Steroids posed wrenching decisions for some players
Baseball players' depositions provide insight into the nature of the sport's drug culture.
WASHINGTON — The thing is, Andy Pettitte knew the human growth hormone (HGH) wasn't going to help him. He'd tried it once, briefly, and felt no benefit. He'd advised his own father that the substance was too dangerous to use.
But even wealthy left-handed pitchers can be desperate. And in 2004, that is what Pettitte was. He'd badly injured his arm during his first game with his hometown team, the Houston Astros. There was the pressure of money – he'd just signed a $30 million contract. There was the pressure of expectations – he did not want his career to end on the disabled list.
So he used HGH for one more day. He injected himself twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Later, talking to lawyers for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the thing he seemed to struggle with most was the fact that he'd dragged his father into the mess by asking him for leftover HGH syringes.
"You know, now that I look back on it, it was about as boneheaded ... a thing as I could have done," Pettitte said in his deposition to the House panel.
The words of players who have admitted using performance-enhancing drugs, or considering them, provide wrenching insight into the nature of the drug culture in the sport long portrayed as America's pastime.
Those words come from depositions taken by House Oversight lawyers in preparation for the panel's Feb. 13 hearing, which focused primarily on whether ex-Yankees star Roger Clemens used steroids, as alleged by his former trainer, Brian McNamee. The FBI has begun an investigation into whether Clemens lied when he denied steroid use. But the depositions of other players, such as Pettitte, and former Yankees infielder Chuck Knoblauch, reveal much about the motivations – and perhaps vulnerabilities – that could lead many athletes to reach for a chemical boost.
Knoblauch, for instance, always knew he was not the finest physical specimen in the majors. He told lawyers that as a rookie second baseman with the Minnesota Twins, the first time he reached base against the Oakland A's and stood next to their mammoth first baseman, Mark McGwire, he was awed.
"If everybody is like this, man, I am in trouble," he said.
He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award that year. But a few years later, an obstacle appeared. "I had a throwing problem," he told the lawyers.
Sports fans might say that is a bit of a understatement. The second baseman developed an epic inability to make a simple throw to first base. There was no physical injury to his arm, as far as doctors could tell. His mind and arm simply no longer cooperated for a toss.
By spring training of 2001, he was with the Yankees. "I worked Monday through Friday, worked my tail off, to correct this problem," he said in his deposition.
But he couldn't do it. Drugs seemed a way out. "Being weak, and I was trying to hold on to my career, you know, I made the unfortunate decision to try it," said Knoblauch.
At that time, he obtained HGH from McNamee. A year later, he was still struggling. He had been traded to Kansas City. His father had passed away. He got HGH on his own from a fellow player and injected himself.
He never regained his throwing ability. Today he is retired. "I am not friends with any major-league players, really," he said. "I might have one from my 12-year career."
Christopher John "C.J." Nitkowski never took HGH or steroids. But he thought about it. A former Texas Ranger who sometimes trained in the offseason with Clemens, Pettitte, and McNamee, he remembers asking McNamee if drugs might help him.
Where Clemens was a superstar, and Pettitte a star, Nitkowski was a journeyman pitcher looking for another three to five miles per hour for his fastball.
"I mean, if [McNamee] would have told me yes‚ I would have done it.... I was at that point in my career," said Nitkowski.
But McNamee dispassionately laid out the benefits and costs of the steroid commonly known as Winstrol. Nitkowski decided it was not for him.
At the time it did not seem an important moral choice. Later, said Nitkowski, he saw that it had been exactly that.
He says it was a difficult era.
"People were forced to make the [drug or no drug] decision ... because they knew other guys were taking it, and there were guys that were passing them by, and they were trying to keep jobs and figuring out what to do," said Nitkowski.
A left-handed relief pitcher, Nitkowski has been playing in Japan. Today he maintains a sense of humor about having bounced around. At one point in the deposition, a House lawyer listed the teams he played for as the Reds, Tigers, Astros, Mets, Rangers, Yankees, Braves, and Nationals. "I think you missed a couple," said Nitkowski, who in fact played for 11 different major-league organizations.
In his deposition, by contrast, Pettitte displayed no humor. But he seemed as clear in what he wanted to say as any of the dozen figures deposed by the House panel.
"I was desperate," he said.
McNamee had already warned him not to go down the drug route. That is Pettitte's recounting of the situation, anyway.
"He told me that he knows what kind of person I am ... and that he did not feel I would be comfortable doing it once I did it," said Pettitte, who went on to refer to his Christian faith.
Pettitte says he never saw any player take steroids.
"Outsiders hear about all the steroids in baseball so they sort of jump to the conclusion, now everyone's got steroids in the locker room ... and what I'm trying to say is, if anyone was doing it, they were doing it in private," he said.