Skip to main content

Howard Bryant and 'Juicing the Game'

Boston Herald sports columnist Howard Bryant is author of Juicing the Game. Baseball in the '90s — with greater profit and more record breakers than ever — has come to be known as "The Juiced Era." But the dark side has been the use of performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids.

30:16

Other segments from the episode on July 21, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 21, 2005: Interview with Howard Bryant; Review of Dr. Dog's new album "Easy beat."

Transcript

DATE July 21, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Howard Bryant discusses his new book "Juicing the Game:
Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

A lot of baseball fans who marveled at Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire's race to
break the major-league home run record in 1998 held lingering suspicions that
baseball's power surge was really driven by steroids. Well, with the past two
years, any illusions about baseball's home-run binge have been swept away by
player confessions, a federal investigation and eventually congressional
hearings into steroid use.

My guest Howard Bryant reconstructs baseball's tainted decade in his new book
"Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League
Baseball." Bryant says signs were clear for years that players were bulking
up on chemical additives, and those running the game were too busy making
money to worry about it. Bryant is a sports columnist for the Boston Herald
and the author of an earlier book, "Shut Out: A History of Race and Baseball
in Boston."

Well, Howard Bryant, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. HOWARD BRYANT (Author, "Juicing the Game"): Thank you.

DAVIES: You know, I remember in 1996 when all of a sudden this outfielder on
the Baltimore Orioles, Brady Anderson, who'd been--had a history as a singles
hitter, suddenly was just blasting balls out of the ballpark, leading the
majors, I think, in home runs. And I think a lot of people began to wonder if
something different was happening with the game. Give us a sense of how
striking the explosion of power hitting was in the '90s.

Mr. BRYANT: Well, I think the best way to describe it from today's
perspective, from a 2005 perspective, is when you look back at the years 1995
to 2002, you had home runs that were being hit at a level unseen in the
history of baseball. You had players hitting home runs--it used to be for any
baseball fan a real accomplishment, a real Everest-like accomplishment, to hit
50 home runs. And in 1995, starting with Albert Belle, and moving all the way
to 2002, with Alex Rodriguez, the player for the New York Yankees now, but he
was with Texas at the time, you had someone hit at least 50 home runs in every
season during those years, which had never been accomplished in baseball
history before. You had one player, Sammy Sosa, hit 60 home runs three times.
Babe Ruth never did that. Hank Aaron never did that. Willie Mays had never
done that.

And what was more amazing during this period was that not only did Sammy Sosa
hit 60 home runs in three different seasons, but in none of those years did he
win a home run title, because...

DAVIES: (Laughs) Came up short with 60. Wow. We've known about steroids and
performance-enhancing drugs for years in the Olympics and, you know, that was
believed to be used in pro football. But for a long time, there was the sense
that steroids didn't--that the kind of skills that baseball required really
were not likely to be improved by steroids, right? I mean, it was thought to
be a different kind of game.

Mr. BRYANT: Exactly. And the question had always been in baseball--well, it
wasn't really a question; it was almost something more of a
declaration--`These drugs may help you run fast; these drugs may help you lift
more weights; these drugs may help you be stronger; they may give you greater
athletic--they may enhance your athletic gifts. But they won't help you be a
good baseball player.' You know, this is incongruous on its face and, in
fact, in light of what we know today, it's ridiculous. But this was the
argument that had been pushed forward by baseball players, by executives, by
media, by so many very influential entities that it became fact...

DAVIES: But I wonder...

Mr. BRYANT: ...that it became--I'm sorry?

DAVIES: Yeah, I was just going to say, I wonder if for many years some
baseball players maybe didn't take them because there was a belief that it was
a different kind of thing, that bulk would make you less flexible.

Mr. BRYANT: Well, absolutely. And that...

DAVIES: And you saw, you know, Hank Aaron, you know, hit all those--you know,
the all-time home run leader who, you know, was not a bulky guy.

Mr. BRYANT: Well, no, and it's a great point, because what I found so
fascinating in the book and one of my favorite parts of the book was
recognizing that within five years between, I'd say, 1988, '89, and 1994, 150
years of conventional wisdom in baseball went out the window, that lifting
weights couldn't help you, that you were going to be too big, too bulky, too
muscle-bound to swing at the baseball. And in fact, in the old days, in the
'50s, '60s and '70s, players who lifted weights were not only ridiculed, but
they were often fined by their teams...

DAVIES: Wow.

Mr. BRYANT: ...for conduct detrimental to the ball club, that they weren't
helping themselves. If you talk to Joe Torre, the manager of the Yankees, and
he'll tell you that you were never supposed to lift weights; it was one of the
biggest no-nos in baseball. You were not supposed to do it. By 1998--I'm
sorry, 1988, with Jose Canseco and the Oakland A's and Mark McGwire, these
huge muscle-bound players, that you had old-timers looking at this team and it
looked like a football team. They had never seen baseball players so big.
And within five years of that, not only did you have baseball players lifting
weights before and after games, which was unprecedented, but you had entire
teams that were buying nutritional supplements and buying these protein shakes
and enhancing their weight rooms all over baseball.

DAVIES: You know, a lot of attention has focused on superstars who are
believed to have used steroids and set records. But I imagine that--you know,
there are lots and lots of baseball players who the public don't know who've
spent years at the margins of the game, in and out of the minor leagues,
trying to get their shot at the majors. And I'm wondering, do we--is there
evidence to believe that those folks were using--I mean, the mediocre player
or almost-good-enough players were using steroids to give them that jump and
help them make it to the big leagues?

Mr. BRYANT: Those are the players that were probably using the steroids even
more. This is an economic story. The minimum salary in major-league baseball
is $300,000. Just to get there, once you become a major-league player, that
is your salary. When you're not a major-league player, your salary is between
800 and a thousand dollars per month. So you can see the difference between
being a minor-league player and being a major-league player.

And what began to happen in baseball during this decade was a feeling among
these players--not the great players. Barry Bonds with anabolic steroids,
Barry Bonds without anabolic steroids, is still one of the greatest baseball
players you've ever seen. The real story happened on the margins with these
players who were on the fringe, and they began to tell themselves, `I have to
use these drugs in order to compete with the guy next to me. I may be
completely opposed to this. I may know that it's dangerous for me. I may
know that one day it may possibly kill me or hurt future generations of my
children. But I need to do this because it's the only way that I'll be able
to compete at the major-league level and receive that big contract.

DAVIES: Did you get to know minor-league players that were in this?

Mr. BRYANT: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I remember--in fact, one of my favorite
players was a young man named A.J. Hinch who was a catcher with the Oakland
A's in 1998. And A.J. told me when I was researching this book that he had a
conversation with his wife one day and he told her that, `I'm going to make a
decision that's going to affect this family. I am not going to use these
drugs even though I'm convinced that if I do, I'm just good enough that I
could get one of those three-year, $10 million contracts, and this family
would be set for life.' And those types of conversations have been going on
throughout baseball during this decade because what began to happen was
players began to look at each other and they began to wonder who was competing
on the level, who was not, and `What did I have to do to compete with those
players who weren't?'

DAVIES: In the '90s, what was major-league baseball's drug testing policy, if
any?

Mr. BRYANT: Baseball did not have a drug-testing policy in the 1990s. It
wasn't until 2002 that baseball had finally decided that it could negotiate a
comprehensive drug testing agreement with its players association. And what I
found very interesting about that was the motivation for this. When I
listened to the various people that I interviewed for the book--the
commissioner and a lot of his associates and the owners of the game and the
players and everybody--we were always told that baseball did not have a drug
problem.

Then you realized in 2000 there was a key meeting between the commissioner and
a lot of his medical officials, the team doctors and trainers from other
teams. And that was in December of 2000. And they went around the room and
they asked--and the commissioner asked them, you know, `From a health
standpoint and from the standpoint of the tools that you need to do your jobs,
what's the most important thing that you're being faced with?' And almost to
a man, they told the commissioner that the rising use of supplements, anabolic
steroids, human growth hormone, was the number-one problem that was facing
them. And that was the commissioner's epiphany. That was his moment.

And not long after that, the vice president for labor relations, Rob Manfred,
testified in front of Congress, I think in June of 2002, and said some very
remarkable things that never received any type of public play, but it really
spoke to what was happening in the game. Manfred testified to Congress that
baseball statistically had seen a rise of injuries, had seen great baseball
players, these very expensive players, staying on the disabled list even
longer, that the baseball owners were costing themselves millions and millions
of dollars by having these 10, $15 million ballplayers on the disabled list by
being injured all of this time. And that, to them, when their doctors had
analyzed this data, suggested a rising use of steroids and supplements.

DAVIES: And why did prolonged use of steroids increase the risk of injuries
to these players?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, because what these drugs do, especially when players become
fanatic about weight lifting, is that in the case of very big players, that
you begin to gain so much muscle mass that your body becomes too big for your
frame, that your joints don't grow, your joints don't necessarily get
stronger, and you begin to have muscle and tendon injuries. Dr. James
Andrews, who's probably the most famous doctor in baseball who works on
players, said that during the five-year period--during one five-year period in
the '90s--I believe it was from 1997 to '02--he had never seen as many
muscle/tendon injuries during that period as in his 35 years in baseball.

DAVIES: My guest is Howard Bryant. He is a columnist for the Boston Herald.
His new book is called "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the
Soul of Major League Baseball." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: My guest is Boston Herald columnist Howard Bryant. His new book
about the steroid scandal in baseball is "Juicing the Game."

One of the interesting aspects of this struggle was that the baseball players
union, the Major League Players' Association, strongly resisted a tough drug
testing policy. And a lot of people would look at that and say, `Well,
wouldn't the players want fairness? I mean, why would they want to permit a
situation in which some players are allowed to cheat?'

Mr. BRYANT: Well, you had a couple of--there are a couple of questions there.
And the first one is that you had a players association that was never quite
convinced that steroids were the scourge that everyone believed them to be.
There had never been any type of real study across the board to satisfy the
union about what steroids actually did or did not do for baseball players.
Even the people that I profile in the book--and I call them `crusaders'--who
are the medical experts who continued to hammer down on these professional
sports leagues to take this drug question seriously as a health crisis--even
they were totally and completely conflicted with each other about the
long-term and short-term effects of anabolic steroids. So on the one hand,
you had baseball people saying, `Until we know, why would we create policy?'
Now to their detractors, this was a straw argument to simply not deal with the
issue.

Inside the game, you had players who could not agree--they could not come to
any consensus--on what to do with the steroid question. You had some players
who said, `Yes, this is cheating, this is wrong. You can make $10 million a
year and I can't because you're using these substances. This is not right.
We all have to be playing under the same umbrella.' Then you had other
players who said, `Well, I don't want the baseball owners to test me for
anything. There's no other employee in the country that gets drug-tested for
anabolic steroids or blood-tested at all in this nation. So why should we be
set under a different segment of rules?'

And that's where the 2002 agreement became so historic in one sense, because
no one had ever believed that the players would agree to any type of testing
at all because it all came down to one thing, and it was the historic vitriol
between the owners and the players. They could not come to an agreement. And
at the same time, everybody in the game at some level had compromised their
own integrity by not dealing with this as quickly as they needed to.

DAVIES: In 2002, when there was clearly evidence of steroid abuse, baseball
was approaching another collective bargaining agreement. The players and the
owners did agree on a drug testing regimen of sorts. Was it a serious effort?
Was it likely to be effective?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, if you talk to the commissioner, he'll tell you that this
was a passion of his, that he had decided that he was willing to allow the
players to go on strike again in 2002 if they did not agree to a comprehensive
drug policy. That was remarkable in and of itself because of where baseball
was in 1994. I think it was widely agreed upon that baseball could not afford
another strike.

When the agreement is ratified in 2002 in August and the players do agree to
drug testing, it was so completely unsatisfying to everyone across the board
because of the politics involved that the drug testing policy was widely
ridiculed across the country where a player had to test positive five times
before there was any real sanction, that the players were allowed to take
their drug tests without supervision to some degree, that players were able to
essentially time when the drug test would--you know, when they would be
tested. And so it became--it was laughable. And it was very much a
disappointment and a defeat for the commissioner because his position was `We
finally got something, and let's build upon this.' And the reaction,
especially from the Olympic Committee, was, `You've got to be kidding. You
call this a drug policy?' And so you begin to have the bull's-eye being
placed upon baseball.

DAVIES: Well, Howard Bryant, I mean, the steroid issue really blew up in 2004
with a whole series of revelations, beginning with this--essentially it was a
tax investigation of a San Francisco nutritional lab. That led us to
information about the great Barry Bonds taking steroids and all kinds of other
things. This really kind of snowballed, didn't it?

Mr. BRYANT: It was the culmination of all of the different things that we had
been told over the years that weren't true. We had been told that drugs
couldn't help you. We were told all of these different things, that players
weren't using. We were told that players were being persecuted unfairly by
the press and by anybody else. And now all of a sudden, what you really have
here is you have the players who came out and essentially outed themselves.
In 2002, you had Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco both say that almost half the
league was using steroids. You had David Wells in 2003, with his book, come
out and say that 40 percent of players were using, and then he was pressured
to reduce it to 20 percent.

And now you have BALCO, and with BALCO, now you've raised the level of play
here between--first it was a question of who was using steroids and who
wasn't. Now you've got a legal story here, and now you've got the federal
government involved. And once the federal government got involved, that's
where you began to see the parallels to the 1919 Black Sox. That's where
people began to really look at this story and say, `This is something
historic.' And what you found was this ball of string just begin to unravel,
and there was nowhere for baseball to go anymore because all of its
contradictions were now being exposed by this federal government investigation
that revealed that the best players in the game were using these various
substances that they had always told us could not help them.

DAVIES: Boston Herald sports columnist Howard Bryant. His new book is
"Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League
Baseball."

We have this update: Victor Conte, the central figure in the scandal centered
on the San Francisco-area nutritional lab known as BALCO, pled guilty last
week to distributing steroids, but will not cooperate with investigators or
name players he might have supplied.

Howard Bryant will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Coming up, it's gotten ugly in the White House Press Room in the wake
of the Karl Rove controversy. We'll talk with Helen Thomas, who's covered
every president since John F. Kennedy. Also, more on baseball with
sportswriter Howard Bryant, and we'll listen to the music of Dr. Dog.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

We're talking about baseball's steroid scandal with Boston Herald sports
columnist Howard Bryant. His new book is "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and
the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball."

Now when the House Government Reform Committee decided that they were angry
and were going to bring some of baseball's executives, its union leaders and
some of its big stars before the nation in congressional hearings, how did
baseball executives and the players react initially when asked to appear?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, the baseball executives tried to compare being subpoenaed
about steroid use to Iran Contra. They were outraged. They believed that
their civil liberties were being violated. The baseball players, after years
of being pampered and years of being able to intimidate their way out of any
serious situation, they laughed at this. They didn't believe that the
Congress had any type of authority whatsoever over them, that they were
untouchable. And when it became clear that the subpoenas came out and when it
became clear that this was real, the--that scene on March 17th was
unbelievable. It was surreal from having these players testify under oath.
It was remarkable from the standpoint of just the savagery of baseball, of the
congressional leaders, how upset they were.

What we saw that day was the reduction of baseball as a untouchable entity,
that all of the sudden you had these great baseball players who, I think I put
it in my book, were scared little boys--Curt Schilling and Rafael Palmeiro and
Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, who disgraced himself--because now there was
nowhere to go. And you had these players forced to recognize their
contradictions, and not just their contradictions but their transgressions
because they were under oath and they were very clear about what they could
now say and what they couldn't.

DAVIES: Let's just take one piece of that. Describe Mark McGwire's
appearance.

Mr. BRYANT: Mark McGwire's role as an American icon was destroyed that day.
I was sitting very close to him and here is a man who hit 583 home runs.
There's a highway named after him in St. Louis. And he was so ridiculed by
not answering questions, by refusing to even offer even the slightest bit of
insight into his career that every time he answered with the same
response--`I'm not here to talk about the past'--people in the gallery were
giggling during a congressional committee on national television. He had
disgraced himself. And what really struck me about this was afterwards.
People had asked whether or not Mark McGwire should be immortalized as a Hall
of Famer. And I said to myself, if he wouldn't on national television under
oath speaking to his country--if he would not defend his career, why should
anyone else? And I thought it was one of the saddest moments that I had ever
witnessed of the day and it said a lot about this decade. I think it was the
defining moment of the decade.

DAVIES: Well, Howard Bryant, I mean, baseball clearly has suffered a
terrible embarrassment with all this exposure. What's actually changed in the
game in terms of testing, steroid use and home run production?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, I think, players have had enough. And I think the owners
have had enough. I think that the commissioner knows that it's time to put an
end to this. And the thing that we do know is that since 2002--at the end of
the 2002 season, to me that was perhaps the end of the steroid era from the
standpoint that not only do you no longer have 50-home-run seasons, but you
haven't had a 60-home-run season and certainly not a 70-home-run season. You
see production--you see home run numbers in the aggregate going up, but the
individual players who were accomplishing these remarkable feats, those
numbers have gone back to normal. They've gone much--they've gone in the
other direction, that suddenly the game is beginning to balance itself out. I
don't think it's just a coincidence that, gee, with drug testing suddenly
you've had a reduction of these individual numbers.

I said to the commissioner, I believe you have two problems here. The first
is, is there a mechanism in place to allow this game to move forward? And I
believe that there is because I do think that this drug testing and all of
this exposure and Congress being involved, I think finally we do have some
clarity on this.

But the second question is what are we moving forward from? And the
commissioner still does not believe that an investigation of this decade is
appropriate and he has that right. But I do think that until we begin to look
at it a little bit more, there will always be that question. And you look at
the players. What do you say to those players who played during this era that
were clean? Who looked out for them? They didn't look out for themselves.
The game didn't look out for them. And now you--forever when they look at the
decade that they played in, it will always be under the cloud of steroids.

DAVIES: Well, Howard Bryant, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BRYANT: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Howard Bryant's new book is "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the
Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball."

Coming up: Inside the White House press room during the Karl Rove controversy
with veteran reporter Helen Thomas.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New album "Easy Beat" by Dr. Dog
DAVE DAVIES, host:

Dr. Dog is a quintet of 20-somethings from the suburbs of Philadelphia with
three albums they cut in their home studio. Rock critic Ken Tucker says the
band's intentionally ragged sound and aimless-sounding lyrics defy easy
comparison to other rock groups and they work both for and against the band.

(Soundbite of song)

Dr. DOG: (Singing) I can't remember what is wrong. Well, I've been happy now
for way too long and, oh, we got a lot more to go. I've been...

KEN TUCKER reporting:

We live in a time of consumer guide pop culture. Millions of people want to
know what's hot, what's good, what they should plunk down their hard-earned
cash for. When it comes to music, the easiest way for music critics to
perform consumer service is to play the comparison game: Band X sounds like Y
crossed with Z. The Streetcars Named Desire, a band I just made up for this
example, sounds like Tom Waits on a bender with Sleater-Kinney if their
drummer was Ginger Baker. The idea is to come up with a useful shorthand, but
it's also very bad music criticism and ultimately just encourages musicians to
sound like other musicians.

You cannot play this game with Dr. Dog because, to the best of my knowledge,
Dr. Dog rarely sound like anyone else.

(Soundbite of song)

Dr. DOG: (Singing) I recall the moment though I can't recall the day. Every
other song sailed away. Wait because about a lifetime of words will be
forgotten, burned by the time you read this letter. Stay...

TUCKER: The five guys in Dr. Dog are hard-working goofballs. You've gotta be
a goofball outfit to take stage names like Taxi, Tables, Text, Time and Trial,
and then not really make much of an effort to hide your real names, either.
And you've got to be hard-working to take such care to record the delicate
harmonies on the most recent of the band's three albums, "Easy Beat," to
design such a pretty, intricate CD package and to tour so relentlessly all
around the country. A lot of the time these guys sound laid-back, but that's
part of the strategy: charm whose wryness and wit sneaks up on you.

(Soundbite of song)

Dr. DOG: (Singing) If the dead make a sound I can put my ears on the ground
and sing along now, sing along now. We were peas in a pod. Gotta thank
almighty God that we're together, we're together. Oh, no. Oh, no. A glance
in the air...

TUCKER: Dr. Dog is a band of knowing primitives. Guitar notes bend and
quaver off-tune only to reverberate back to a strong melody. The singing of
Scott McMicken alternates between a moan and a growl. The lyrics approximate
non sequiturs that would do the poet John Ashbery proud. Two of my favorites
are the lines `Cold shoulders have run out of luck.' and `Where are you going
crazy?' They're buried in this ode to the inability to make oneself
understood called "Say Something."

(Soundbite of "Say Something")

Mr. SCOTT McMICKEN: (Singing) Long distance, no need to shout.

Backup Singer: Mm, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mr. McMICKEN: (Singing) Close quarters, ain't talking out loud. I gotta
know.

Mr. McMICKEN and Backup Singer: (Singing in unison) I gotta know.

TUCKER: This album, "Easy Beat," is barely more than a half-hour long, but it
presents an entire worldview: easygoing cockeyed optimism with a melancholy
streak, a vivid belief that making tuneful music is a virtue in itself. It
reminds me of something the artist and film critic Manny Farber wrote
describing his own critical method. I'll substitute the word `music' for
`movies' here. Quote, "Burrowing into the music, which includes extending the
piece, collaging with pace changes, multiple tones, getting different voices
into it," unquote. Yup, that's what Dr. Dog sounds like.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is film critic for New York magazine. He reviewed "Easy
Beat" by the band Dr. Dog.

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

42:54

John Brown And Abraham Lincoln: Divergent Paths In The Fight To End Slavery

In The Zealot and the Emancipator, historian H.W. Brands reflects on two 19th century leaders who fought the institution of slavery in different ways: one radical and the other reformist.

31:39

How Women Have Been 'Profoundly' Left Out Of The U.S. Constitution

As a teen, Heidi Schreck debated the Constitution in competitions. A film of her Broadway play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is now available on Amazon Prime. Originally broadcast March 2019.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue