GENEVA — A few feet could mean the difference between a home run and a long fly out. How far would you go to gain that extra distance?
Often far enough to compromise your health and ethics, as the ongoing steroid flap in major-league baseball — involving some the game’s biggest stars — would indicate. If these athletes aren’t satisfied with their immense God-given talent, what’s to keep young athletes from emulating the Barry Bonds and Jason Giambis by taking steroids as well?
Not much, apparently. Newsweek magazine’s Dec. 20, 2004, cover story, “Toxic Strength,” claims that 300,000 American students in grades eight through 12 use steroids.
Bob Castor, 17, admitted that he was once tempted to go this route. But he had a change of heart after Ken Caminiti, the 1996 National League Most Valuable Player, died this past Oct. 10. Caminiti, who was only 41 years old, had a history of drug and alcohol problems. In 2002 he became the first current or former major-league player to admit to illegal steroid use, claiming that about half of all major-leaguers took steroids as well.
“I think (Caminiti’s death) should have been a wake-up call,” said Bob, a junior at Geneva’s DeSales High School and a member of the Saints’ renowned varsity baseball program.
Steroids are used by numerous athletes and body-builders. The most popular of these substances are anabolic steroids, which quickly build muscle mass and strength. However, steroids are essentially hormones — and, if misused, can cause severe acne; hair loss; infertility; breast growth in males; mood swings; depression; stunted growth; and eventual muscle deterioration.
Steroids are illegal unless prescribed by a doctor — yet the Newsweek story said they can easily be obtained via “a bewildering black market of pills, gels and injectable solutions purchased over the counter in countries such as Mexico, on the Internet or from a guy at the gym whose cousin knows a bat boy.”
Since the late 1990s, baseballs have been zooming out of major-league parks at record rates. More and more, this power surge has been traced to steroid use — casting a black shadow over such feats as Bonds’ single-season record of 73 home runs, set in 2001. More recently, Giambi was sidelined by a mysterious illness in 2004 that may have been linked to steroids. Giambi reportedly admitted in grand jury testimony to illicit use of steroids, but Bonds contends that his trainer had given him steroids without telling him they were illegal substances. Only in recent months has Major League Baseball — at the urging of President George W. Bush — moved to enforce tighter restrictions on steroids. How does this affect high-schoolers? At this point, not at all. The chilling reality, according to Newsweek, is that virtually no policing element exists at the high-school level: Only 13 percent of all U.S. school districts test for drugs, and none for steroids, due to the high cost of testing.
So there’s little to prevent a teen athlete from trying to one-up the next player — who may or may not be using steroids himself. Consider what Caminiti, speaking from the pro perspective, told Sports Illustrated magazine in 2002: “I can’t say don’t do it when the guy next to you is as big as a house and he’s going to take your job and make the money.”
On the one hand, Ron Passalacqua, DeSales’ head baseball coach, charged that “to gain an edge with steroids is totally ridiculous.” But he also acknowledged that “the temptation’s always there” — and it might be hard to walk away once you start on steroids.
“I don’t think you can stop. You’ll think you’ve always got to have that edge,” he said.
Passalacqua, a sergeant with the Geneva Police Department, said he preaches to his players about substance abuse but can only influence so much of their decision-making. However, the reaction of Bob and other DeSales players to the controversy should reassure Passalacqua that they’re taking the high road.
Alex Laquitara, an 18-year-old senior, admitted that steroids were a tempting option after “seeing Strongman contests on ESPN.” But Alex said he’d rather gain strength by lifting weights — a slower, but safer, process than steroids.
“You look at the risks you’re going to take, and realize that it’s just not worth it,” he said.
There’s also the matter of integrity, observed Sam Mantell, 16, a junior.
“It’s kind of like cheating on a test,” he said of steroid usage. “I don’t think I’d feel the same sense of accomplishment if I broke a record.”
Bo Manion, an 18-year-old senior, said he can see why major-leaguers might resort to steroids: “They want to have the big name.” Alex feels that baseball authorities have been slow to clamp down on these stars because “if people are hitting 60 homers a year, that’s going to sell more tickets.”
However, the adulation can die quickly when those 60-homer players are exposed as steroid users.
“It would definitely be disappointing if you’re looking up to someone,” Bo concluded.