Sunday, March 03, 2002

Jr. one slugger who values health over homers


By Tim Sullivan
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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        SARASOTA, Fla. — Ken Griffey Jr. is too squeamish for steroids. And too smart.

        The Cincinnati Reds slugger hates needles and prizes health. He might be able to pump up his power numbers with some illicit injections, but Junior takes the long view on hitting the long ball.

        “Everybody knows the risks,” he said. ’“Everybody knows the side effects when you do (steroids). And I hate being stuck once, much less once a week.”

        Medical research suggests the short-term payoff from steroids comes at a long-term price: higher risk of heart disease and stroke, liver and kidney ailments, mood swings, infertility. Though these drawbacks are daunting to many athletes, many others rationalize them in their quest for a competitive edge.

        As part of baseball's educational efforts, the Reds received a lecture on the perils of steroids last season. The success of such initiatives is dubious.

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Ken Griffey Jr. clowns with teammates at spring training last week.
(AP photo)
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        In an interview last year with the New York Times, Florida outfielder Cliff Floyd estimated 40 percent of major-league baseball players have used steroids. Some scientists believe that number to be conservative. Much as insiders point to smaller ballparks, thinner pitching and more obliging baseballs to explain the recent proliferation of home runs, juiced ballplayers are surely a significant factor.

        Anabolic steroids are illegal in the United States without a prescription, yet Major League Baseball is unable to test for them without the consent of the players association. In 1998, when Mark McGwire acknowledged use of androstenedione, a substance banned in most major sports, baseball's response was to call for more complete information.

        McGwire hit 70 home runs that season, shattering Roger Maris' record of 61. Barry Bonds raised the record to 73 last year following a pronounced change in physique. A player who once was as sleek as a greyhound, Bonds played at 190 pounds as recently as 1997 but now looks like a 228-pound linebacker, shoulder pads and all.

        Bonds says his weight gain is the result of a rigorous workout routine. Perhaps this is possible. Yet even if Bonds is clean, his unprecedented power numbers effectively raise the bar and lower the resistance to steroids.

        Prospects can't help but wonder if they will need chemical enhancement to compete in baseball's progressively muscular milieu. Veterans understand that the way to lifetime wealth is to find the means to more home runs.

        In random testing of their minor-league players, the San Diego Padres have found one in five uses steroids. The percentages are probably much higher among power hitters.

        “I can go home after my career is over and say I did it myself,”’Houston's Jeff Bagwell told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel last year. “Now let me tell you, if I'm on the bubble, with the amount of money that's in the game, I probably would already have a needle in my butt.”

        To his considerable credit, Griffey says he has never been tempted to try steroids. His build backs him up.

        Griffey's physique is powerful but plausible. His power derives from extraordinary bat speed rather than bulging biceps. He has not gone all Lou Ferrigno on us all of a sudden, like so many suspicious sluggers. His use of nutritional supplements, he said, is essentially confined to over-the-counter creatine.

        “I don't care about what someone else may do, because in the long run, I'm going to do something,” Griffey said. “I'm not going against Barry (Bonds) or Willie (Mays) or Hank (Aaron). If they hit 900 home runs, it doesn't matter. My job is to help the team. I don't have anything to prove. Just to be the best player I can be is the only goal I have.”

        Junior has been consistent on this point. Though he has been the youngest player in baseball history to reach 350, 400 and 450 career home runs (he now has 460), Griffey refuses to dwell on personal plateaus. If his reputation as a team player has been battered by the recent barrage of criticism from departed Reds, his reputation for clean living remains untainted.

       Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456 or email: tsullivan@enquirer.com

       



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