Today’s Pinch Hitter is Joel Davis, who lives in Boulder, CO building Festival Medical, a non-profit that provides “free emergency medical care integrated with alternative and holistic healing and harm reduction education at festivals, concerts and community gatherings worldwide.” Joel is a fourth-generation Yankees fan who grew up in Ohio cheering for Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and – he points out — three-time World Series Champion Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens as Columbus Clippers. Joel wrote that his favorite all-time Yankee is Paul O’Neill, who went to high school 15 minutes away from his hometown and “played right field like my dad.” His New Year’s resolution is “to spend less time reading about baseball and more time writing about baseball.”
In writing about baseball today, Joel presents a case that I certainly wasn’t expecting when I opened the Pinch Hitter series this year.
The case for PEDs
It’s been more than 10 years since Juiced and the subsequent congressional hearings exposed the extent of the Steroid Era in Major League Baseball. While the initial response from the league and the players association was to deny and defer, they have since implemented what Bud Selig proudly touts as, “the most comprehensive testing program in American sports history.”
Public response was predictably reactionary and indignant, and the BBWAA has conveyed its displeasure through four years of sub-50-percent votes for historically great and obvious inner-circle Hall of Famers Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. It is time to reassess our perception of performance enhancing drugs. Let’s allow properly researched and peer-reviewed medical judgment, rather than hyperbole, to dictate an athlete’s relationship with constantly advancing pharmacology.
It is highly unlikely that you or I would use illegal and potentially dangerous drugs to enhance our skills in the workplace, making it difficult to truly relate with those athletes we so publicly judge. Professional athletes are held to unreasonably high standards of ethics and conduct, incongruent with their role in society or their personal pace of emotional evolution. Athletes are entertainers. Their images and public personas are used to sell tickets and merchandise while their moral and political sentiments are vigorously suppressed. They are trained from childhood to give 110 percent to the team and to leave it all out on the field, so it really should come as no surprise that many have chosen to push the boundaries of modern medicine to prove their value.
Love him or hate him, I guarantee that A-Rod’s primary motivation for using Cousin Yuri’s candy was to fulfill his potential to be the best baseball player in the world for 162 plus games each year. It’s impossible to justify a $252 million salary for playing a kid’s game, but the grueling pace and length of the season is leading athletes to make potentially dangerous choices in order to consistently perform at the highest level. It is widely known that baseball players ate amphetamines like Double Bubble for most of the 20th century, and since testing began, therapeutic use exemptions for ADHD drugs have skyrocketed to more than twice the national rate. These medications, along with dangerous concentrated caffeine drinks like Monster and Red Bull, have become the go-to pick-me-up in place of greenies. They are specifically intended to help the player improve focus and concentration while reducing fatigue (read: enhance performance), yet they are perfectly legal.
While I fully support a return to the 154-game schedule, it appears unlikely due to revenue concerns. We absolutely must find better ways to keep players off the DL and on the field. I’ll let former Angels closer and current World Series Champion Ryan Madson make the point for me:
“If HGH were legal,” Madson said in 2013, “just in the process of healing, under a doctor’s recommendation, in the right dosage, while you’re on the (disabled list), I don’t think that’s such a bad idea — as long as it doesn’t have any lasting side effects, negative side effects.
“But I will still believe, even if I get healthy without that, that it should be legal, in the right dosage, under supervision, with doctors, to help heal and get players back in the Major Leagues. Because people want to watch them, because of their talents, just to get them back on the field to play. I think it would be good for the game; I think it would be good for the fans. Fans want to see the best players play, and they want to see the players that they watch come back from injury and stay back. I think it would be a good thing.”
Following Tommy John surgery in 2012, Madson was unable to pitch for three full seasons while attempting to rehabilitate, and ultimately it wasn’t HGH that helped him heal, but a cutting-edge electroshock therapy called Accelerated Recovery Performance. Many fans and members of the media maintain a forgive-and-forget attitude when it comes to Andy Pettitte’s admission of HGH use, legitimizing the argument that using banned substances or techniques to recover from injury is substantially different from juicing to jack more dingers. And yet we still endure scandalous allegations and vehement denials over Peyton Manning allegedly using the very same naturally-occurring organic compound to (heaven forbid!) recover from a potentially career-ending neck injury. Why has it been left up to the media and the fans to determine where to draw this entirely arbitrary line between performance, recovery, and cheating?
Barreling over a catcher to score a run used to be viewed as hard-nosed baseball. It is now against the rules. Intentionally sliding outside the base paths to break up a double play is also likely to be outlawed. The hidden ball trick deliberately deceives the base runner in order to steal an out. These plays exploit holes in the rulebook to gain a competitive advantage, and it isn’t much of a stretch to see them as some form of cheating. Doctoring a ball or corking a bat seem obvious, as does throwing a game to make good on a bet, but I would argue that any bending of the rules to directly impact the final score qualifies. These all occur on the field, during the game. Is there anything besides PED use that occurs off the field that is widely regarded as cheating?
Pro athletes spend decades honing their craft, developing very specific skill sets through hundreds of thousands of repetitions. There is no pill or injection that can give someone a 95-mph fastball with cut or the hand-eye coordination to hit that ball 450 feet. As is the case with any potential PED, it is entirely dependent upon the innate skill of the player to successfully perform at the highest level. In my estimation, lysergic acid diethylamide is the only drug that has been shown to enhance a player’s performance to the extent that it should be banned.
Experimental treatments such as platelet-rich plasma injections are becoming a more prevalent part of injury recovery protocol. A non-anabolic steroid called cortisone is regularly injected into sore joints during the baseball season — again, perfectly legal. Although a surprisingly limited number of formal studies have been done on the efficacy of anabolic steroids or HGH for injury recovery, the results so far show promise. The social stigma we’ve attached to PEDs is impeding innovation and withholding potentially game-changing treatment options for the sake of an arbitrary distinction between laying it all on the line for your team and doping to gain a competitive advantage.
It is long past time that we shed these emotional judgments in favor of rational medical opinion.
Here’s an idea: Let’s allow professional athletes to utilize any FDA-approved medication or medical intervention their league-vetted and licensed team doctor or surgeon prescribes. This will allow athletes to play at the peak of their abilities, remain healthy, and recover more quickly when injuries do occur, in addition to demystifying the 134 or so currently banned substances. Athletes will have equal access to whatever treatment their doctor believes will help, and they will be empowered to make safer choices about their health and their career.
Professional sports is entertainment. Let’s give the performers access to whatever tools help them to do their job best — under the strict supervision of medical professionals.
Associated Press and Getty photos