With this weekend’s revelation that baseball superstar Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez had taken anabolic steroids, the furor over rampant doping in sports continues.
A three-time Most Valuable Player, Rodriguez now joins a pantheon of modern baseball greats tarnished by allegations of steroid use, including homerun “king” Barry Bonds and pitching ace Roger Clemens. But unlike those players -- the latter of whom denied steroid abuse under oath at a congressional hearing last year -- Rodriguez fessed up on ESPN Monday night. He apologized, saying that he was “stupid” for having taken performance-enhancing drugs. Rodriguez says he has stayed clean while wearing the signature pinstriped uniform of the New York Yankees as the team's All-Star third baseman, now entering his sixth season.
According to anonymous sources quoted by Sports Illustrated, Rodriguez allegedly tested positive for testosterone and the anabolic steroid primobolan. But the big league veteran told ESPN’s Peter Gammons that he’s not even sure what banned substances he used during the 2001 to 2003 seasons he spent with the Texas Rangers.
Rodriguez’s name turned up on the list of 104 major league players tagged for using performance-enhancing drugs in 2003 during tests given to gauge the need for mandatory testing to curb use of banned substances. The names have not been publicly released and none of the players were penalized. But the League imposed random drug testing and sanctions in 2004 after 5 percent of the players tested positive for outlawed substances.
During Rodriguez’s confessed era of doping, his homerun average jumped to a super-slugging 52 per season, compared with 36 during his first four seasons in the league and about 42 since. His runs-batted-in (RBI) statistics and total games played also peaked. Even so, his batting average has dipped over his career, from .315 to .305 during his steroid days to .303 over the past five seasons.
In 2003 – reportedly his last year taking anabolic steroids – the League honored him as its MVP. Rodriguez has continued to play Hall of Fame-caliber baseball, and he won two more Most Valuable Players awards in 2005 and 2007.
Anabolic steroids are not the same as prednisone prescribed by physicians for inflammatory and other disorders. Instead, anabolic steroids promote tissue growth, and, in particular, muscle generation – which is why they have become so popular in athletics.
To learn more about the boosting effects of anabolic steroids as well as their potential health risks, ScientificAmerican.com interviewed Jay Hoffman, a professor of health and exercise science at The College of New Jersey in Ewing. Hoffman, who has a PhD in exercise science, used steroids during his football days in the early 1980s, and he recently met Rodriguez.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Are you surprised by the news that Alex Rodriguez used steroids?
Not at all. I had heard rumors from coaches in the League that he had used them. What I don’t like is Alex coming off [in the ESPN interview] like he didn’t know what substances he took. I’m sure he knew exactly what he put in his body. I was very impressed when I met him in 2006 during a workout at Yankees Stadium, because he asked a lot of really good questions about training. I also admire his work ethic.
Rodriguez allegedly used a steroid called primobolan. What is that drug and how does it work?
It’s an anabolic steroid, also called an androgen, and it is a synthetic form of the male sex hormone testosterone. It increases muscle mass and strength, and also enhances recovery time after a workout. Primobolan is typically injected in the buttocks with a needle. You want to dissipate the steroid through some fatty tissue, because the steroid is fat soluble, and that way you also slow down the metabolism of it for a more sustained dose.