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…. History lesson

I have written –repeatedly– that I simply cannot believe that sportswriters like Mike Lupica and Rick Reilly and Tom Verducci only just recently discovered that athletes will use PED's to improve their performance. I have stated again and again that the real reason –the ONLY reason– we have this “scandal” in baseball, and nowhere else, is because of the recent assault on the venerated baseball record book. I didn't read this Sports Illustrated article when it came out 40 years ago, because I was only 5 years old, but, it raises the same questions for me again:

How do these sportswriters expect me to believe that they haven't known what's been going on in the world of elite athletic competition over these last four decades? How can they ask me to be outraged when most of them have watched this problem develop, and waited over three decades to start sounding the alarm?

Bill Gilbert, a writer I have never heard of, wrote this piece, a damning indictment of the widespread use of all sorts of PED's. It was published in 1969, the same year we put a man on the moon:

…. after it has been admitted that most citizens dope themselves from time to time, there remain excellent grounds for claiming that in the matter of drug usage, athletes are different from the rest of us. In spite of being—for the most part—young, healthy and active specimens, they take an extraordinary variety and quantity of drugs (see cover). They take them for dubious purposes, they take them in a situation of debatable morality, they take them under conditions that range from dangerously experimental to hazardous to fatal. The use of drugs—legal drugs—by athletes is far from new, but the increase in drug usage in the last 10 years is startling. It could, indeed, menace the tradition and structure of sport itself.

…. “Are anabolic steroids [a male hormone derivative that supposedly makes users bigger and stronger than they could otherwise be] widely used by Olympic weight men?” rhetorically asks Dave Maggard, who finished fifth in the shotput at Mexico and is now the University of California track coach. “Let me put it this way. If they had come into the village the day before competition and said we have just found a new test that will catch anyone who has used steroids, you would have had an awful lot of people dropping out of events because of instant muscle pulls.”

…. There are abundant rumors—the wildest of which circulate within rather than outside the sporting world—about strung-out quarterbacks, hopped-up pitchers, slowed-down middleweights, convulsed half-milers and doped-to-death wrestlers. Nevertheless, it is the question of motive and morality that constitutes the crux of the athletic drug problem. Even if none of the gossip could be reduced to provable fact, there remains ample evidence that drug use constitutes a significant dilemma, not so much for individual athletes as for sport in general. One reason is that the use of drugs in sport leads one directly to more serious and complicated questions. Is athletic integrity (and, conversely, corruption) a matter of public interest? Does it matter, as appreciators of sport have so long and piously claimed it does, that games be played in an atmosphere of virtue; even righteousness? If not, what is the social utility of games—why play them at all? Drug usage, even more than speculation about bribery, college recruiting, spit-balls or TV commercials, raises such sticky questions about the fundamentals of sport that one can understand the instinctive reaction of the athletic Establishments: when it comes to drugs, they ignore, dismiss, deny.

…. Setting aside ethical considerations for the moment, there are obvious reasons why athletes should use so many drugs. The most obvious is that there are more drugs available these days for everyone than ever before. Furthermore, we have all been sold on the efficacy of drugs. We believe that the overflowing pharmacopoeia is one of the unquestioned triumphs of the age. We have been sold on drugs empirically because we have tried them and enjoy the results. We have been sold by countless magazine and newspaper stories about wonder drugs—many of which later turned out to be less than wondrous—by massive pro-drug propaganda campaigns mounted by pharmaceutical manufacturers, by TV actors dressed in doctors' coats and by real doctors, many of whom are very quick with the prescription pad. Generally, we have accepted rather uncritically the central message of this persuasive pitch—drugs are good for you. These days it is a cultural reflex to reach for a vial, an atomizer, a capsule or a needle if you suffer from fever, chills, aches, pains, nausea, nasal congestion, irritability, the doldrums, sluggishness, body odor, obesity, emaciation, too many kids, not enough kids, nagging backache or tired blood.

It would be surprising if athletes were not influenced by the same trends and tendencies that have the rest of us so high on drugs.

…. An example of how athletic pressure, ambition or maybe just ignorance at a sub-medical level can result in what charitably can be called dubious drug practices occurred a few years ago at the training camp of the San Diego Chargers. The story was told by Dave Kocourek, now an offensive end for the Oakland Raiders, but then a member of the Charger team.

“I guess this anabolic steroid business must have started on the Chargers around 1963 or right in there somewhere. One guy I can remember who got involved was Howard Kindig. He came to us as a

highly touted center and linebacker from Los Angeles State. He was long and lean and very quick, and they wanted to put weight on him, so in addition to using the weight program run by our weight coach, Alvin Roy, they started pumping him full of Dianabol [a popular anabolic steroid], and sure enough he gained about 30 pounds.

It's a six page article, one that you must read. I tried not to cut and paste too much, but, it's that noteworthy.

Now the cat is out of the bag. Forget about Barry Bonds, how about Tom Verducci? All of a sudden Verducci's expose, written five years ago, is dated, decades behind the real story. He blew the whistle? Really? Here's what Gilbert wrote FORTY YEARS AGO!!!!

…. “A few pills—I take all kinds—and the pain's gone,” says Dennis McLain of the Detroit Tigers. McLain also takes shots, or at least took a shot of cortisone and Xylocaine (anti-inflammant and painkiller) in his throwing shoulder prior to the sixth game of the 1968 World Series—the only game he won in three tries. In the same Series, which at times seemed to be a matchup between Detroit and St. Louis druggists, Cardinal Bob Gibson was gobbling muscle-relaxing pills, trying chemically to keep his arm loose. The Tigers' Series hero, Mickey Lolich, was on antibiotics.

Bob Gibson? He's one of the heroes these guys keep going on and on about. He's one of those guys who would never, ever have used steroids, right, Lupica?

…. “We occasionally use Dexamyl and Dexedrine [amphetamines]…. We also use barbiturates, Seconal, Tuinal, Nembutal…. We also use some anti-depressants, Triavil, Tofranil, Valium…. But I don't think the use of drugs is as prevalent in the Midwest as it is on the East and West coasts,” said Dr. I. C. Middleman, who, until his death last September, was team surgeon for the St. Louis baseball Cardinals.

Team surgeon? TEAM SURGEON!!!! How could that be? How could it be that the teams knew anything about this? The owners are paragons of virtue, men of impeccable character, who want nothing more than for the players to be healthy, happy and living on the same block as their sons and daughters, right?

How could a five-thousand word article, published in Sports Illustrated –which, in 1969, was THE preeminent publication on sports in America– not have been noticed?

Of course it was noticed. It was noticed to the point where the use of drugs continued, flourished and was an acknowledged part of the world of sports worldwide. And no one wrote about it, no one talked about it, no one did an Outside the Lines special report, no one did anything.

And in that type of environment, eventually, the drugs were gonna work. We have an NFL right now that has running backs as big as offensive linemen from championship teams of just a decade or so ago. We have baseball players bigger than offensive linemen as well. We have huge, super-fast, athletes everywhere you look, because the training programs, coupled with the tremendous advances in sports medicine, legal and otherwise, work. And one reason we know that they work is that athletes will do anything, will take any risk to win. The mantra, win at all costs, isn't a slogan for a sports drink. It is the water these men and women swim in:

…. The whole matter has been succinctly summarized by Hal Connolly, a veteran of four U.S. Olympic teams.

“My experience,” says Connolly, “tells me that an athlete will use any aid to improve his performance short of killing himself.”

But before you start worrying about saving the children — please God, somebody save the children– let's get something straight here. There is some good in all this.

You wanna know how? Think of sports as the NASA of the human body. We all know about the major advances in the space program that have influenced our daily lives. There are major advances being made in health improvements for normal, non-athletes that have come from sports, including advances in weight training, surgical techniques, and yes, drug treatments. The sports world has been one giant chemical experiment for the last four decades –at least– and anyone who has been to a sports medicine treatment facility, or a gym, or a GNC, can see the results.

We all want to be better, and we all will do most anything to achieve that end. There's nothing new about that. It's part and parcel of being an American, and America's influence is global. In the world of competitive sports, the end almost always justifies the means. Using PED's is just one of the ways athletes place themselves in harm's way. One of my favorite players just passed away. Brad Van Pelt was THE linebacker for the NY Giants when Bill Parcells and George Young drafted Lawrence Taylor. He died in his sleep at the age of 57, a familiar story for the families of retired football players. Retire athletes die younger, have many more physical problems, and generally live in a world of constant pain once their playing days are over.

To say that they shouldn't use PED's because it could harm them is disingenuous at best.

BEING AN ELITE ATHLETE IS TO PUT YOUR HEALTH AT RISK EVERY SINGLE DAY.

We live in a culture that has embraced the pharmacological fix. That our athletes do shouldn't be thought of as wrong; it should be expected.

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All commentary is the opinion of John J Perricone unless otherwise noted.
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