Steroids? Players not to blame

01/17/2008 8:24 PM ET
By Jim Kaat /

Miguel Tejada is under fire about his steroid use.(AP)
Former commissioner, Fay Vincent writes a column occasionally for my local paper in Florida on various baseball issues. I certainly enjoy his take on many issues and always read it. He recently wrote one on how we view today's athletes, knowing some may have had an advantage because of performance enhancing drugs. After reading his viewpoint, I wanted to give my own slant on the "performance enhancing drug" era based on 50 years in professional baseball, from 1957-2007.

The players have been tagged as the most culpable and I would suggest that they are not culpable at all.

Baseball, on the major league level, has never been a "great game of honor" like golf is reputed to be. My job as a pitcher was to do all I could to help my team win and from a selfish standpoint to perform well enough to earn as much money as I could during a limited number of years to earn it. In 25 seasons in the major leagues, I averaged $80,000 a year, and thought, for many of those years, that I was overpaid.

I cringe when I hear or see a former players speak out about erasing records set during this era. Here is my own example of a "performance enhancing method:" Pitching outdoors in Minnesota, a pitcher needed something to help him grip the ball without having it slip out of his hand. Games were played in temperatures in the high 30's and low 40's and the ball was slick like a frozen snowball. I used pine tar and later a solution my pitching coach, Johnny Sain, concocted by boiling resin and adding a little turpentine with a few other ingredients. It was against the rules. "No foreign substance is to be applied to the ball." But no punishment was ever noted. Veteran umpire, Jim Honochick, known later for his role in Miller Lite commercials with Boog Powell, approached me on the mount from his position at second base one day and said, "Lefty, you're putting a foreign substance on the ball. That's illegal." I quickly replied, "Jim, that's not a foreign substance. It's made in North Carolina." He chuckled and went back to his position.

My point is that there were plenty of "tricks" to help you enhance your performance. Baseball never had a set punishment in place. Hall of Fame pitchers have noted in books they've written about scuffing the ball with a filed ring worn like a wedding ring that had a sharp edge. Players put Vaseline on the balls. Sandpaper rings were used that you could quickly flip off if an umpire came out to question the unusual movement of the pitch. Older pitchers have been very outspoken about the records achieved with the use of performance enhancing used to file a sharp edge on his belt buckle to scuff the ball, which helps a pitcher to get it to sink and dive different ways. Infielders had sharp objects hidden in their gloves and as the ball was tossed around the infield after an out, they could scuff it up. Hitters corked their bats.

Owners, general managers, umpires, and the commissioner and his staff knew these things went on and did very little about it. Occasionally, a pitcher might be warned about "doctoring" the ball or a hitter might be caught corking a bat. The Graig Nettles incident has been well documented. "Puff," Graig's nickname, hit a ball off the end of the bat, the hollowed out end came loose, and a golf ball, two superballs, and a dowel of cork went rolling down the third base line. It was looked upon as a funny incident. "Corking is meant to increase the "coefficient of restitution," the speed with which the ball bounces back off the bat. Pretty heady terminology for a former left-handed pitcher!

As a pitcher who gave up plenty of home runs, I could recognize when a ball carried an unusual distance, particularly to the opposite field. I was always the curious type, and one night when I saw a ball fly into the upper deck to the opposite field off the bat of a hitter known for hit batting titles and not his home runs, I investigated. Over the years, I became friendly with most of the clubhouse attendants. You see more of them during a season than your teammates or your family. I would stop in to visit them well before games on occasion and have, as we used to say, a cup of "big league coffee." That's just an expression, not a special brew. I would notice the bags that held the bats and see where the ends had been hollowed out on some and a noticeable circle where cork or some other objects had been inserted. It confirmed what I thought about the bat of the hitter who hit in the opposite field home run. Because I was visiting a friend in the visiting clubhouse, I would never report anything like that and jeopardize my friendship with the clubhouse guys.

My reason to point out these examples of "performance enhancements" or cheating is that it has been going on as long as the game itself. Steroids that help you perform better are no different, except that they can affect your health. I didn't suffer any illness or debilitating condition from using pine tar. Athletes have died from using anabolic steroids.

The non-uniformed personnel are all hiding behind the doors and going nameless while player's reputations are tarnished forever. The blame should be shared by the administration and the union. Since baseball took a public interest hit after the 1994 strike and home runs began flying out of parks in record numbers, they turned their back on what they knew to be the reason for it. Being in clubhouses and around players who had their torso exposed, you don't have to be exceptionally intelligent to see body changes that would be impossible to achieve with normal weight and strength training.

I did the normal training to make my career last as long as possible. It lasted until I was 45 years old. Regular, normal training wouldn't help achieve the "spike" in player's performances that we have witnessed in recent years from hitters and pitchers.

Anyone have an answer to this question: why hasn't a player hit 60 or more home runs since drug testing began?

I have made my solution known to the current commissioner during a game I was doing for YES. The administration and Union realized what was going on since the "Canseco Era," which was from 1990 unto a few years ago when the testing began. At that time, spokesmen from the Commissioner's office and the Players Association could have made it clear that they knew what was going on and that the players could do two things. The first is that they can allow the players take anything and everything available to them to help their performance and, as a result, their team's performance, but make sure there is an understanding that the there are health and legal issues if they are obtained without a prescription. The second solution is that the Union and administration should enter into an agreement whereby a player caught in the authorized testing program using illegal performance enhancing drugs, will be banned for life from professional baseball. The illegal drugs should all be listed in clubhouses and training rooms, so players have full knowledge of what they are.

These rules should be made known privately, in meetings with each individual team, and with no public knowledge necessary or congressional interference. Baseball should be capable of taking care of there own business. History tells us when the government gets involved, things usually get worse. If a lifetime ban was the punishment for using pine tar, do you think I would have taken a chance and used it? I would hope not.

I grew up studying baseball history. Kennesaw Mountain Landis was appointed commissioner in the early part of last century to rid the game of players who were involved in fixing games by cooperating with gamblers. He did do that. However, Landis was known as a dictatorial commissioner and thankfully we will never have a commissioner like him again because he was known as a racist. He, along with most owners back then, prevented hundreds of black players capable of playing in the major leagues long before Jackie Robinson finally broke through in 1947.

Baseball needs some leadership that will protect the integrity of the game and it should come from the administration and union leaders. They should have been more interested in a serious issue like this instead of record setting revenues and benefits for players. Unfortunately, that's all they have ever been interested in and probably always will be. It's too late to repair what damage has been done in the past, but an agreement with some teeth in it could be crafted immediately.

You may have lost whatever respect you had for players who were your heroes, but don't blame them for the current problem.

Jim Kaat was a longtime YES Yankees broadcaster, as well as a famed Major League pitcher. comments