Confessions of a Juiced Journo

  • Share
  • Read Later
H. Armstrong Roberts / Corbis

Yeah, it's true about me and steroids. I have to admit it now. Even though the Mitchell report didn't have a section on sports writers, ask yourself this: the Senator's staff spends months to produce a 400-plus page report documenting his investigation of steroid abuse in Major League Baseball, and within 24 hours a relatively small group of journalists produces 400,000 pages of newspaper stories, wire service copy and website reports. And just how do you think that gets done? Let me tell you, dear innocent reader, there's only so much coffee a laptop-toting journo can drink in a day.

Me and Roger Clemens. We started down that dark road the same year. It was '98. Clemens was in the middle of an awesome Cy Young season in Toronto: 20-6 with a 2.65 ERA. I'd been at TIME for two years, having been traded by Fortune for a features writer and an editor to be named later. I got off like a house afire — cover stories, features, business news, plane crashes, you name it. But in middle of the '99 season the managing editor pulled me aside for a little talk. I knew what was coming. "Your story starts are down," he said. "And your cliché count is out of sight. " I reminded the boss that I had led the league in snappy adjectives the year before. And early in the '99 season I'd hurt my right index finger trying desperately to pound out a deadline piece on the Super Bowl. I was playing hurt. But you know how managers are. This is the news weekly pal, he said with some disdain. What have you done for me next week?

That's how it started. I was injured, the competition was getting tougher — Internet thing was starting to make big noise — and I needed to stay in the starting lineup. Don't get me wrong, I'd always kept myself in good shape. Worked out at the Journalists' Gym on the West Side: I could already bench press four Webster's International dictionaries. But there were too many guys who were stronger, yet they didn't seem to be working out any harder. And they were racking up the bylines. I'm talking about economics writers who couldn't lift a comma. What were they doing? Hey, I am a reporter, right? A couple of phone calls later and I got it figured. They were juiced, in capital letters. I make the connection: the source is a beat-up wire service guy who spent too much time in South America in the '70s. All the top journos are doing steroids, he assures me. He names names. Pulitzer winners. Celebrated columnists.

That's when I gave in to the competitive pressure. There are only so many news magazines and so many years to produce. If you are a journalist, you live to see your name in print. It's a simple as that. Besides, I rationalized, once I got my game back together I'd ease off the stuff.

The results were immediate. I started knocking 10,000-word cover stories out of the park like they were baseball game summaries. Slick word combinations were jumping off my keyboard. I could stretch a one-pager into a double truck with ease. Man, I was feeling it. But so were some of my colleagues. Roid rage. It's as ugly in the newsroom as it is in the locker room. One night, I almost took a copy editor's head off for questioning my use of antecedents. My boss had to know, but he steered clear. That's how they are in the bigs — they just want to fill the pages with sensational stories. That's what brings in the readers. It's a business. But at home the kids noticed that I'd changed. I'd become a monster: I started sending their homework back for rewrites. I hate myself when I think of that now.

I've been clean now for years, just like a lot of those baseball players. I'm glad the truth has come out and Major League Baseball is finally owning up to what everyone in the game has known for years. As for the writers, they're busy fulminating about how the game and the fans have been betrayed by the players that everyone looked up to. It makes me laugh thinking about how much outrage they can conjure, about how quickly their thoughts are turned to print and posts. Much too quickly. Me, I'm trying to type as fast as I can. The mind is willing, but the fingers just won't fly like they used to. That's why I'm able to cut the Rocket a little slack, just like Senator Mitchell suggested. As for the rest of my fellow journalists, well, maybe we need the Senator to continue his work.