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baseball batterBy Will Carroll

Imagine the door to GNC is locked. Imagine your favorite supplement store is out of everything. Imagine that the pills, powders, RTDs, and pixie dust you rely on to power your workouts is simply gone.

That’s what baseball is facing this year. With the newly strengthened drug testing policy on steroids and amphetamines, both the Office of the Commissioner and the MLB Players Association have offered almost nothing in the way of advice or guidance for players in regards to supplements.

“Keep a couple pills from each bottle and label them,” suggested Gene Orza in an email to a player. The career consequences of a fifty game suspension and the collateral damage done to a player’s reputation demand a more involved solution. The fear is that the new and often unexplained policy is leading players to clear out their lockers and go cold turkey. “I’m not taking anything,” said Johnny Whittleman, a prospect in the Texas Rangers organization, “Not creatine, not protein, not even a Power Bar.”

It wasn’t too long ago that an AP reporter reached into Mark McGwire’s locker and took a closer look at the bottle of pills the slugger had there, in plain view, during the most intense media scrutiny of his life. The outcry that came from that bottle of andro is still echoing today. Congress has taken andro and other prohormones off the market, but the fear that accompanies these new rules and laws is perhaps doing even more damage. Most lockers were beginning to look like a mini GNC; now, it may be just extra room for caps and spikes.

Mike Shannon, the longtime Cardinals announcer, created a storm of controversy when he said that All-Star 1B Todd Helton was ‘juicing up’, a reference not to steroids -Shannon later explained- but to Helton’s use of creatine. Helton made no secret of his use of EAS products and it was even visible during a post-game interview seen in Denver. Creatine and other similar products were not banned during 2005 and are not on the banned list in 2006, so why the fear?

An article in the Washington Post in last 2005 purported to test several supplements available to the public and found steroids. Don Catlin, the UCLA chemist that helped ‘discover’ THG, stated that he found DMT, another substance linked to the BALCO scandal, and another had a substance similar to oral turanibol (the supplements noted in the October article have been pulled from the market.) It’s still a large step from something that purports to be as good as or a replacement for steroids (whether or not it has some steroids mixed in) and quite another to lump creatine and protein shakes in there.

Or is it? Pavle Jovanovic bought a tub of creatine from a GNC in Utah just before the 2002 Olympics and tested positive for a byproduct of nandrolone. He missed the 2002 Olympics and a medal while serving a suspension, coming back to the Torino games and finishing seventh in the two-man bobsled. Jovanovic hasn’t put the incident behind him; his case against the manufacturer is due to go to trial in April. For its part, the supplement manufacturer is vigorously defending itself. For the record, as part of my workout program ( ), I am taking the same supplement. I had it, and several other supplements, tested by Purdue University and all came back negative.

The NFL has set up a program of ‘blessing’ certain supplements, stating that manufacturers can submit to quality tests and that players can safely use their products. No other sport or governing body has done anything similar for a full program. The US Olympic Committee, on the other hand, has endorsed Amino-Vital, an amino acid drink manufactured in Japan. Athletes are caught in the lurch. Most supplements are safe and free of any taint but the mere chance of being the one guy who ‘wins the lottery’ is keeping players from taking anything.

What are the consequences of a sport going cold turkey? That’s difficult to say. Professional athletes take varying degrees of care with their personal nutrition. Some, like Barry Bonds, travels with his own dietician and chef. Others use the services of nutrionist Sari Mellman, who designs personalized programs of food for each athlete. The Los Angeles Dodgers have hired Athletes Performance, a fitness and nutrition consultant, to help keep its team healthier after a 2005 season that saw them lose over one thousand days of playing time to injuries.

On the other end of the spectrum are the players who don’t make enough to spend thousands on such individual care. Worse yet are the minor leaguers, traveling from city to city on bus after bus, asked to survive on a per diem that leaves Burger King as the height of cuisine. One player currently in the major leagues would survive for an entire road trip on a couple two-litre sodas and a couple bags of Combos. He always had great shoes.

Players like this have learned to rely on Powerbars, protein shakes, multivitamins, creatine, and coffee. A small fraction of them understand what they are taking and a smaller fraction have used illegal substances to gain some sort of edge, whether those were steroids, amphetamines, or something as simple as ephedra – one player last season was busted for ephedra that he’d bought legally. Legal does not mean it’s off the banned list: a hard lesson to learn.

So as Baseball goes cold turkey, what can we expect? Initially, concerns will be over players that used amphetamines. While some estimates have this number at nearly 75% of players, that’s unlikely. We’ll likely see some injuries, as fatigued players are much more likely to get injured than rested, alert ones. We’ll also see changes in usage patterns and perhaps reduced defensive efficiency. We’ll see players wear down, break down, and then the change will happen. As the first round of testing passes and something becomes known as ‘clean’, the word will spread. This is okay, that one’s okay, and runs on certain supplements; and, more likely, new brands will come into play. Things will come back to normal as players use themselves as supplementation experiments. Sadly, there may be supplements that cause positive tests and players that suffer as a consequence.

It will be a hard lesson and we’ll all have to watch as Baseball itself tries to steady its hands as the shakes take hold. Instead of research and education, the Lords of Baseball have let fear and ignorance rule the day. Cold turkey is never the best way to quit, especially when it wasn’t necessary at all.