father was one of the few adults I knew who would risk subjecting his child to the perils of Sox Park at night—and in 1988, Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, citing a lack of local support, came within hours of following through on a threat to relocate the team to Florida. All through my childhood, the news that I was a Sox fan was met with gasps of mock surprise or eyebrows quizzically raised: Why root for the Sox?
I rooted for the Sox because it ran in the family, as philandering or alcoholism run in other families. My father—a sober, analytical man, dispassionate to a fault at home and virtually the embodiment of the Protestant ethic at work—was reliably unreasonable on two subjects, Israel being the other. But if talk of U.N. double standards tended to turn him hectoring and shrill, his disquisitions on the Sox were leavened by anxiety, sadness and the withering pessimism we reserve for the things with the potential to hurt us worst. He had grown up on the South Side, back when the Jews still lived down there, and his father had rooted for the Sox. And his father had passed down to him the disease of being a Sox fan (this is the kind of thing he would say), and now he had passed it down selfishly, carelessly, to his son.
He taught me to live and die with every game, every batter, every pitch. I say “taught” although it was inadvertent; he did it, and (to my mother’s horror) I imitated him. Every night of the summer would unfurl the same sentimental drama. The two of us, having kept track of the game from odd angles during dinner, would settle in front of the TV for the final innings. To each other, we spoke exclusively of defeat; in our hearts, we longed frantically for a win. On the nights we were prevented from watching, I remember him returning to the dinner table or the party, his tiny cordless radio tucked into his pocket, with the dreadful news. As we locked eyes, I received my introduction to the idea that there were things in the world that could determine my happiness—things that would simply act on me, and that I could do nothing about. The clipped decrees came like bursts of fate: “Sox up big”; “Sox leading late”; “Sox down but threatening.” And, of course, worst of all: “It’s over. Sox lose.”
What would follow? A swift, surely chemical despair. Some sense of the unfairness of the world, abetted by the feeling that I was suffocating or drowning and with an outward consequence of extreme crabbiness. It was imperative that my mother not speak for at least ten minutes. If I was around strangers, I could occasionally conceal the extremity of my feelings behind a caustic black humor; sometimes I could resist the temptation to lay my head on the table or fling my body to the floor. My politically-minded friends said they felt this way when they woke up to discover George Bush had been re-elected in 2004—I feel it somewhere between 65 and 90 nights each summer, depending on the record of my local team. Immersive video games, television and hard liquor would help in later years; blackness and sleep was best. In the morning, I could begin preparing for the next game.
The Sox lost a lot all through the 1980s; then, just as I became old enough to follow them conscientiously as a fan, they began to win more than they lost. A new ballpark and a series of strong draft picks—Robin Ventura, Alex Fernandez, Frank Thomas—catapulted the team to prominence in the American League Central, where they competed for division titles nearly every year. I will remember the 90s in baseball for the resurgence of the Sox, the return of their fan base from whatever distant suburbs they had disappeared to, and the team’s two forays into the playoffs, in 1993 and 2000 (even though both culminated in quick, soul-crushing defeats). Also for the ascendency of Thomas, a mass of a man, formerly a tight end at Auburn, soon known on the South Side as the “Big Hurt” for the almost unprecedented harm he was capable of inflicting on a baseball. Thomas’s at bats, in those days, were events—and I watched closely. It seemed the secret to life might lurk in the way he lifted his back heel just slightly off the ground as he made contact, or in the discernment he showed holding back his bat on pitches destined to veer millimeters outside the zone. My father, always sensitive to the importance of sample size, conceded eventually that we were in the presence of genius. The evidence, to me at least, seemed incontrovertible.
I was lucky. My innocence as a fan coincided fortuitously with that of the sport. For it is already clear that the decade will be remembered by history for very different sorts of reasons. According to a raft of recent articles, books and documentaries—including Ken Burns’s exhaustive chronicle, The Tenth Inning—the real drama during those years unfolded off the field, behind closed doors, in workout facilities and pharmaceutical labs and doctors’ offices. Some players—probably a lot of players—cheated; many of the most impressive performances were made possible by drugs. If we could have guessed about such things at the time, now we know too much to ignore them. Whatever we may wish to be the case, history will remember the 90s in baseball as the beginning of the Steroid Era.
Stories about steroids in baseball are often headlined lasciviously—steroids was an “orgy”; the whole league was “juiced”—although the progression itself was predictable, even anodyne. As the action on the field grew more extreme, the players transformed themselves into veritable drones of efficiency. They did so in conjunction with the arrival of a new generation of owners, like Tom Hicks in Texas and John Henry in Boston, who had migrated to the sport from the corporate world. Expecting returns commensurate with their sizable investments, such owners were impatient with conduct detrimental to performance on the field. Steroids were the opposite of all earlier drugs in this respect. Instead of distracting players from their job, they helped them perform at what had previously been considered impossibly high levels. The juiciest bits from the steroid memoirs involve grown men disappearing into bathroom stalls to shoot each other in the buttocks with a needle. The visible consequences included acne, bloating, shrunken testicles, and hundreds upon hundreds of home runs.
It was progress, said many. Throughout the 90s, players would recall how much worse things had been before, when, rather than lifting weights and rubbing themselves with bionic lotions, they had snorted cocaine, driven drunk, and banged groupies in the bullpen. Mets clubhouse assistant Kirk Radomski, a key witness for the government sponsored Mitchell Report on steroids in 2007, recalls an infamous New York Mets clubhouse teeming with recreational drugs and X-rated practical jokes. Indeed, the mid-80s Mets, led by Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden and David Cone, defined what could one day be known as the performance de-hancing drug era in baseball. The first drug test that Radomski describes in his memoir, Bases Loaded, is Gooden’s—and it was not for steroids.
Gooden, a toothpick-skinny pitcher from Florida, had burst on the scene in 1984, winning 17 games and striking out a staggering 276 hitters at the age of nineteen. According to Radomski, Gooden never took steroids or even lifted weights, which may be one reason he failed to fulfill his prodigious promise, unlike the second best young pitcher in baseball during those years, the Boston Red Sox’ Roger Clemens (who did both). Gooden had other problems, though. In 1986, he was arrested for fighting with police in Tampa. The next year he was institutionalized after testing positive for cocaine during spring training. He would struggle his whole career with substance abuse, entering rehabilitation facilities several times and being arrested for drunk driving twice. Radomski claims he helped Gooden cheat on two urine tests in 1988. In 1991, Gooden was accused along with two teammates of rape (the charges were later dropped); in 2005, he was convicted of a misdemeanor after punching his girlfriend.
The young pitcher became a symbol for his era. Drugs, alcohol and spousal abuse were public relations nightmares for the sport throughout the 80s. Steroids, traditionally associated with track and field and football, only became popular in baseball toward the end of the decade. The earliest case Radomski recalls from his days with the Mets was that of outfielder Lenny Dykstra, who arrived at spring training having added 35 pounds of muscle in 1990. Dykstra was a gritty 27-year-old slap hitter—he’d earned the nickname “Nails” for his supposed toughness—coming off an abysmal 1989 season. In 1990, he posted career highs in nearly every offensive category despite tailing off in the second half due to what Radomski diagnoses as an improperly spaced “cycling” technique with his drugs.
Baseball, it had always been thought, was a sport requiring agility, finesse and stamina. The conventional wisdom was that excessive weight lifting and supplements slowed players down and exposed them to injury. Such assumptions had begun to be revised a few years earlier based on developments in the Bay Area, where, in 1987, the Oakland A’s Bunyonesque first baseman Mark McGwire set a rookie record with 49 home runs. McGwire joined outfielder Jose Canseco to form an imposing duo in the middle of the A’s lineup soon known, based on their body-builder physiques and the homoerotic forearm bump they invented for celebrating long balls, as the “Bash Brothers.” The A’s reached the World Series three straight years from 1988-1990, winning in 1989. In 1988, Canseco won the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award after becoming the first player ever to hit forty home runs and steal forty bases in the same season. Taunted by Red Sox fans in the playoffs for being a steroid cheat, the slugger responded with a smile and a gaudily flexed bicep. The next year, he was rewarded with the richest contract in major league history.
Canseco’s memoir, Juiced, is the most revealing book yet written about steroids. This is because it is the only book whose author is unabashedly pro-steroids. Canseco never pretends his success was the result of hard work, or that steroids were merely a hedge against injuries (both assertions were made by McGwire after he admitted using in 2010). Rather, steroids were “the key to it all”; combined with growth hormone, their effect was “just incredible.” In the future, Canseco is certain that everyone will use:
I have no doubt whatsoever that intelligent, informed use of steroids, combined with human growth hormone, will one day be so accepted that everybody will be doing it. Steroid use will be more common than Botox is now. Every baseball player and pro athlete will be using at least low levels of steroids. As a result, baseball and other sports will be more exciting and entertaining. Human life will be improved, too. We will live longer and better. …We will be able to look good and have strong, fit bodies well into our sixties and beyond. It’s called evolution, and there’s no stopping it.
It is easy to make fun of the evangelistic claims Canseco makes for steroids (what’s called evolution?), but Canseco’s faith in the power of drugs to transform human life for the better is hardly unique, nor is it limited to the arena of sports. In its biographical sections, Juiced tells the Horatio-Alger-esque story of a skinny kid from a working class family of Cuban immigrants in Miami. The first chapter is called “You’ll Never Add Up to Anything,” which is a quote from Canseco’s father, Jose Canseco Sr. The chapter describes what it was like for Jose and his brother, Ozzie, growing up with a man who had “worked so hard to give us a good life in America” and “wanted us to do great things.” Jose and his brother were just average players as teenagers, though, and “average was never acceptable.” Jose’s father told him he was probably going to work at Burger King when he grew up. Jose believed him, comparing himself unfavorably to other players in his little league whom he describes as “automatic” major leaguers.
In Canseco’s case, then, steroids were the answer to a characteristically American question: What can I do to be great? Juiced leaves it a mystery how Canseco managed to get picked in the fifteenth round of the amateur draft in 1982, given what he describes as a fairly paltry skill set (as he tells it, the pick was based on a personal relationship with a Cuban scout and had nothing to do with talent). Still, we may take Canseco at his word that he was not naturally gifted enough to be sure he would “do great things” in America—there is little doubt he saw things that way. Every page of Juiced seethes with Canseco’s insecurity, his self-loathing, and his fear that he will disappoint his father. His sense of inadequacy and fraudulence mars even what should be the high points of his career. When he signs his first professional contract, Canseco describes himself as “too scared to be very happy.” “I had no idea what to expect,” he writes, “and it seemed totally obvious to me that I didn’t belong … I just had no confidence in my abilities.”
After muddling along for two years in the minors, Canseco turned to a combination of liquid testosterone and an injectable anabolic steroid called Deca-Durabolin in the winter preceding the 1985 season. With the aid of an extra 25 pounds of muscle, and an accompanying dose of confidence, the once-marginal prospect shot through the minors and into the major leagues, hitting more than forty home runs at three levels. Beyond leading the A’s to three consecutive World Series appearances, he would evolve into one of the (at that time) rare athletes capable of transcending the world of sports. Canseco appeared shirtless on the covers of fitness and entertainment magazines and in 1991 erupted into the tabloids during a high-profile fling with Madonna. On the field, he appeared oblivious to the fortunes of his team. No matter the score or situation, Canseco swung for the fences on every pitch. His primary responsibility, he says over and over in his book, was to “put on a show” for the fans.
Despite remaining a box office success, Canseco’s act eventually wore thin in Oakland and the slugger was traded to Texas in 1992. To the Rangers, he brought not only his home run swing but also the gospel of steroids. “Not long after I got there, I sat down with Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, and Ivan Rodriguez, three of the Rangers’ young offensive stars, and educated them about steroids,” Canseco recounts. “Soon I was injecting all three of them.” Anyone who still maintains—as many baseball commentators have for years, inexplicably—that steroids are of no real help to a major league hitter should consider the statistical transformation that occurred in the ensuing seasons for Palmeiro, Gonzalez and Rodriguez, all of whom posted career highs in home runs within two years of their sit-down with Canseco. Nor is it any accident that the next fifteen years in baseball constituted the most offensively supercharged period in league history. Between 1966 and 1990, there were only two seasons of fifty or more home runs—by George Foster in 1977 and Cecil Fielder in 1990—in major league baseball. Between 1995 and 2006, there would be 21.
In his detailed account of the era, Juicing the Game, journalist Howard Bryant emphasizes 1996 as the point when the effects of steroids became so obvious that the general public began to take notice. That year, the leadoff hitter for the Baltimore Orioles, Brady Anderson, hit fifty home runs—nine more than he had hit in the previous three seasons combined. He claimed a new legal supplement called creatine, along with an expanded workout regimen, was responsible for his surge in power. Also in 1996, the 33-year-old San Diego Padres third baseman Ken Caminiti bested his career high in home runs by fourteen to win the National League MVP. Caminiti, who died of a drug overdose at the age of 41 in 2004, told Sports Illustrated that his performance that year was aided by steroids he had purchased in Tijuana, Mexico. At the time, Caminiti claimed “at least half” of major league players used steroids. Although he admitted there had been some rough moments—like when his testicles disappeared for nearly three weeks—he defended their decision as well as his own: “If a young player were to ask me what to do,” Caminiti said, “I’m not going to tell him it’s bad. Look at all the money in the game: You have a chance to set your family up, to get your daughter into a better school.”
Two years later, in the memorable summer of ’98, Mark McGwire, then with the Cardinals, and the cheerfully stupid Dominican right fielder for the Cubs, Sammy Sosa, battled into the final weeks of the season to break Roger Maris’s 37-year-old home run record of 61. The country was transfixed as the two sluggers closed in on and then obliterated the record—McGwire finishing with 70 home runs, Sosa with 66. Sosa would hit more than 61 home runs three times between 1998 and 2001, and never lead his league, although as a consolation prize he was invited to Bill Clinton’s presidential box to watch the 1999 State of the Union Address. Meanwhile, in the American League, steroid user Juan Gonzalez won the MVP in 1996 and 1998—then, in 2000, Oakland’s Jason Giambi edged the White Sox’ Thomas for the award. In grand jury hearings held three years later, Giambi confessed to having injected human growth hormones into his stomach and testosterone into his buttocks, as well as to ingesting a female fertility drug called Clomid during his MVP season. 2000 was also the year of a fateful encounter between Canseco and the San Francisco Giants’ Barry Bonds at a celebrity home run contest in Las Vegas. The 35-year-old Bonds, an aging superstar just beginning to familiarize himself with the consolations of performance enhancers, gawked at a shirtless and “shredded” Canseco in the locker room for a long beat, before asking, for everyone to hear, “What the hell have you been doing?” Whether he was motivated by curiosity, sexual attraction, or the desire to embarrass Canseco in public, Bonds was soon doing whatever it was Canseco was doing, and more.