From 1988 to 1992, the Oakland Athletics won the American League West four times and were considered the most talented team in baseball. Yet the A’s captured only a single championship during that stretch, and the 1989 World Series was overshadowed by the earthquake that shook Candlestick Park and the region.
But the page can’t be turned on those Oakland teams because of another element they popularized in the game: Steroids.
Thanks to Jose Canseco and his fellow “Bash Brother,” Mark McGwire, the A’s drew crowds for their immense physiques and tape-measure home runs. Opposing teams wanted to know how they did it, and at least Canseco, the self-proclaimed “godfather of steroids in baseball,” was more than happy to tell all.
In his best-selling memoir “Juiced,” Canseco claimed he “single-handedly changed the game” by introducing steroids and growth hormones to fellow players.
Three decades later, Major League Baseball finds itself still grappling with the steroid issue. On Aug. 6, Tim Beckham of the Seattle Mariners received an 80-game suspension after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. Concerns about how much Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens allegedly doped have kept them out of the Hall of Fame. With home runs again being hit at record levels, some wonder if the players have found a new way around the drug testing.
Not that long ago, one could string Babe Ruth, Roger Maris and other sluggers together in a discussion about the greatest home-run hitters of all time. The same could be done with the top fireballers, going back to Walter Johnson, extending through Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan. The national pastime spanned generations and historical eras. That no longer exists due to steroids and PEDs.
The impact of that steroid era are still being felt today. After the Bonds and Clemens scandals, MLB instituted new methods of finding drug cheats. Baseball started using Carbon Isotope Mass Spectrometry (IRMS) with at least one specimen from every player. That test is designed to detect PEDs over a two-week period instead of 24 hours.
Baseball also banned drug cheats from participating in postseason play. That ban meant if a player was caught cheating, he wasn’t eligible for postseason bonuses.
Since that rule was instituted in 2014, 28 players have been suspended for performance-enhancing drugs. In the nine years previous, 53 were suspended.
Such major issues have such humble beginnings.
A skinny kid in high school, Canseco began to dabble in steroids after he promised his mother he would do better on the field. When McGwire joined the A’s in 1987, Canseco was an expert in performance-enhancing drugs, and he found an eager student in his new teammate.
Canseco said he and McGwire would duck into a stall in the men’s room after batting practice or before the game “load up our syringes and inject ourselves. I always injected myself, because I had practiced enough to know just what I was doing, but often I would inject Mark as well.
Ironically, ask those who covered the team during its heyday and the Bash Brothers may have been the only ones who dared to dope. The team’s roster included Rickey Henderson, Tony Phillips, Dennis Eckersley and for shorter stints Reggie Jackson and Dave Parker.
“I wonder if other A’s were doing PEDs,” said Kit Stier, who covered the team for 13 seasons for the Oakland Tribune. “But I don’t think so.”
Henderson, who is the game’s all-time stolen base leader, claimed Canseco and McGwire didn’t let him in on what they were up to. That fact still annoyed him years later.
“They kept that [stuff] a secret from me,” he told the New Yorker in 2005. “I wish they had told me. My God, could you imagine Rickey on ’roids? Oh, baby, look out!”
Despite the A’s clubhouse becoming ground zero for steroid abuse, Major League Baseball was unable to focus on the problem. A few years before, cocaine had been a major concern, prompting action from the teams and the commissioner’s office. Indeed, that effort went well enough that when Peter Ueberroth stepped down as commissioner in 1989 he proclaimed the game to be drug-free.
At the time, a labor storm loomed between the owners and the players. When it arrived in 1994, it led to the cancelation of that season’s World Series. The two sides couldn’t agree on a new collective bargaining agreement, let alone a standardized drug policy. Years later, Rob Manfred, the game’s current commissioner, told Congress no one believed that there was significant steroid use in the game at the time,” adding that “economic issues” took precedence over a stronger drug policy.
Canseco recalled the owners’ attitude about steroids bordered upon, “Go ahead and do it.”
After the owners locked the players out in the summer of 1994, steroids spread like wildfire, former player Andy Van Slyke recalled. “Very few people say this, but steroids saved baseball and made a lot of players rich today. And everybody, it seemed, was drinking from the juice by the mid-90s.”
The national pastime roared along until Steve Wilstein of the Associated Press saw a brown bottle in McGwire’s locker in 1998. It was labeled Androstenedione and nicknamed “andro.” At the time, McGwire, who had been traded from the A’s to the St. Louis Cardinals, was locked in the home run chase with Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs. Both surpassed Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, though today the feat is considered tainted by many.
Wilstein wrote andro was a testosterone-producing pill, which had been banned in the National Football League, the Olympics and NCAA. Yet it remained legal in baseball. The drug raised levels of the male hormone, building lean muscle mass and helping an athlete recover from injury, which had long been an issue for McGwire. Dating to his days in Oakland, McGwire had played 51 games or fewer in a season three times.
Wilstein was criticized for snooping in a player’s locker. Yet Wilstein had more major concerns. Three weeks after his definitive story, his wife died of breast cancer.
MLB soon commissioned a study, but it didn’t ban andro until 2004, a year after it began and standardized drug testing.
Professional athletes have long sought to gain any edge they can. At the turn of the last century, pitcher Pud Galvin drank a concoction of glycerin and ground-up animal testicles to give his fastball more pop. Before steroids, some athletes took amphetamines or “greenies” to help them stay alert.
Though former Atlanta pitcher Tom House claimed he and several Braves teammates dabbled with steroids in the early 1970s, the Oakland clubhouse is considered ground zero for a situation that continues to vex the game.
“They were a team defined by drugs,” said longtime Bay Area sports columnist Ray Ratto. “They were defined by Kirk Gibson’s improbable home run. They were defined by an earthquake that overshadowed their only championship. Ultimately, they will be remembered as much for steroids as anything else.”
Tim Wendel first covered baseball in the Bay Area in the mid-1980s for the San Francisco Examiner. A founding staff member of Baseball Weekly, his books include Summer of ’68 and High Heat.
Editor’s note: For the coming 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.