I remember a guy in the service. He was a shitbird. A shitbird is what we called guys who didn’t press their uniforms and didn’t get regular haircuts. Our unit was real big on personal hygiene and polished boots, because, well they wanted us to look neat and clean if we ever had to go kill people. I was introduced to this guy by a friend and I immediately thought “shitbird” when I saw him. A few months later I happened to see him on an operation in the desert. It was our first couple of days out in the field and we were still getting acclimated and I remember it was very hot. I finally understood what it meant when people would say, “it’s like a desert out here today.”
So I see this guy walking not far from a mess tent and he was carrying 6 MRE’s — MRE is an acronym for “meal ready to eat.” They are beyond nasty, they contain stuff like desiccated pork patties that taste how you’d imagine a pig that’s been through a wood chipper with a stack of cardboard boxes might taste after being dehydrated and cut up into patties. So I say “hi” and he stops and looks at me with this wide crazy eyes look like he’s got several lbs. of hashish duct taped to his ribs. He says, “hey what’s up man.” I say, “what’s with the MRE’s dude?” and he launches into an epic diatribe about calorie content and how they are packed with protein and nutrients and they help him gain weight (never mind that they taste like the wrong end of an ostrich).
“Why do you want to gain weight?” I ask. “Oh yeah,” he says, “I did a cycle.” A cycle, I didn’t know what that meant. “Like a bicycle?” I said imagining him trying to pedal a Schwinn over the sand dunes. “No, dude, you know steroids,” said Private Shitbird dropping his voice to a whisper and shifting his eyes back and forth like someone was listening (there was no one within 1,000 feet of us). “Yeah man, I’ve put on blah blah blah …“ he goes into this litany of weights and measurements as my eyes glazed and I began to feel dizzy from the sun. He ended with, “I can get you some.”
I looked at him and thought, some? MRE’s? Oooooh, Steroids, the injectable kind. “I’m good, I don’t really need to gain weight.” I said, still under the impression you could pop on a urine test for using. “ Aren’t you worried about getting caught?” I said, knowing this guy had already popped on a piss-test for smoking weed. “Nah,” he said. I got a Corpsman buddy at Division, he gives me a heads up, besides they don’t even pick up on that stuff. “Aahh,” I said, thinking that’s what they all say. I’d reached that point in a conversation with someone you don’t really know where you’ve run out of stuff to talk about and then you’re just looking around wondering why you’re standing in the blistering sun. “Ok well, gotta go.”
I saw this guy a couple of times after that, each time he was noticeably bigger. Then I heard about it one day after returning to Garrison, everybody heard about it. He’d rolled over onto another operation (shitbirds spent a lot of time in the desert because no one liked them) and he got bit by a rattlesnake. That wasn’t the end of it. Apparently he went into a rage after the thing bit him and he grabbed it (whereupon it bit him again) and then he tore into this poor animal with his teeth and ripped its head off. Something you might imagine from, oh I don’t know, Ozzy Osbourne on steroids.
Needless to say he needed a Medevac pronto and legend has it they even punched a breathing hole in his throat because the venom got into his mouth causing his face and throat to swell up to several times their normal size (I would have paid to see that). It was one of these stories that made it’s rounds around the barracks and you ended up hearing several different versions from several different people before the day was over, and every time it got crazier. Eventually you’d have believed he chewed his way out of a pit of vipers and they punched a hole in his throat with a Ka-Bar and a ballpoint pen. What was clear was the guy was an absolute moron, an evolutionary throw-back who should have been thrown back into the pile of discards in boot camp like some sort of mutated trout. How guys like that made it as far as they did always amazed me. Shitbird survived only to get kicked out – bad papers and all – a few months later for failing a third urinalysis, positive for THC.
Anyway, that was my first real experience with steroids. I later actually worked for a platoon sergeant who was juicing. I began to realize that while they did supposedly check for hormone levels we never heard about anyone getting busted for steroids. They called this guy “the Beef” – as in “where’s the Beef?” He would eat like six cans of tuna for lunch, plain, no bread or mayonnaise or olive oil, or even a sprinkling of paprika and dill. Just gross tuna right out of the can. He was also moody like you wouldn’t believe. One day he’d be cool with three of us being so drunk at morning formation we’d literally be falling over each other, another day he’d have the platoon digging ditches because someone got some shaving cream on one of the bathroom sinks. It kind of sucked, in fact the entire steroid thing kind of sucks.
Sure, conceding that this batch of potential MLB HOF inductees is speckled with cheaters is upsetting, even though the Hall of Fame’s rolls are littered with drunks and rogues and not very nice people, but the statistical integrity of the game is another story.
The users have made it really difficult to figure out what’s what. What does 30 homers mean? What does 40 homers mean? How dumb is Manny Ramirez? Would he bite off a rattlesnake’s head? I could totally see that actually. But getting back to statistical continuity, these roiders (incidentally if you drive a Dodge truck while juicing does that make you a hemi-roider?) … anyway, Canseco & Co. have made it really difficult to put a finger on a baseline norm for offensive performance over the past 20 years.
How many of Mark McGwire’s gargantuan blasts were the result of testosterone? How many were due to improved nutrition and training? Ever look at a suit of armor from the 1500’s? They were tiny back then — like little kid tiny. I mean if I saw one of these munchkins coming at me in a medieval forest seriously I would laugh, thinking, “is this guy for real?” right before he’d run me through with a lance (not so funny now HA!). But athletes have been getting bigger and stronger and faster with every generation so there are multiple variables at work here when you look at the ebb and flow of offensive production.
I look at my kids sometimes as they hack my wife’s Amazon account and think “evolution” right there, I can barely get into my email. The improvement in training methods and medicine is another variable. A hundred years ago a broken leg was life threatening, you could be put down, like a horse. Now-a-days they’re talking about bionic hands and total knee replacements. So guys are coming back from injuries that would have spelled curtains for them in the not so distant past. They also get paid a lot more, and don’t think that isn’t a factor, I know people who would do some crazy shit for twenty-grand let alone twenty-million. The sad truth, however, is that the roiders did skew the statistical integrity of the game. There is simply no way to tease the effects of steroids from whatever natural increases we may have seen from human progress and improved nutrition and exercise. Professional baseball players (and all of their enablers) who took it upon themselves to use performance enhancing drugs have largely taken something away from the game that we can never get back.
I don’t really care for most of these guys who didn’t make it into the HOF. Bonds was a misanthropic grouch with a persecution complex and a head that eventually generated enough gravitational pull to support small satellites (saltshakers and shot glasses and stuff like that). I know several small furry creatures that I honestly believe are smarter than Sammy Sosa.
Jose Canseco is a like a parody of himself, an embarrassment in his own time lifted from a really bad Tarantino flick. Clemens is a fat and arrogant bully who appears to be living in a world of his own fabrication where he is and always will be the greatest man ever to breath air and eat pancakes – if he even is a man – there are days when he really wonders if maybe he’s some kind of god??! So yeah, I don’t care for these knuckleheads and generally feel like they had the HOF snub coming. I’m convinced each one of these guys has a rattlesnake somewhere waiting around a bend ready to bite them in the ass.
I do, however, feel bad for Piazza and Biggio. Two stand-up players who seemed to stay clean and never really hurt anyone or said anything terribly stupid. I don’t know for sure whether Piazza used but I doubt it. He doesn’t fit the “unbelievably self-absorbed and dumb enough to bite a rattlesnake” profile.
When I think of steroid side-effects, the moodiness also comes to mind. I remember “the Beef” and how incredibly different he was when he was in a Roid-Rage. Piazza as we all know was about as laid back and even keeled as you could be – maybe to a fault. Fans used to lament that he wasn’t enough of a “leader,” that he didn’t “get in people’s faces” and that he didn’t “turn the broken bat into a Roger-Popsicle,” and that he spent too much time playing air guitar, but Mike just never struck me as a roider.
Murray Chass may go on his witch-hunt and follow Piazza and his back acne into the very gates of Hades for all I care. Who knows why, maybe a young Piazza snubbed Murray in the locker room because he had to take a leak, maybe Murray’s wife called out “oh yes, MIKE!” during an intimate moment, maybe (like Lupica and Beltran) Chass decided to demonstrate the might of his pen by randomly destroying one of the most prominent talents on the NY sports scene just for the hell of it. I don’t know and I don’t care, I don’t have any Murray Chass journalist cards the last time I checked.
It is nevertheless something of a sad travesty that guys like Biggio and Piazza got lumped in with the swollen boils on baseball’s hindquarters — those who didn’t have the presence and wherewithal not to cheat are and always will be the snake-biter shitbirds.