Mood Swings

A psychiatrist surveys the mind and the wider world

Baseball's Hall of Fame: Psychiatric Advice

What sportswriters should know about steroids versus amphetamines

It seems that sportswriters could use some psychiatric knowledge as they prepare to vote tomorrow  for baseball's Hall of Fame.  Among the potential candidates are players suspected of steroid abuse, like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa.  Some writers, like Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, have argued that these players should not be penalized for the taint of possible steroid abuse.  After all, Cafardo says, players abused amphetamines in the past, and were still voted into the hall of fame:  "We hear the argument that Bonds’s big home run seasons were tainted because he was juiced, but the guy in the ’60s who drank all night, then took a couple of greenies the next day and hit a couple of homers because he felt like a million bucks . . . that’s OK?"

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Here is a psychiatric lesson for sportswriters on steroids versus amphetamines. Without denying that there are some benefits to using amphetamines in enhancing baseball skills, there are major differences with steroids.  

Steroids increase physical strength (muscle mass) and provide psychological benefits (moderate manic symptoms of increased aggressiveness and energy). So if one has excellent baseball skills to begin with, like Bonds or Clemens, and then adds physical strength, one hits many more home runs or keeps a fastball going fast.

Amphetamines don't increase physical strength at all, but they provide psychological benefits (mild manic symptoms of increased attention and energy). So if one has excellent baseball skills, the increased attention and energy can help somewhat, like pitching an extra inning or two, but there would be no increased physical strength, like longer home runs or faster pitches. 

It’s true that amphetamines were used for years, and still are, as I note in my blog post above, and they provide a small relative advantage, but they don’t produce effects on the par of breaking century old records or pitching 95 mph fastballs into one’s forties. There is an analogy, but it is between mild and strong. Coffee is a stimulant, like amphetamines, and like cocaine. But coffee is not the same as cocaine; neither is amphetamine. 

Also, steroids always increase physical strength. Amphetamines don't always enhance baseball function, because they also increase anxiety, which can have harmful effects, and, the increased “buzz” they provide can, as with alcohol, lead to impaired judgment in physically precise activities, like pitching. In his classic Ball Four, 1960s pitcher Jim Bouton was among the first to describe use of greenies, and he pointed out that they didn't help him; in fact, his pitching was more erratic on amphetamines.

One more thing: I have described and documented, based on original medical records, the massive physical and psychological effects of the abuse of testosterone steroids by President Kennedy, and how they, in many ways,  harmed his leadership.  I also describe the much more limited, and mostly beneficial, effects of amphetamines used for depression in the case of Winston Churchill. Clearly steroids are a completely different ballgame (sorry for the pun)  than amphetamines, not only in athletics, but in politics and other fields.

Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., M.P.H.,

is Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. more...

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