Drugs: Why Is Cocaine Viewed Differently Than Steroids in Major League Baseball?

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterFebruary 10, 2012

Oil Can Boyd admitted to using cocaine
Oil Can Boyd admitted to using cocaine

Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd has a book coming out in which he admits to using cocaine throughout his baseball career. Boyd admitted in an interview with WBZ-Radio that he played under the influence of cocaine two-thirds of the time he was on the mound. According to Boyd, it wasn't just him (via Boston.com).

“I feel like my career was cut short for a lot of reasons, but I wasn’t doing anything that hundreds of ballplayers weren’t doing at the time; because that’s how I learned it," he said.

Boyd's career spanned the decade of the 1980s when cocaine was the worst-kept secret in baseball. Today's culture is so caught up with steroids that many of us forget—or weren't around yet—when the drug of choice for Major League Baseball players was cocaine, not steroids, human growth hormone or the new wave of performance enhancers.

Is there really a difference?

That's the question I can't wrap my head around when former athletes come out and admit they used cocaine or other "recreational drugs" during their careers: Why is that different than taking performance-enhancing drugs?

It's not different. Taking amphetamines or cocaine before a game would enhance performance just as much, if not more, than taking steroids. In fact, taking steroids is the long-form way of breaking the rules while cocaine and amphetamines should be looked at as the "get hits quick" method of cheating the game.

What makes the Steroid Era any different from the Cocaine Era? Congress?
What makes the Steroid Era any different from the Cocaine Era? Congress?Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Most anabolic steroids, as we have learned through baseball's very public history with the drugs, are used to help athletes heal faster and give muscles the ability to recover quicker after exertion.

With steroids, the player still has to put in the work. You can't just shoot yourself in the ass and magically become faster or stronger. Yes, surely it has been well-documented that steroids help that process, but you can't compare the immediate benefits of anabolic steroids or human growth hormone to the instant reaction your body has by taking cocaine.

We look at the history of cocaine use (and abuse) in baseball as a recreational problem because it exists in recreational circles. In the 1980s, anyone in the stadium—players, coaches, fans, media—could leave the game and find a place to do cocaine. Players could go into the stadium bathrooms during games to find some blow just like the guy in the nosebleed seats (cheap pun, I know).

Cocaine exists in the real world. In the 1990s and into the 2000s, steroid use added a layer of disconnect the more recreational drugs never had. Reporters and fans would never go hang out with friends after a game and stick steroid needles in each other. Unless you are a workout freak, there is no "recreational" reason to use steroids like there is with cocaine.

That doesn't mean cocaine isn't also a performance enhancer.

Let's WebMD this for a minute:

What's so great about being high on coke? Cocaine users often describe the euphoric feeling as:

  • an increasing sense of energy and alertness
  • an extremely elevated mood
  • a feeling of supremacy

Those sure sound like performance enhancers to me.

Tim Raines will be in the Hall of Fame soon
Tim Raines will be in the Hall of Fame soonBryan Bedder/Getty Images

In September of 1985, MLB made national news when players on the Pittsburgh Pirates and several other teams in the league were brought before a grand jury in connection to the buying and selling of cocaine. There was talk at the time that Dave Parker's potential Hall of Fame bid was hurt by his involvement in the scandal. Tim Raines, now a hot topic with baseball purists for Hall of Fame induction, was right at the center of that scandal as well.

Jerry Crasnick of ESPN wrote a story back in 2007 that laid out the case for Raines making the Hall of Fame. After highlighting his numbers—certainly Hall of Fame statistics when properly dissected—Crasnick explained Raines' (literal) baggage:

Raines has some personal baggage to overcome. During the Pittsburgh drug trials in the early 1980s, Raines testified that he kept a gram of coke in his uniform pocket, snorted during games, and made a point of sliding head-first so as not to break the vial. Not exactly a wholesome image there.

It would be a cheap joke to wonder why Raines really he had the nickname "Rock," but Raines' involvement with cocaine was certainly no joke. He had it in his pocket during games? Cocaine was so important to Raines the drug actually impacted the way he played on the field. Twenty-seven years after Raines was embroiled in an enormous scandal for the sport, it seems there is not a baseball writer alive who doesn't stump for Raines to get into the Hall of Fame. Well, except whatever voters are still keeping him out.

Doc Gooden was one of the great younger pitchers in baseball in the mid 1980s.
Doc Gooden was one of the great younger pitchers in baseball in the mid 1980s.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Because cocaine is seen as a recreational stimulant, people looked at players hooked on the drug as addicts. Cocaine has ruined the lives of many people in the world and certainly had negative effects on the careers of several prominent baseball players in the 1980s. Bring up cocaine to Mets fans and they can run down a list of players whose careers were impacted by the drug.

I'm not downplaying the addictive nature of cocaine. I'm merely trying to point out that because normal people get addicted to it all the time, fans and media covering baseball seem to make excuses for players who use cocaine when it comes to the history of the game.

Players who abused cocaine had a problem. Players who abused steroids are cheaters.

In 2005, Bud Selig got the MLB Players Association to officially ban the use of amphetamines (greenies), a drug experts suggest had a far bigger impact on the drop of offense between 2005 and 2010 than steroid enforcement.

Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt wrote a book in 2006 that openly discussed the use of greenies during games, saying amphetamines were "widely available in major-league clubhouses."

Schmidt explained that amphetamines helped players get up for games during the long, daunting baseball season. Blogger Murray Chass, writing back then for The New York Times, mentioned that players couldn't take the pills too early in case the game was rained out and they "spent the rest of the night climbing walls."

Willie Mays—one of the four or five greatest players in the history of the sport—reportedly had a liquid form of amphetamines in his locker when he played with the Mets.

SAN FRANCISCO - APRIL 3:  Willie Mays and Barry Bonds #25 of the San Francisco Giants wave to the crowd before the Opening Day game against the San Diego Padres on April 3, 2007 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, California. The Padres won 7-0. (Photo by Jed
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Mays reportedly had a bottle in his locker containing a liquefied drug, classified as a controlled substance, and how is this different from Mark McGwire having a bottle of Androstenedione or Barry Bonds having "the cream" and "the clear" in his locker? How?

Yes, thankfully baseball has better testing now than it did when Mays or Boyd or even Bonds played. From what we know, the game is remarkably cleaner than it has been at any time in history. It just feels like the gatekeepers of baseball's history are making an example out of this generation of player without using proper context into how drugs—both recreational and performance-enhancing—have helped the careers of previous generations.

Ferguson Jenkins was once briefly suspended from baseball when a customs agent found drugs in his luggage, including three grams of cocaine. Some suggest "that cocaine incident" delayed his induction into the Hall of Fame. Others have suggested the same for Raines, that his involvement with cocaine could be a reason why he hasn't gotten into Cooperstown yet.

But he will. Raines will be a Hall of Famer, maybe as early as next year, the same year that Bonds and Roger Clemens are eligible. Do voters have a that short of a memory? Do they not recall the drug use that impacted Raines' career and helped him perform on the field, or do they simply not care because there are other more topical drug issues to expose?

Is the real crime taking the drugs or lying about it?
Is the real crime taking the drugs or lying about it?Mark Wilson/Getty Images

If Raines or any player—Schmidt, Mays and other Hall of Famers included—who used and abused "recreational" drugs is ostensibly forgiven for their drug-related sins over time, then Bonds, McGwire, Clemens, Alex Rodriguez and, heck, even guys like Ryan Braun should eventually be judged with the same wide scope. Throughout the history of the game, players have always been using something to get them through the rigors of the season. Using drugs to cheat the game is wrong, but to pretend this generation of cheating is somehow worse feels just as wrong.

In 25 years when players are injecting their muscles with liquefied oxygen because a scientist found it can regenerate muscles tears faster than steroids, will we look back at Bonds, McGwire and this generation of cheaters any differently? Will steroid users be remembered as addicts like history remembers the cocaine users in baseball and we will eventually feel sympathy for those who ruined their lives (or lost their lives) by taking steroids?

Oil Can Boyd is not a Hall of Famer. He's not even close. If he didn't take so many drugs, would things have been different for him? He thinks he might have won twice as many games in his career if it weren't for all those drug-addled sleepless nights.

The game is full of stories like Boyd's, the drug of choice changing with each passing generation. Some players had their careers destroyed by drugs. Others had Hall of Fame numbers because of them. History—specifically those who guard the entrance to history's front door—is ill-equipped to determine the difference between addiction and cheating, recreation and performance-enhancing.

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