The Angels’ C.J. Wilson pitches in to help MLB’s anti-drug efforts as it seeks to educate an often naïve public.
Growing up in Orange County, Angels two-time All-Star pitcher C.J. Wilson remembers being 12 and listening to a college coach at a youth baseball camp first warn him about the pitfalls of a playing career.
“He said, ‘There are two things that ruin great baseball players: getting in trouble with drugs and alcohol, and injury. If you can get around those two things, you can turn out to be a major leaguer one day,’” Wilson recalled in a two-minute, public-service video for The Parnership at Drugfree.org.
Wilson was born in Newport Beach and played baseball for Fountain Valley High, Santa Ana College and Loyola Marymount before being drafted by the Texas Rangers in the fifth round in 2001. He made his major league debut in 2005 and signed with the Angels before the 2012 season.
At 33, Wilson has played his entire big league career in the post-Steroid Era.
Getting tested for banned performance-enhancing drugs has always been a part of his game. Seeing an MLB memo taped to his clubhouse locker to request a urine sample doesn’t bring him trepidation.
He’s a clean player, happy to prove it because he has nothing to hide.
“I was prepared to make my own decisions because I knew the traps from a very young age,” Wilson said in the video. “I was warned about them.”
Wilson is committed to sharing that warning with baseball’s next generation of players. To date, he is the only major leaguer who has gone to baseball’s anti-drug educational partner, Drugfree.org, offering to help.
Wilson first teamed with the organization in 2010 as a Ranger. He has since filmed six Drugfree.org public-service announcements in which he talks about goal-setting, teamwork, peer pressure and getting help from the educational resources available. All the videos can be found at www.drugfree.org/playhealthy.
Campaigning against steroids and PEDs aligns with Wilson’s “straight edge” lifestyle and his lifetime commitment to abstain from using drugs or alcohol.
“Going to Drugfree.org and offering to help get that message out there is part of my platform,” said Wilson, who has also been outspoken on anti-doping issues as the Angels representative to the MLBPA.
Wilson strongly believes that youth education about PED use is an essential component of baseball’s continuing efforts to keep baseball clean.
SENDING THE MESSAGE
About 30 teenage boys, All-Stars from the Angels’ Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) teams, came to Angel Stadium on an August morning to get big league lessons from the Angels athletic training staff.
They were prepared for agility workouts and hitting and fielding drills – all training for their bodies. Few expected the most important takeaways from this camp to be the ones that changed their minds, hopefully strengthened their character and perhaps even saved their lives.
Before they took the field, the players sat in the stands near the Angels dugout and a learned about another teenage ballplayer named Taylor Hooton.
He was a 16-year-old pitcher, lived in the Dallas suburb of Plano and his uncle Burt, used to pitch for the Dodgers.
He had good grades, a pretty girlfriend and posters of athletes, supermodels and musicians on his bedroom walls.
Taylor, an incoming 6-foot-2, 180-pound junior, also had a pressing question for his high school baseball coach: He wanted to know what it took for him not only to make the varsity team but also to be “The Guy,” the ace of the rotation.
“Coach told Taylor, ‘You need to get bigger,’” said Kyle Purdy, the storyteller and vice president of the Taylor Hooton Foundation. “And the coach didn’t tell him how to get bigger, didn’t give him any training program, weight regimens or diet plans.”
What Taylor did next, according to Purdy, was seek out his bigger, more muscle-bound teammates. He learned they were using anabolic steroids, which he later bought illegally from a man he met at a YMCA.
He started injecting himself and working out vigorously, and added 30 pounds of muscle in three months. But also began to experience mood swings that led to violent fights and shouting matches, like the one he had with his mother on July 15, 2003.
Furious about being grounded, Taylor went upstairs to his bedroom, tied two belts together and hanged himself. In the room, police discovered syringes and vials of steroids, which Taylor had been abusing for six months.
The day they lost their son was also the first Don and Gwen Hooton discovered he had been taking steroids. The warning signs, they tragically realized too late, were all there.
Hearing Taylor’s story stunned the group.
Most RBI players said they had heard about steroids, mainly through media reports that notoriously tied more than a dozen players, including former MVPs Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, to the Miami anti-aging clinic, Biogenesis.
But most weren’t aware of the health risks: the stunting of growth, the strain on the heart, the liver and kidney damage, and the side effects of acne, shrunken sex organs, hair loss and violent mood swings. They didn’t know it was illegal to possess steroids without a doctor’s prescription.
The ignorance was not a surprise to Purdy, whose Taylor Hooton Foundation partnered with MLB in 2005 to give these educational presentations every week in major-league cities.
“We find that about 85 percent of kids at the high school level have never had anyone talk to them about the dangers of steroids when they warn them about marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs,” Purdy said.
“It’s a problem because we know that about 1.5 million kids in America admit to taking these things (steroids). We’re trying to change that.”
MLB commissioner Bud Selig understands the Steroid Era and every drug violation since the introduction of the Joint Drug Agreement and league-wide testing in 2005 wasn’t just a baseball problem. It was a societal concern.
“Baseball must do everything it can to maintain integrity, fairness and a level playing field,” he said Aug. 5 in a statement after issuing the Biogenesis suspensions. “We are committed to working together with players to reiterate that performance-enhancing drugs will not be tolerated in our game.”
Selig’s legacy will also be one of educating the public and future generations of ballplayers about the dangers of banned PEDs. MLB Charities teamed with Drugfree.org in 2008 to teach parents and youth coaches about the importance of “Play Healthy,” MLB’s anti-drug initiative.
Though New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter appeared in Drugfree.org public-service ads in 2001, it wasn’t until 2005 when the iconic anti-steroids PSAs of “Statue” and “Shrinking” got national exposure in MLB ballparks and during game broadcasts. The Drugfree.org/Playhealthy campaign launched in 2008, followed by the grassroots educational programs to communities.
In 2013, in the wake of the Biogenesis scandal that involved a high number of Latino players, the Drugfree.org/Playhealthy website was relaunched with a fully acculturated Spanish version.
“There is such a need for youth programming both in English and Spanish to reach the influencers, the parents and coaches, to give them the education and tools they need to share these messages,” said Courtney Gallo, the assistant director of programs at Drugfree.org.
“Since we started this program, we’ve seen the use (of steroids and banned PEDs) go down but it has been stable for the past few years. The key is getting the message out there.”
Gallo reports that children are 50 percent less likely to use performance-enhancing drugs if they have the conversation about them. Getting MLB players to take part in those discussions with youth had been a challenge – until one player, Wilson, came forward three years ago.
Wilson says baseball’s attempts to rid the game of drug cheats will always be a work in progress because of the “straight-up greed” and the brazen desire of some players to cash in on lucrative major league careers despite their natural skills and talents failing to make the fair cut.
“People are still going to cheat, and they are dummies for doing it because it’s just not right,” Wilson said. “There are people out there who can’t accept that they can’t make it or that they can’t find a niche where they’d be successful, so they don’t believe in their limitation. They spit in the face of the rules and decide to cheat to make up for it.”
There’s anger and intolerance in Wilson’s voice. There’s also the sound of frustration he shares with other players who want and deserve an even, drug-free playing field in baseball.
Veteran Angels assistant trainer Rick Smith addressed this frustration when he spoke with the Angels RBI players in August.
“I can tell you for a fact that there are a lot of major league baseball players – and there are several on our team – who are unhappy because they go about playing baseball the right way,” Smith told the group.
“They follow the rules, they work out hard, they keep themselves hydrated, they get their rest and they feel like they are at an unfair advantage to these other players that are abusing substances or doing steroids. There’s a bunch of them that are really, really upset.”
The young players listened closely as Smith got fired up and spoke about character, the need to take an absolute, zero-tolerance approach to drug-cheating and not the moral relativism that some PED-users adopt to justify making the majors.
“The bottom line is that if you’re taking steroids or any of these banned substances, you’re cheating. You’re cheating your teammates, you’re cheating your coaches, you’re cheating your family and you’re cheating the game,” he said.
“You have to be true to yourself. You have to be honest with yourself, and be able to look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and respect yourself. You can’t do that if you’re cheating.”
At the heart of baseball’s recovery from the Steroid Era is everyone’s respect for fair play. The perception that baseball has cleaned up the game exists with the extension of MLB testing and investigations, the institution of stricter penalties and declining numbers of known violations.
But the reality of whether baseball is more drug-free will always remain a matter of conscience for each player and something we, the public, might never know.
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