Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Steroids and the working man

Guest column
By Jon Shurkin
August 9, 2005

Is that a hypodermic needle in your pocket or are you just coming up to bat?—Thanks to Viagra spokesman Rafael Palmiero’s suspension for using performance enhancement drugs, there’s been a lot of squawking about cheating and illegality in baseball, not to mention the old favorite: "won’t somebody think of the children?" In fact, taking a turn through all the ESPN talking sport pundit shows, they’re all comparing this whole thing to the Black Sox scandal of 1919 or Pete Rose’s cheating on baseball. But is it?

A lot of people don’t know what they’re talking about. It may not be so terrible after all.

Quick, what is a steroid? It’s something you inject into your body to make you beefier and stronger, right? Well, err no. Why would doping be soprevalent in the Olympics in sports like swimming or track, where being beefier would be a hindrance not an advantage? Who were the first players to get busted this year for steroids in baseball? None of them were the body builder types. In fact, one of the things that’s being said repeatedlyabout Palmiero was that he didn’t seem like one because he wasn’t unusually big, strong and muscular so he could crush home run balls. Yet crush them he did.

As you listen to all this steroid kerfuffle, remember this: There are, in fact, over 600 types of
steroids, some of them even used for medicinal purposes. The main ones everyone talks about are those related to testosterone, which has the effect of yes, building muscle mass, but also in tissue building. The infamous "cream" often mentioned in the media does nothing but help people recover faster from an injury or the common aches, pains and tiredness that a full season of sports can bring. Roger Clemens, currently in the midst of one of the greatest seasons in baseball history at the tender age of 43, has been named as a doper by Jose Conseco.
But nobody mentions that when they’re all gushing over Roger, who is not the weight-lifter type at all. And when Ryne Sandberg and Wade Boggs gave their Hall of Fame speeches, everyone admired them because they were definitely not on the juice. But how do we know?
Steroids can do more than just make you big and strong. In the most cases, it’s your
normal, average looking guy who could be using them. The fact that everyone is out with pitchforks looking for the bashers shows once again that most people have no idea what
they’re talking about.

But what about the drug Rafael took, which is one of the big, nasty, bend over and inject type drugs. The reality is that nobody knows for sure what they do. They’re not even sure if all those supposed side effects that we keep on hearing about are from taking the steroids or from taking a particularly crappy steroid, the kind of steroid one gets on the black market because of the illegality of steroids. Don’t try the brown acid, indeed. Jose Canseco, reality TV star and the alleged Dr. Feelgood of baseball even writes in his book that he thinks steroids are good for you and that if administered properly can be completely non-harmful and beneficial to the athlete.

Of course, as everyone knows, there was a huge explosion of home runs over the years. Conspiracy fans would claim that baseball was in trouble after the ‘94 strike and so they souped up the ball, juiced up the players, and cranked up the volume. Sammy and Big Mac go after Roger Maris and fans fall back in deep love with American’s Pastime. True, but that era also included smaller ballparks and expansion. Smaller ballparks and expansion always
mean more home runs. Oh, and the man who some people think is the focus of all this, Barry Bonds? Yeah, he hit more home runs at a later age than he did when he was younger but so did Henry Aaron. And a lot of other great ballplayers. The dude worked out. A lot. Is it entirely possible that good conditioning, supplements (some legal, some not so much), incredible
genetics, and twenty years of baseball experience all came together to create an offensive force baseball hasn’t seen since the Babe was chasing hookers through trains?

But it’s cheating, right? Maybe. But say you have a baseball player who uses it to recover quickly from an injury. What’s the difference between doing that and taking cortisone, also a steroid? Or baseball’s deepest, darkest secret ˜uppers. Why is Jason Giambi considered a villain for taking drugs but not Curt Schilling? Schilling, after all, gained baseball immortality
by donning the bloody sock and pitching with a busted ankle. As studly as his performance was, he was also doped up to the beejesus on pain killers. How do football players survive the completely inhuman physical thrashing they do on a weekly basis? Gobs and gobs of pain pills. Ever see "North Dallas Forty?"

In other words, where do we draw the line? It is entirely possible for an athlete to go in and get lasik surgery to improve their eye sight, even going from normal 20-20 to 20-10. What’s the difference between that steroids? It’s also becoming possible for pitchers to get arm surgery to add muscle to their perfectly normal arm. Why? Because of instead of pitching with their however-old-they-are arm, they can add some unused tissues and muscle fromsomewhere else in the body and add it to their arm, thus fixing a lot of wear and tear on the arm. It’s like putting a new engine into a car; old body but newish firepower. Is that cheating? And at some point were about to see stuff involving genetics that will make using steroids seem like a second graders chem lab experiment.

Sure there’s something not right about steroids. And Rafael Palmiero might be the dumbest man in sports right now. But what we have here is a good old fashioned witch hunt, the kind of thing that happens when you combine a hysterical media, bad information, and politicians in blow-hard mode. The future isonly going to make things more complicated and messier, we haven’t even begun to think about all this.

No comments: