Bouton alerted world to drug use in baseball

JEREMY LOOME -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:53 AM ET

Back in 1970, Jim Bouton saw the road ahead for drugs in professional sports.

The ex-New York Yankees all-star, who'd helped them to the 1962 World Series, was penning his "tell-some" baseball diary Ball Four at the time.

"I wrote that if a pill could guarantee a pitcher would win 20 games, we'd all be taking them," says Bouton.

Bouton was a tenacious kid when he joined the Yankees in 1962. Within three years, he'd won 46 games for the club and, thanks to a fearsome, overthrown fastball, ruined his arm in the process. He spent the rest of his career in middle relief before winding up as a knuckleballer with the one-season Seattle Pilots, as well as stints in Houston, a slew of minor league clubs and finally Atlanta.

Ball Four was a thoughtful book. Although it broke the sports rule that what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse, it also humanized ballplayers, who had godlike personas, to a less-jaded American public.

Some, like Mickey Mantle, drank too much. Others took uppers and bennies. Others, like outfielder Steve Hovley, were quiet intellectuals.

The one common thread, though, was the yearn to compete. Not for money, or for fan adulation - "I was as competitive in front of 60,000 people as I was in front of 6,000," he notes - but just to win.

"Athletes need to be protected from their own competitive instincts," says Bouton, who endured a 30-year cold shoulder from the Yankees for writing Ball Four. "The reality is that they will do anything - anything - to get the competitive edge to win. Injections, pills, salves. If someone goes up to a guy who is struggling with a slump and not hitting well and says 'here, take this green pill and you'll be able to hit better,' there are a lot of guys who are going to take that pill."

COMPETITIVE NATURE CAN BE UGLY

"And there are a lot of people that competitive out there. Look at the business world and what some people are willing to do to get to the top: If that same guy had an athletic body or athletic skills and he could've competed at sports, he probably would've done so on the field as well. If you're an athlete, you take a performance-enhancing drug. If you're a businessman, you stab someone in the back. It's built in, what Darwin called survival of the fittest."

That played out differently in the '60s, when drugs were curatives.

"When Whitey Ford and I had arm problems in 1965, he got some stuff from a horse trainer, phenylbutazone, and we rubbed it on our shoulders," Bouton says. "We didn't see it as cheating; we just needed to be able to perform at the proper level. The difference now is the drugs are performance-enhancing.

"The new element is the drugs, in that they have created new bodies. And that's the real thing that's unfair and dangerous. That's where the cheating aspect comes in and it needs to be dealt with very strongly."

Despite what the public perceives, he says, "it's not a money issue. You see it in cycling but compared to baseball there's not a lot of money in cycling.

"I think most guys get to the big leagues because they were the most competitive kid in grade school, the most competitvie kid in little league, the most competitive kid in grade school, the most competitive kid in high school, the most competitive kid in college and in the minors. In all of those competitions and at all those levels of the game, the only one that has money involved is the bigs."

The power that players possess is not only eroding the legitimacy of records, but the game itself, says Bouton.

IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT MORE POWER

"They can't just keep marketing the game as more homers, more power, more this, more that. Eventually it just becomes meaningless," says Bouton. "The long-term view is the important thing and they will have to have tough, tough rules against drugs in the long term."

But he also thinks everyone needs more perspective. If we place too much faith in athletes as role models and heroes, says Bouton, then we haven't been paying attention.

"If your life revolves around sports to that degree, then that's your problem to deal with. People living vicariously through the performance of others? That's a different issue and it's theirs to deal with."

In the meantime, Bouton says, sports must respect their own histories enough to handle the impact drugs have already had. In baseball, he suggests, re-legitimizing the record books will take serious study, and some of the headings - home runs, in particular - will require asterisks.

"We need to sit down with the trainers, the doctors, the coaches, the players and find out what we can come up with.

"We need steroid-adjusted numbers. We need to put an asterisk in elipses next to them and let history decide. Anything else is unfair to the old timer who did it legitimately."


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