From 1986 to 1988, the Oakland Athletics had back-to-back-to-back Rookies of the Year: Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and Walt Weiss. Under ex-lawyer Tony La Russa’s management, the team looked set for a generation.
On November 15, 1988, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was signed into law. It prohibited the distribution, possession, and use of controlled substances in the workplace. Ten years after the act was passed, McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals. He bopped 58 the year before, and people began to wonder how. The umps made the strike zone tighter, he told reporters, and he saw better pitches. New, retro-look ballparks had smaller dimensions, and expansion teams had weak pitching staffs. Plus, he added, one in every four or five balls used in a game was probably “juiced” — i.e., tricked up to clear the fences and revitalize baseball’s sagging ratings.
Though he denied it, McGwire was also juiced. He’d been taking anabolic steroid injections for years. McGwire and Canseco, who got McGwire hooked, became the “Bash Brothers,” leading the A’s to victory in the 1989 World Series. And, hey (many rationalized at the time), if baseball could juice the ball to inflate a hitter’s stats, why shouldn’t players follow suit?
Itamar Moses’s Back Back Back traces a mini-history of the steroid scandal — without ever using the word. Locker rooms and dugout steps, strewn with the hulls of sunflower seeds, become a world of euphemisms. Players take “pregame vitamins” and “blow up” their muscles. Raul (Canseco) and Kent (McGwire) debate whether or not to bring Adam (Weiss) into “it.” Anyone who doesn’t do it, they contend, plays “with a handicap.” And Weiss, a good-fielding, banjo-hitting shortstop, could bulk up his earnings.
The three players chat, discuss, harangue. They hold press conferences (Kent even tells Adam how to do one well). The 100-minute, intermissionless play has nine scenes (each an inning), a seventh-inning stretch, and some after-game batting practice. Throughout, Raul, Kent, and Adam keep talking. Some of the dialogue is crisp jock-gab. One of the funniest bits: as Adam and Kent get reacquainted during a home-run derby, Barry “Mr. Juice” Bonds pounds ball after ball into the stratosphere.
But often the characters shrink. They become sides in a debate about steroid use (is it cheating or fulfilling one’s potential?). As in the TV show CSI, they explain things the others already know.
Back Back Back covers all the steroid-use bases: sure, Bonds and the others have chemically induced statistics, and it is cheating, given the rules of the game. But where to draw the line? Should we ban from the hall of fame every pro athlete who ever took an upper or a “greenie”? That would thin them out. Moses could also tag the hypocrisy of sportswriters who wax sanctimonious about drug abuse. How many of them, on deadline, resort to controlled substances to enhance their performance?
The story’s got the potential for a Greek tragedy about fallen heroes in a hubris-breeding culture. And people unfamiliar with the specifics may see a tale of aspirations, betrayal, and the unimaginable pressures to play baseball, day in and day out, like a god.
But for those who know the story, Back Back Back’s just a talky retelling of McGwire’s mammoth denial and Canseco’s rat-finking in two books, Juiced and Vindicated (in the latter, he says all athletes should bulk up). And neither McGwire nor Canseco is anywhere as verbal as Kent or Raul.
The story might be more effective if Moses freed it from the players’ biographies and actual historical events. He would have to do less explaining (backstory clogs the script). And he could open up the play’s confined structure and demythologize on a mythical level. What comes through most of all: Moses’s profound wrestling with his own disillusionment about the game.
Back Back Back gets the facts straight, but the Old Globe production sometimes doesn’t. The set’s a baseball diamond: Astroturf surrounding a wicker-like infield. But whether they’re playing for Oakland (whose cap has an A, not an O), St. Louis, or the National League all-stars, the boys wear the most pristine uniforms in horsehider history. Now, they don’t have to sloven up like Manny R., but the actors should scuff them some, at least, for authenticity’s sake.
They have few chances to soil the uni’s on stage. In a play about a professional activity, Moses doesn’t offer many chances for physicality. Director Davis McCallum blocks his actors well, but they mostly stand around. Though they don’t look as if they’re “filled with water” (as one character says about players on steroids), Brendan Griffin (Kent), Nick Mills (Adam), and Joaquin Perez-Campbell (Raul) perform ably. Even before you realize that Perez-Campbell’s playing Canseco, the twitches and rooster-neck jerks are a pure match for the right-fielder off whose noggin a ball once careened for a home run — a feat ESPN recently voted as the number-one baseball blooper of all time.
Back Back Back, by Itamar Moses
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Davis McCallum; cast: Brendan Griffin, Joaquin Perez-Campbell, Nick Mills; scenic design, Lee Savage; costumes, Christal Weatherly; lighting, Russell H. Champa; sound, Paul Peterson
Playing through October 26; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.