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March 7, 2003

6-4-3

Enhancing Performance

by Gary Huckabay

Let's get right to the mail:

Hi, Gary. I wanted to take issue with something you mentioned at the Pizza Feed. You talked at some length about performance enhancing drugs, and how baseball should be making a major effort to get rid of them at all costs.

Why?

Drugs and supplements are out there, but no athletes are forced to take them. The damage that's being done--and the jury's out on whether or not there's necessarily damage--is being done to the athletes, who are making a conscious, informed choice to take these drugs. People make decisions all the time that are hard on their bodies. They smoke, drink, take recreational drugs, eat fatty foods, live in areas with high incidences of cancer and lung disease...the list goes on and on. These people have a right to make that decision. Living a drug-free life is a choice, but not necessarily everyone's choice. Some people indulge some, and have a happier life that might not be as long.

Why should baseball players be any different? It's paternalistic of you to claim that these adults (and even kids) are making a bad choice by taking a risk that can lead to financial freedom and a better life for them and their entire families. I'd reduce my life expectancy half a year for $20,000,000. Adding the $20,000,000 would move me into a class that has an increased life expectancy, come to think of it.

On top of that, such an effort is futile, and contrary to the best interests of MLB. So tell me...why should MLB undertake a major effort to rid the sport of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs? They're selling performance, after all.

-- B.R.

Wow. How come you didn't speak up during the Pizza Feed?

Philosophically, I can't put forth the case that rules abolishing performance enhancers wouldn't be paternalistic. It's true. But that doesn't make it a bad thing. Society as a whole is filled with paternalistic rules, and by and large, they're a good idea. Don't drink and drive. No driving until you're 16. These laws are in place because they're necessary to protect society at large from a segment that would act irresponsibly and endanger the rest of us if left entirely to its own devices.

I also believe we're using different definitions of the word 'choice.' To me, choice requires some level of understanding about the ramifications of the choice. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the incredibly scary folks at the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) actually posit that young boys can be consenting partners in sexual relationships with fully grown men. I don't buy it, and I don't think any reasonable person does.

Consent requires some significant understanding, and I believe that young ballplayers don't have the requisite knowledge to make an informed choice about the use of these substances. Hell, for that matter, most educated adults don't know enough about medicine to make informed choices in managing our own health, which is why hundreds of millions are spent promoting drugs--so people will inquire and drive demand for pharmaceuticals they often don't need. Given that, is it reasonable to expect a 19-year-old kid out of high school to turn away HGH or D-Bol when he thinks it gives him a better chance to live his dream?

But does this really answer your question? Why should MLB undertake the task? It is going to be tough, both to get by the MLBPA, and to actually create a program which would effectively police problematic drugs and supplements.

Given all the philosophical and operational problems, MLB should do it anyway, because it's the morally right thing to do.

Baseball is one of the most Darwinistic environments one could imagine. Remember this basic physiological concept--no part of your body can move faster, on its own, than about 15 mph. Anything more than that requires complicated chains of motion involving multiple body parts. Baseball, at its core, is based on speed. Bat speed. Arm speed. Foot speed. Adding more muscle mass and executing on the proper training really does make a difference, and even the slightest gain can have enormous ramifications in terms of career success. Two percent more bat speed can mean .008 of a second longer to identify a pitch's spin and location on the way to the plate. That might mean the difference between hitting .240 with a bunch of pop-ups, and .270 with eight extra homers. That minor change can lead to millions of dollars.

In other words, MLB should try to stop these drugs because they work, and once a portion of the playing population uses them, there is tremendous pressure on everyone else to use them as well. It's a relative game, and the enjoyment of the fans wouldn't be lessened if the game were entirely clean. For the few people who make the decision to use these drugs, and then go on to make a lot of money, that's great, and I hope their health doesn't go south on them as a result. But there are a far greater number of players out there who take the risks inherent in the use of steroids and supplements who never gain one thing from them.

I know I cover this topic at length every year, and I know it comes across as moralistic. I'm alarmed, however, when I speak to young kids who are using these drugs--particularly the supplements--and don't have any concept of the risks involved. There is a time and a place for libertarian arguments, but this particular type of drug use in this particular setting isn't it.

No moralizing next week. Strictly wins, losses, and money.

Updates and Administrivia--No Baseball Content Below

Big Exciting Contest Update: I promised that the entries in the Maddux/Atlanta arbitration case would run in this space, but unfortunately, that didn't come to pass. The finalists were sent copies of the case put forth by their opposition, but neither party then submitted a rebuttal, leaving nothing for the panel to rule on, and nothing to publish. I apologize to the readership and the arbitrators who were kind enough to volunteer their time, and in the future, I won't be so foolish as to be staring at a deadline without a contingency plan. I momentarily considered running the photo album of my house remodel, but decided against it, as everyone would simply laugh at my pathetic flooring skills. A single sample is here for your perusal:

I'd like to welcome three new members to Baseball Prospectus. Jason Grady, Will Quale, and Zack Wolf have joined BP as interns. Welcome aboard, gentlemen.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Gary's other articles. You can contact Gary by clicking here

Related Content:  Performance Enhancers,  The Who

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