Saturday, February 7, 2009

On performance enhancing drugs in baseball

Along with the story earlier this week about released Federal docs with testimony that Barry Bonds not only tested positive for steroids on a few occasions, but had trainers injecting performance enhancing drugs "all over the place"... now we have a story that top shelf slugger Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids during his 2003 MVP season with the Texas Rangers.

Unlike many baseball fans, I have long since accepted the distinct possibility that many of the league's players have used illegal performance enhancing drugs over the offensive boom of the last 15-20 years. People have smeared his accusation given his general credibility, but I'm not sure Jose Canseco was all that wrong when he estimated that at least half the league is using (he's pushed the number as high as 85% before backing off). Some illegal drugs can't be detected in tests, like Human Growth Hormone. And there are dozens upon dozens of designer drugs available for the taking under the radar. Even with measures taken to discover and track down offending usage, to try and catch everyone is like trying to climb Mt. Everest during a blizzard and an avalanche.

The general perception of steroids is that they make you stronger or better, but they're not an instant pill of success. What they really do is accelerate recovery from wear and tear. Doctors legally prescribe them for exactly that reason: to help people recover from surgery, injuries or illness. Weightlifters inject them after workouts so their muscles recover quickly, allowing them to resume working out sooner. And baseball players, who throw, hit, run and field damn near every single day between February and November, can wear down from peak performance. Also, we all have a berserker mode: if we get mad or intense enough during physical activity, our physical performance level increases as adrenaline enters the bloodstream over a short term. Roids can allow a player to play at a higher intensity than is comfortable, then bounce back immediately and retain that enhanced level of intensity for longer periods.

It doesn't help every player: if you suck, the absolute best you can give may still not be good enough. A good player who uses them may not add enough performance to become a top player. A top player who already plays well in an even-keeled state and doesn't have to work as intensely to play well... but can play at an MVP or legendary level when he turns on the jets, may stand to gain more than the decent player who adds a few hits or strikeouts to his numbers, or that AA retread who sees no real improvement to his major league prospects.

And I think that's what has Americans so pissed off and/or defensive about the issue. Nobody really gives a crap about Yusmeiro Petit or Ryan Franklin getting caught roiding, because those guys are lost in the shuffle anyway. But tell people that Barry Bonds' historic home run records had some help, that the Mark McGwire vs Sammy Sosa chase was brought to you by juice, or that Roger Clemens' historic career lasting effectively into his 40's came thanks to some sauce... and that's when people get roiled up over players roiding up.

It's like telling people that the stuff that dreams are made of are too good to be true. It's akin to a child finding out that Santa Claus isn't real or that the tooth fairy was really their mom shoving a buck and a handwritten note in her best calligraphy under their pillow at 2 am. These are the sort of epiphanies that end childhoods. And even as people become more jaded in their adulthood, epiphanies like these don't necessarily hurt any less.

I understand the separate sets of reactions, the anger of those who accept it's happening and the denial to the death of those who refuse to believe it's true or that it's a fundamental problem... even if they're not fully informed. But we live in a world of inconsistent honesty, where many will go to extensive lengths to get an edge. Many will go to great lengths to hide any transgressions. Thousands of players come spawned from a world laden with corruption and deceit, and every single one of them competes with one another for their jobs, for millions of dollars and, of course, victory on the field. It's not a surprise that many turn to underground performance enhancers to get themselves whatever edge they can, even the best in the business.

As to whether or not this is a moral problem... it lies in the eye of the beholder. And that's where I plan to leave this conversation behind.

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