Bobby Grich suspected something was wrong. Players suddenly got bigger and stronger. They hit the ball much further than ever. Pitchers added 5 mph to their fastballs in a matter of months.
Yes, the steroid era had begun.
“I kind of sensed it around the mid-1980s, I kind of thought that something was going on,” Grich told Perfect Game USA.
Grich, a devoted weight-lifter during his 17-year Major League career with the Baltimore Orioles and California Angels, didn’t want anything to do with steroids. He felt they were wrong, unnatural. And he thought they could hurt your body, more than they might help.
“I heard of the side-effects, to be honest with you, and I said I want no part of it,” he remarked. “Plus it seemed like it was something that could be very dangerous. You didn’t know what the long-term effects were going to be. It just seemed like too strong of a drug and too much unknown. It was too raw a form at that time.”
Grich, a six-time All-Star, played in the big leagues from 1970 through 1986 and saw numerous changes during that time. He pre-dated the steroid era. Heck, he even pre-dated the weightlifting era in some respects.
“Weight-training only really became a part of baseball in the late ‘70s,” he said. “Up until that point it was not supposed to be good for you, was the mantra. It was like you’d lose your flexibility. And so everybody kind of stayed away from weights.
“And then there were a few guys, including myself, that disagreed with that. And I just found that if I started doing arm-curls and bench-presses and swinging a lead bat and putting a doughnut or two on my bat and swinging in front of a mirror, the next year I had increased arm strength and arm speed and bat speed. So I really went against the myth,” he said. “I started lifting weights myself, particularly left-arm curls. It helped my career tremendously.
“When I first broke into the big leagues in 1970, there was not a single weight room anywhere in the big leagues,” he said. “And when I retired in ’86, there was not a single stadium that did not have a weight room. It was basically in the early ‘80s when weight-training started kicking in.”
Denis Menke played in the major leagues from 1962 through 1974 with Milwaukee, Atlanta, Houston and Cincinnati and was a two-time All-Star. He had his own method for getting stronger and staying in good shape, and it didn’t require any weights or pills.
“I’ll tell you what, I was brought up on a farm, so I went back and helped my dad farm,” said Menke, who grew up in Bancroft, Iowa. “That’s basically what I did. It was a good way to be brought up.”
Grich and Menke spoke with Perfect Game USA while they were in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in late January for the Cedar Rapids Kernels 14th Annual Hot Stove Banquet. Grich, who still works for the Angels in advertising, marketing, public relations and as a part-time coach, was the featured speaker at the banquet. Menke, who retired in 2000 after 40 years in baseball as a player and coach, was inducted into the Cedar Rapids Baseball Hall of Fame.
Like most former players, Grich and Menke are disappointed by the steroids era.
“It’s too bad that it became part of baseball, because it really wasn’t needed,” said Menke, 69. “But you look at what baseball’s been through. They went through where the baseballs felt like they were golf balls – they were hitting baseballs out of the park a little easier. It seems like there’s always been something in baseball, but I suspect they’re really trying to clean it up again to where it used to be. When I started, everybody would end up in a bar. We’d talk baseball and that’s what we’d end up doing. That’s just part of that era.
“Everything changes in baseball,” he said. “Now it’s become such big business. I mean, you look at the money that the players are making, it has become big business. Heck, it used to be when a person got to be 33, 34 years old, you were done, but now they’re trying to stay around until they’re 40 to 45. They keep in shape a lot better, because it is a business.”
Grich, 61, thinks the steroids era put pressure on players to use them, even though they didn’t want to and knew it was wrong.
“I guess my only strong opinion at this point is that I’m really glad it’s behind us,” he said. “I can understand the temptation of the players when they were playing. I can understand, almost, the peer pressure and the fact that you’ve got 25 guys on the team and 15 of them are using it, or whatever the number may be.”
Like most fans, Grich was captivated by the home-run battle in 1998 between McGwire and Sosa when McGwire hit 70 homers and Sosa slugged 66. “That was unbelievable,” said Grich. It also was cheating. And tainted.
“I think most everybody suspected something was going on with steroids in that era,” said Grich. “How could you not, unless you had your head in the sand?”
The next year, in 1999, McGwire hit 65 home runs and Sosa finished with 63. Again, more steroids, and more cheating. “It was just kind of an accepted thing at the time,” said Grich.
Then Jose Canseco wrote his controversial book, which shed a new light on everything. The book was called “Juiced,” published in 2005. Canseco confessed his own use of steroids and alleged that many others, including McGwire, had used them as well.
“It became evident it was more prevalent than thought of, so there was a huge public outcry,” said Grich. “At the time, I was very disappointed in Canseco. I think he kind of really threw his fraternity, as they say, under the bus. But you know what? In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened, because it (steroid use) might still be in place right now had he not written that book. It just took something like that to really bring it to light to where it got our game cleaned up from it.
“It was really starting to get down into our high school kids,” said Grich. “I mean, 9th and 10th graders were taking steroids. There was pressure to go to college, and the way to do that was to get on steroids and get stronger. I think our athletics were going to become one big, giant steroid bath. So I’m really glad we’re getting that out of athletics.”
Grich understands why some players used steroids. They were battling for jobs, and battling to keep them.
“It’s tough. It’s a tough call,” he said. “If you could lift weights and work as hard as you possibly can and still get to that level without doing it (steroids), then that’s the step you want to take. But if you’re lifting your tail off and the guy next to you is doing it (steroids), and the pitcher on the mound is doing it – the guy goes from throwing 89 mph one year and the next year he comes back and he’s throwing 94, and you know it’s the same dude. Hey, wait a minute. What did he do in one year? You kind of go, ‘Whoa, I’ve got to get my bat speed up to 115 now to catch up to that 94 mph fastball.’
“So there’s a huge amount of pressure on you,” said Grich. “It’s a tough call.”