Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The (PED) future of baseball

Performance enhancing drugs and sports have a long history together, but now, PEDs are a factor in other facets of life. Jay, over at Fack Youk, wrote an interesting post about students using Adderall to do better on tests and how that compares with the PED issues that surround sports in general and baseball in particular. Bill James had a brilliant essay about steroids and the Hall of Fame*. Before he gets to the subject of the HoF, James talks about how the future of PEDs are going to affect the society at large and therefore will change the moral outlook of people on the use of PEDs in sports. This has been my take as long as there's been a PED controversy. This is science; and the evolution of pharmaceuticals is going from that of cure to prevention to enhancement.

*Where was I when this came out? I don't remember being in a coma (although people probably don't actually remember being in a coma, do they?) nor do I leave the country often or for an extended period of time. I had no idea he wrote this until I was giving my opinion on PEDs to someone and they pointed out that Bill James had written a very similar stance on the subject. Did I miss the media coverage of this? A quick google search tells me that most of the coverage came from blogs. Or, maybe I did just miss it and there was a lot of coverage. I really don't know.

So, we know that PEDs are not some 1990's magic potion that can be just stamped out. Only, Major League Baseball does think that, don't they. The current testing system is in place with the goal that all professional baseball players will be pure, unadulterated, clean, drug free... etc for as long as MLB is in existence. As far as I know they didn't include any out clause that says "Once PEDs are safe, reliable, and equally available to all humans, we will revisit our stance on whether or not these PEDs can be used in MLB.

The future is almost here. The advantages of using steroids and HGH are well documented, but there are other medical breakthroughs that may be just around the corner. Current medical research on replacing old tissue and organs by restoring cell structure could lead to longevity only rivaled by Methusaleh, himself. I believe it. It's not science fiction, it's scientific progress. If MLB stays the course on denying players access to medical breakthoughs that will have the side effect of what they would consider performance enhancing, could we see the following scenario some day?

Donnie McLovin, a 99 year old middle aged man with his two sons, Robinson, age 79 and Jeter, age 77, watch as 27 year old Barak Boone, a sixth generation player, pitches for the Mexico City Llankees.

"It's amazing the sacrifice these players make to play baseball," remarks Donnie.
"To think, Boone has given up the possibility to live 100 years longer just so he can continue to play baseball."
"And look how puny he is, I could pick him up and throw him across the plate myself," notes Robinson.
"I'd like to see that Robby, but unfortunately they installed that sonic fence that only pitchers can go through since they wrote out all those unwritten rules," reminds Jeter.

Far-fetched? Totally. But if scientific progress stays the course and baseball achieves its stated purpose, what I have written is merely a logic extrapolation of what could be.

What is obviously more likely is that, eventually, MLB will have to concede that life enhancing pharmaceuticals, once they are safe and readily available to all, can be used by players. And because these new drugs or supplements will have the side effect of enhancing performance, players will be stronger, have shorter injury recovery times, and receive all the other benefits that the now banned substances provide. Plus, who knows what else will be enhanced.

Will Mark McGwire then be shown to be telling the truth? That is, the skills that it takes to produce on the baseball field are not made easier with the use of PEDs? Or will the common perception prevail with a majority of players hitting 50 plus homers? Maybe a new age of pitcher domination?

What if changes to integral parts of the game need to be made? How would you feel about 500 feet to the left and right field corners necessitating a fourth outfielder or 115 foot base paths to curb hitting. Maybe 4 strike Ks and 3 ball walks, or a level (or concave!) pitching mound to give batters a chance?

Nah. I believe, even when all players are using PEDs, an equilibrium of sorts will be reached. I think the muscle memory that it takes to swing a bat at the precise time at a precise location, or the exact timing it takes to actually have command of your pitches will not be helped by this first round of PEDs that are aimed at longer life and better physical condition. That's not to say that those that are already good ball players won't be great and great ball players won't become Barry Bonds, I think that will still be the case.

Barry Bonds hit some monster home runs, but isn't Mickey Mantle still credited with the longest ever? There are a few pitchers throwing 100mph these days, but wasn't Nolan Ryan doing that in the 60's, and anecdotally Bob Feller, Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson in years gone by? Until there is actual human evolution that affects bone, tendon and ligament strength I think there will still be limits to what we can do physically. But then again, maybe I'm wrong and there will be PEDs in the near future that will change the entire structure of the human body. Who knows what will be possible.

In the end, I think baseball will survive, and maybe even be better, when players are playing to the best of their (enhanced) abilities.


  1. As you already know, Mode, I agree completely your post. I tend to think eventually everyone will face enhancements (certainly not just sports figures).

    If you're interested, you should check out some of the writing of one of the greatest techinical minds of our generation, Ray Kurzweil. He wrote numerous publications including a book called "The Singularity is Near." Among his many predictions was the combination of nanotechnology and human biology. According to him, the idea that body is a temporary vessel is simply outdated. Currently, life style choices have already extended typical lifespans. Modern science and technology have extended sport careers to points never dreamed of 50 years ago. A perfect example is Tommy John surgury. The next step is enhancing the body itself to achieve greater results. His data and technical expertise are not only compelling, but utterly astonishing. What's really cool, is he also happens to be a profilic inventor. To get back on topic though, PEDs are merely the tip. In a way they are already outdated. I think more and more, you'll see the HGH become a predominant tool.

    On a side note, I really enjoy many of your posts and was wondering if you'd be interested in being a post contributor on my blog.

    Anyway, thanks for another well thought out piece. Sorry for ranting!

    PS - You may want to add the label "small genitals" to compliment the "large heads." Haha.

  2. Matt, thanks for commenting and the leads on more reading. Unfortunately, I don't check my blog very often for comments as I mostly do this to get something off my mind, otherwise I would have responded to you sooner. Thanks for the offer as well, but for the same reasons I don't check my blog often I couldn't commit to doing much else in the blogsphere.