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Let Juice Loose

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The third argument, of course, is that barring steroids is all about fairness; that it’s iniquitous when some players are on the juice and others aren’t; that the cheaters who break the rules gain advantage over those who choose to follow them. On its face, the argument is circular to the point of tautology: Using steroids is unfair because it’s against the rules, and it’s against the rules because it’s unfair. The deeper point seems to be that athletes shouldn’t be allowed to use “synthetic” means to build their bodies—and that those who want to compete au naturel (and with normal-size gonads) shouldn’t be penalized for it.

Which brings us back to science—and what its future holds for sports. In an essay last year in Wired, the science writer Steven Johnson predicted the coming proliferation of “elective-enhancement” surgical techniques. A football player might have muscle cells removed from his legs, reengineered to be stronger, then reinserted, allowing “a quarterback with the wisdom of a 35-year-old to run like he’s 20.” A weight lifter might benefit from stem-cell replacement that makes his shoulders more powerful. Or a cyclist might have his heart tweaked (to “increase stroke volume”) or digestive system rerouted (to “optimize energy absorption”). Johnson points out that primitive versions of such techniques are already having an impact: According to one study of more than a dozen baseball players who have undergone laser eye surgery, the players are “likely to see substantial improvements in batting average and power.”

As Johnson suggests, the rise of elective-enhancement surgery will make a mockery of the steroids ban. Why should it be illegal to take a pill that helps change your body’s structure but okay to achieve the same effect by going under the knife? Or is baseball going to outlaw such operations, too?

All the talk in baseball about the sacredness of its records is just another tactic in its campaign to mystify the game.

Elective surgery will also pose knotty problems for another of the arguments deployed in defense of bans on doping: that in a sport such as baseball, where history matters—where, indeed, records are revered as sacred—letting players juice would make it impossible to compare performances over time. This is why Bonds, as he approaches Hank Aaron’s home-run record, has ginned up so much consternation. But is it really possible that if a player known to have had laser eye surgery were to surpass, say, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, that baseball would contemplate placing an asterisk next to his name in the record books (as some are suggesting should be Bonds’s fate if he surpasses Aaron)? If not, why not?

The truth is that all the talk in baseball about the sacredness of its records is little more than another tactic in the long-running campaign waged by its overseers to mystify the game. To treat baseball as if it were something more hallowed than mere entertainment. But although baseball is the greatest game (or so it says here), it’s no more than that—and a game which, at the major-league level, is paid for by its fans. It’s hard to quibble, therefore, with the conclusion of a recent essay published by the American Enterprise Institute: “If fans like spectacular plays made possible by performance-enhancing drugs more than the loss of historical comparisons and the risks borne by the players, [then] allowing enhancements makes sense.”

Baseball purists might say that’s a big “if,” but here again, I have my doubts. Back in San Francisco, watching Bonds hit many of his 73 home runs in 2001, I was surrounded by savvy, hard-core fans—virtually none of whom harbored serious doubts that he was juiced to the gills. Did it diminish their enjoyment of his feats? Not that I could tell. Instead the scene brought to mind a New Yorker cartoon of a couple of years ago: A guy sitting in a bar remarks to the bartender, “I’m probably in the minority, but I would’ve loved to see Mantle on steroids.”

Absent the officially enforced social stigma around steroids, I suspect that guy wouldn’t actually be in the minority. Outside of sports, the prevailing attitude toward most drugs is overwhelmingly blasé. We take drugs for depression, drugs for anxiety, drugs to lose weight, drugs to grow back our hair, drugs to get erections. We give Ritalin to our kids to help them focus and pour caffeine down our gullets to do the same. All these meds are, in their way, performance-enhancing drugs. And few people consider them shameful or illegitimate any longer.

And so when Selig, in appointing Mitchell, says that baseball “needs to stay ahead of the curve,” one can only laugh. In rooting around baseball’s recent past, Mitchell will no doubt discover evidence (more evidence, that is) that Bonds—along with plenty of others—used steroids. Duh. And if Mitchell dares look, he’ll also find that Selig did everything short of literally burying his head in the infield turf not to notice. What Mitchell won’t do, though, is pose the forward-looking questions that need to be asked. And so a few years from now, when a crop of surgically enhanced pitchers start throwing 117-mile-an-hour heaters and blowing past strikeout records, we’ll be having this very same debate again, wondering why we didn’t reach the inevitable conclusion the first time around.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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