BY: ABACUS REVEALS
The sports world at large, from pompous pundits to soccer moms, has chosen to take umbrage at the intravenous antics of the San Francisco Giants’ Melky Cabera and Bartolo Colon of the Oakland A’s and brand them as cheats. Each player has accepted a 50-game suspension from MLB for the use of a banned “performance-enhancing” substance detected by an analysis of a urine sample submitted by the player, as per the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Some are offering this as evidence that the sport, while not quite pure, is far cleaner than it has been in recent years and continues to move in the right direction. A recent column by Jayson Stark of ESPN offers considerable data that shows a sharp decline in power numbers since 2005 when Congressional intervention induced the implementation of the random, required urine tests.
But the good vibrations for the effectiveness of the program are hardly unanimous. Positive test results indicate that ballplayers are still, you know, using forbidden pharmaceuticals. Cabrera and his people were even concocting some convoluted cover story, allegedly. A cloud of suspicion continues to hover over the achievements of 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, despite the unprecedented reversal-upon-appeal of his suspension for the same offense.
NoCal’s Bay Area is represented in the current conundrum not only by suspended athletes, but also by the voice of Victor Conte. The BALCO buddy of Barry Bonds has re-emerged to opine that MLB’s testing procedures are inadequate, suggesting that as many as half the players are still utilizing banned substances. He even offered his expertise to MLB, via Erik Kuselias of NBC SportsTalk—for free, so as to assuage his conscience, he contends.
The culture of baseball, at all levels of play, is rife with written rules and unwritten conventions. Among the latter is the notion that “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” Coaches carefully parse the language of the rulebook in an attempt to invent new ways to gain a competitive edge—until the rule gets re-written.
Laziness, the lack of hustle, not tryin’, that’s when you should feel shame and offer an apology. Just ask Jimmy Rollins, ManRam or Shoeless Joe Jackson.
But when the umpire is signaling an out, should the fielder who didn’t really make the catch reveal an empty glove, or just “sell” the official’s incorrect ruling?
Catchers are taught to “frame” pitches. What catcher at one time or another has not “pulled” a close pitch onto the corner of the plate?
Nolan Ryan was said to be a master at planting his foot several inches in front of the rubber on the most significant of pitches.
A little cork in the bat, a little scuff to the ball. It’s all part of the mystique of the game, like the hidden-ball trick.
For a century of more, such issues of fairness (as well as safety issues like beanballs and overly aggressive play) were handled internally by the fraternity of players. The outcomes and decisions were pretty universally accepted.
The baseball crisis that required outside intervention involved a team deliberately losing the World Series at the behest of gamblers. But it seems that as long as the competition “between the lines” has been fair and genuine, the culture of the game has been able to police itself—even through issues as thorny as integration, expansion and labor strife.
Almost 60 years after the Black Sox Scandal, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn introduced the phrase “Best Interests of the Game” to the modern sports vernacular. Oakland owner Charlie Finlay, a man ahead of his time if there ever was one, was going about the business of dismantling a championship team while its stars still had value and before any more were lost to free agency. But citing concerns over competitive balance, Kuhn vetoed certain transactions, and in the blink of an eye, lawyers and judges were involved.
Fast forward about a quarter of a century. A brutally contentious labor negotiation had cost baseball a World Series and a fair chunk of its popularity. The good ship MLB was set right, though, by the most dazzling display of power hitting in its long history, as decades-old standards were falling with stunning regularity.
But before long, Commissioner Bud Selig and his three wise monkeys—Speak No Evil (Palmeiro), Speak No English (Sosa), Speak No History (McGuire)—found themselves testifying in Congress, and mandatory drug screening became reality.
Baseball is a game that requires a combination of flexibility, endurance, coordination and reflex. For generations, any kind of weight-training was deemed counter-productive for a baseball player and thus an uncommon practice. Of course, this viewpoint has long been debunked; strength gains do not necessarily inhibit baseball’s pre-requisite skills. Indeed, advances in training and nutrition continue to enhance performance in all our games.
So, too, do advances in medical science enhance sports performance—not to mention longevity and quality of life. (Steroids and HGH do exist as legitimate treatments for genuine maladies, after all.)
That’s the thing about this stuff…it works—in observable and measurable ways. The effect of an improved workout regimen and better diet can likewise be demonstrated.
Consider the string of high-profile athletes who have traipsed off to Europe in the past two or three years to receive some new-fangled blood-spinning treatment. Rave reviews seem to be increasing business. Why Europe? Because this procedure has not been approved for use in the Good Ol’ USA.
Therein lies the problem facing any sports league or anti-doping agency. At what point does the legitimate attempt to improve performance become an unfair advantage deserving of reprimand?
It’s OK for a ballplayer to improve his visual acuity by means of a surgical procedure performed by a certified professional.
But a doctor may not prescribe certain substances (HGH, for example) to treat an injury more effectively and/or expediently. A doctor may not prescribe certain substances which are known to facilitate recuperation from strenuous exertion. (Yet a league will gladly generate advertising revenue from the manufacturers of male-enhancement products. Hmm!)
The rules under which any contest is conducted are established and modified for the purpose of maintaining the integrity of the competition—to give both the offense and defense a fair and reasonable opportunity to succeed. Several years ago boxer Antonio Margarito was discovered to have used a little plaster of Paris while taping his hands for a fight. Talk about a performance enhancing substance, huh? Naturally, the opponent, Boxing Commission and world-at-large cried foul, and Margarito was summarily disqualified and suspended.
In 1999, Barry Bonds played his first season under the influence of unapproved performance enhancers (according to Williams and Fainaru-Wada’s iconic Game of Shadows). Bonds had packed on a very noticeable 15 pounds of upper-body muscle in the off-season through the use of a body-building steroid provided by his trainer and life-long friend, Greg Anderson. The additional muscle mass caused a serious elbow injury that put Bonds on the shelf for nearly two months, as well as nagging problems with his legs. Despite playing only 102 games and posting a paltry .262 batting average, he hit one home run for every 10.4 at-bats, the highest frequency of his career to that point.
Better product and more informed usage, abetted by MLB’s lack of a testing program and Barry’s obsessive drive, then produced “the greatest five consecutive seasons of any hitter in baseball history.” (page 282, Game of Shadows) The Bonds experience shows clearly that (a) performance is indeed enhanced and (b) there are consequences, both short- and long-term, to the use of anabolic steroids.
What’s less clear, though, is whether this is creating an unfair advantage that needs to be outlawed. Is it remotely possible that the supervised use of these pharmaceutical medications is just the next evolutionary step in the development of the game—like the use of fielding gloves, or the invention of the specialized relief pitcher? How will athletes be training in 20 or 50 years? And are not all these “tweaks” introduced for the explicit purpose of enhancing either individual or team performance?
Regarding age and longevity, it is sometimes said 60 is the new 40. (Abacus’ old assets can only hope!) Then Roger Clemens would be the new 36. He might have a few innings left in him after all.
Inventive men like Abner Doubleday and James Naismith would hardly recognize their games as they now are played. Similarly, we are not likely to be too entertained by the games as they were played in their infancy. A fair bit of performance enhancement took place in between.
There are inherent physical risks involved in all our games, even our leisurely-paced national pastime. (Just Google “Tony Conigliaro” if you need a reminder.) The human body was simply not designed for all that exertion, contortion and collision. Can you remember a time when the word “oblique” was an adjective meaning “indirect” rather than a noun meaning “ballplayer’s body part, prone to frequent injury”?
Yet the participants make the decision to play and to excel.
The manner and extent of an athlete’s training is likewise a matter of choice, with its own set of inherent risks and rewards.
While Bay Area baseball fans are sure to be miffed at losing a key contributor to each of their teams in the midst of a drive for the post-season, they need to bear in mind that Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon are far more victim than villain in all these shenanigans.
How is it you young folk put it?
Don’t hate the player, hate the Game!