|Photo: Keith Allison|
I have been following MLB's indifference and then overreaction to the use of supplements in baseball for two decades now. My attention was first caught with Mark McGwire's admitted usage of androstenedione, which is a precursor for testosterone and estrogens. I think that initial story frames the error of baseball's way in dealing with supplements. It starts out with the press finding out that a rather good player is using some sort of supplement. That supplement then shares some connection to other supplements that are deemed illegal. MLB then reflexively cracks down hard on those supplements before we really comprehend what those chemicals do and whether they are safe.
We see the same thing with hGH. We know athletes have used it. We know good athletes have used it. The hormone is known to increase tissue mass and overdosing on it is known to cause a great number of side effects. Based on the mechanistic research, it appears unlikely that hGH will do anything substantial with respect to improving athletic performance. This research is not conclusive, but a general working understanding of the hormone is that it induces cell replication, but does so without the components or at too fast of a rate to produce highly functional muscle. Why do we not really understand how it works? Well, in my opinion, the several studies showing no increased athletic performance was bad for the therapy business. However, being able to detect metabolites of hGH in various biological media became big business. In other words, athletic associations care less about whether it worked and more about detecting it in order to keep it out of the games as well as to have something to point toward in their punitive approaches.
This causes another problem. Not only do we not comprehend fully how many of these supplements work, we are also probably several years behind the curve in the development of some of these approaches. MLB's whack-a-mole policy with these supplements make players less likely to be open with any new approaches they may be trying out. We do not know how they use these chemicals and have no solid way of measuring the effect of taking those chemicals. Of course, people want to jump on the performance impact of the supplements, which is important. However, a truly responsible and comprehensive program should be invested in the health of the players. This means not to hold a hard line, but to bend. Why should players not use anabolic steroids or hGH (lets ignore legality for a second) if they can be used safely? We already know drugs like cortisone are not used safely in sports. We already know that doctors will engage in radical surgeries. I mean, there is a lot of attempted performance enhancing going on and there should be a cohesive plan to assess new techniques, approaches, supplements, whatever.
To be succinct, MLB's drug policy is archaic and overly harsh. I think it is an overly simple solution designed to keep at bay the stark raving congressional moralists looking to earn a few points in the polls and a few grand in the war chest on an issue that is summed up by saying with a straight face: think of the children. What it produces is a system where players are not really all that much safer. Some drugs are given a free pass and are used with reckless abandon. Other drugs are framed as performance enhancing even though evidence for such a thing is light beyond some evidence of player use and whose success is as anecdotal as Jason Giambi's golden thong's impact on the Yankees winning in the past decade. This makes new therapies more likely to cling to the dark recesses as players looking for an edge are also wary that they may be the next posterboy for cheating in the game of baseball...and cheating in a Barry Bonds way as opposed to a Gaylord Perry way or in a name-your-favorite-50s-60s-70s-80s-baseball-star way.
This driving of players on the fringe into the shadows is something that baseball needs to work on. It is potentially catastrophic to entrust baseball players to get advice from fringe doctors or, worse, gym rats. Both have their places in the grand scheme of things, but neither is usually all that great in determining how effective a drug treatment is. Sample sizes of one or two are pretty worthless and those sample sizes cannot be very meaningful until data can be openly shared. It would be truly interesting to see how procedures like stem cell therapy and platelet-rich plasma could be better understood if it had not taken so long to even get them mentioned in the press with the latter appearing to have more acceptance simply because the phrase "stem cell" is not used.
I recognize the process is not going to change. I recognize that the health of the player is not as respected as the perceived health of the game and that MLB coming down with an iron fist approach is the easiest way to pretend to solving this issue in the game. Unfortunately, fear of being caught is of a certain magnitude. Likewise, the fear of being released is of a certain magnitude as well. We are dealing with a population that is under a great deal of pressure to succeed and faces a lot of adversity. Drug use is rampant in the game. Much of it is legal and, I would argue, much of it is done without as much concern for the health of the player as should be implemented.
So, yeah, the veneer looks grand with many joining together in shouting down Alex Rodriguez, but there is an incredible amount of rotten wood underneath it.