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Athlete’s Parents See Steroid Link in Death

Times Staff Writer

Denise Garibaldi can still remember the question.

It was bedtime, and as she tucked in her 7-year-old son, Rob, he asked: “How do I get to be a professional ballplayer?”

The pursuit of a major league dream had begun.

It started in youth leagues, continued through high school and appeared possibly within reach during college at USC. But it ended in 2002, when 24-year-old Rob Garibaldi shot himself in the head five months after his last season at Sonoma State.

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Garibaldi’s parents said they are convinced that steroids played a major role in their troubled son’s death, and they have become advocates of alerting parents and legislators about the dangers of steroid use.

On Thursday, Denise Garibaldi will appear before a congressional panel to talk about her son’s experiences. She will follow an all-star lineup of current and former major league baseball players who are expected to testify under subpoena.

“I want something meaningful to come out of his life,” she said in an interview.

The Garibaldis decided to go public with Rob’s story last year after watching a segment of “60 Minutes,” during which the parents of Taylor Hooton, a Texas high school player, described how their son had hanged himself after using steroids. In March 2004, Denise spoke before a California state Senate committee hearing that was convened to discuss the dangers posed by teenagers’ use of anabolic steroids and dietary supplements.

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Though baseball recently implemented a testing program for steroids, the Garibaldis are angry that the sport for so long did nothing to address the issue while youngsters tried to emulate pumped-up stars.

“What is happening to our national pastime?” Denise Garibaldi said.

She said neither she nor her husband, Ray, knew of her son’s steroid use until about five months before he shot himself on Oct. 1, 2002. But she has since learned that it began during the summer of 1997, after his graduation from Casa Grande High in Petaluma, Calif., and continued during several periods over the next five years.

Rob Garibaldi, however, also struggled with other issues. His mother said he was challenged academically because of dyslexia and also took medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. During junior college, his mother said, she confronted him after finding androstenedione and ephedra products in a kitchen cabinet. At age 22, before and during his last season at USC, she said, he was prescribed antidepressants, at least one of which has since been linked to possible suicidal thoughts in children.

But the Garibaldis say they believe that steroids, and the depression and rage episodes that can result in some users when they stop taking them, sent Rob over the edge.

Harrison Pope, a Harvard psychiatrist who has studied steroids for 15 years, said the psychological effects of steroid use are highly variable. Some users suffer from depression, excessive sleeping, loss of appetite and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts. “The period of greatest risk for depression or possible suicide is when someone has taken steroids for a long time and stops cold,” Pope said.

Pope said that a steroid user who was also taking antidepressants for an existing depressive illness might be more susceptible to suicide risk, though it is not scientifically proven.

P.J. Poiani, who attended the same high school as Garibaldi and was one of his best friends, said Garibaldi rationalized his use of steroids by citing major league players he thought were doing the same.

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“With Rob, baseball was life,” Poiani said. “He didn’t have a whole lot of other outlets in life. ... The way he looked at it, the only thing he was good at was baseball.”

Though small and slightly built, Garibaldi excelled in youth leagues and made the Casa Grande High varsity team as a sophomore. He also landed a spot on a local scout league team sponsored by the Angels. It was then, Denise said, that a volunteer coach introduced her then-135-pound son to supplements, including creatine.

“Up until that point, we had no reason to doubt anyone,” she said. “We thought it was a supplement, like vitamins.”

Garibaldi became a high school standout, earning prep All-America recognition after batting .488 as a senior in 1997. But Garibaldi was not chosen in baseball’s amateur draft that summer and he did not attend college the next school year.

Without his parents’ knowledge, Garibaldi traveled to Mexico and purchased steroids for the first time in the summer of 1998, his mother said.

Garibaldi had a breakout year at Santa Rosa College in 1999, batting .459 with 14 home runs and a state-leading 77 runs batted in. He was named state junior college player of the year and was selected by the New York Yankees in the 41st round of the amateur draft. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Garibaldi instead accepted a scholarship to USC and enrolled in January 2000.

“I was impressed with the numbers he could put up with his size,” said Alberto Concepcion, a freshman catcher for the Trojans that season. “He was real skinny but he had strength.”

Garibaldi started in right field and hit .329 for the Trojans, who advanced to the College World Series.

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On returning to Los Angeles, Garibaldi learned that he could not play in an out-of-state summer league because he had failed a class and would have to make up the units at a junior college. He returned home to take the class and became depressed. Denise, a clinical psychologist, referred him to a psychiatrist who prescribed an antidepressant.

Denise said her son was in good spirits when he returned to USC in the fall of 2000. The school provided extra academic support services, but Garibaldi still failed a midterm. When he got the news, he hit his bedroom dresser with a bat.

Over the next several months, Garibaldi was easily agitated and got into arguments with roommates, who took to locking their doors out of fear of his eruptions. He slept through one practice and missed the bus for an away game.

“It almost seemed like he faded off,” Concepcion said. “It was like he was a different person.”

In April 2001, after he missed the bus to the game, Coach Mike Gillespie suspended Garibaldi for a weekend series against UCLA. But Gillespie said the situation further deteriorated when Garibaldi left more than a dozen obscene messages on his answering machine.

The Garibaldis eventually met with school counselors and Gillespie and arranged to take their son home for the rest of the semester, before deciding he should transfer.

Garibaldi played the 2002 season at Sonoma State but his mother said he began to exhibit delusional behavior midway through the spring semester. Around Mother’s Day, Denise said her son told her that he wanted to take steroids to prepare for the major league draft. She said she discouraged him from doing so.

When Garibaldi was not drafted, Denise said he fell into “a total depressive state.”

According to Denise, about a month after the draft, Sonoma State Coach John Goelz called Garibaldi’s father and told him that he heard that Rob was using steroids. When Ray Garibaldi confronted his son, Rob assaulted him and the police were called. He spent five days involuntarily hospitalized. Later, the family tried an intervention but his four-week stay in a rehabilitation center was cut short when he assaulted an employee.

Garibaldi stayed at a friend’s house for a week and when he returned home, Denise said he seemed calmer. He had plans to look for a job and talked about trying out with a pro team.

Denise did not know until later that her son had already stolen a gun from a shooting range. He left the house in the middle of the night and, after a long drive, parked a half-block from the family’s home and shot himself. He died 18 hours later.

For more than two years after her son’s death, Denise maintained that he started using steroids while at USC and had received them from a member of the athletic training staff. Since learning more about her son’s steroid history from a San Francisco Chronicle article in 2004, she retracted those opinions.

Denise still said she believed USC had turned its back on her son and said Gillespie made derogatory comments about Rob’s learning disability in front of other players. Gillespie denied the accusation and said he did not want to comment further because he did not want to add to the family’s grief.

In a statement, USC said that it had investigated previous accusations made by Garibaldi’s parents: “All of the baseball players interviewed denied ever having been offered steroids at USC or seeing any steroids used by teammates at USC.”

Denise Garibaldi said her work as an advocate against steroids is helping her move on. Last March, when she saw the “60 Minutes” piece about Taylor Hooton, she immediately called the Hooton family.

“I told them they had only part of the story and I wanted to join them in educating the world,” she said.

On Thursday, with Taylor Hooton’s father, Don, also scheduled to testify, Denise will get another chance.

“There was just way too much suffering,” she said, “and it doesn’t have to happen.”


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