The longer baseball's drug scandal drags on, the more I think baseball ought to scrap its testing policy and tell the players to do what they like. This would cause some bad publicity for a short time and then everyone would forget about it. But at least we would be spared the awful sanctimony that comes with every fresh revelation of drug use.
Our latest fake scandal involves St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Rick Ankiel, who has been the most inspiring player in baseball this year. As you likely know, he was one of the best pitching prospects of his generation. In 2000, as a rookie, he was the best pitcher on a 95-win Cardinals team. He then simply lost the ability to pitch, right in front of the whole world in the playoffs. It was a horrible thing to watch, as he couldn't even throw a warm-up pitch over the plate, and he never recovered. His emergence as a powerful hitter this year — he's hit nine home runs in 90 at-bats — wasn't the kind of cloying human-interest story that television networks drum up, but a real story of someone overcoming unimaginable humiliation and pain.
Now, of course, it's all under suspicion after the Daily News reported that in 2004, Ankiel bought a 12-month supply of human growth hormone from Signatures, a shady Florida pharmacy lately famous for selling steroids and hGH to dead pro wrestlers. Ankiel, who was recovering from Tommy John surgery at the time, insists that he had a valid prescription for the stuff. But no one much cares one way or the other, as there's no generally accepted medical reason why a doctor would have prescribed it to him.
All of this has occasioned any number of absolutely embarrassing columns from baseball pundits, claiming that Ankiel's comeback is somehow tainted. Have any of the sports moralists stopped to think how stupid this is?
Growth hormone was, first of all, not banned by baseball in 2004. The stuff has also never been shown to enhance baseball performance (personally, I think it almost certainly does, because athletes wouldn't use it if it didn't, but there's no empirical evidence proving this is so). Ankiel is also alleged to have used it three years ago! It's hard to understand how drugs Ankiel took in 2004 would help him in 2007. Anyone saying his achievements this year are somehow tainted should come forward with evidence that Ankiel is on drugs or pipe down.
Past all this, how inhumane can the press and the fans be? In 2004, Ankiel was a 24-year-old who had gone from being one of the very best pitchers in the world to being unable to throw a strike, through no fault of his own and for no discernible physical reason. At 20, he had been able to look forward to a role as the ace of one of the game's best teams, tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in future earnings, and perhaps a Hall of Fame plaque. He must have felt like a god. Four years later it had all dissolved. Is this really the sort of player who deserves to be condemned for desperately looking for an edge?
Imagine — really try to imagine — that whatever means the most to you, whatever forms the central part of your identity and your place in the world, was suddenly taken from you, with millions of people watching. Now imagine that four years later, you heard that a common, easily obtainable drug, one causing few side effects if used in moderation, might help you regain what you had lost. Would you take it? Of course you would. Furthermore, you would think that anyone condemning you for using it should try standing in your shoes for a day before judging you. And you would be right.
It's only in sports that we've decided that using drugs to enhance performance is wrong. Poet Friedrich Schiller wrote with rotting apples in his desk; he'd pull the top up to inhale their fumes whenever inspiration ran dry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote immortal poems in an opium reverie. Louis Armstrong smoked pot every day, from the time he was a teenager to the time he was an old man. Philip K. Dick was a hopeless amphetamine addict who was notorious for writing in a drug haze. Many admirers of John F. Kennedy would be stunned to learn about the daily cocktail of amphetamines and steroids a quack doctor administered to him every day. Normal people of all kinds, from emergency room drivers to long-haul truckers, use dangerous stimulants simply to stay awake during long, brutal shifts.
Do you care that Armstrong — perhaps the greatest American of the 20th century, the man who was more responsible than anyone else for forging our greatest art form — did so while smoking marijuana? Would the world be better off had Coleridge stayed away from the opium and competed with William Wordsworth while clean and sober? Of course not. Why, then, do we care about athletes, and in particular ballplayers?
The answers are long and complex and it would take far more than a newspaper column to address them all, but the most important is simply that we are an arbitrary society of hypocrites. Why shouldn't ballplayers just do what they like? Barry Bonds can tell the world, "You can erase my records once everyone agrees to stop reading Schiller." Ankiel can agree to be ashamed of himself once everyone agrees to only eat locally farmed produce, so as not to fill the pockets of doped-up truckers.
Surely they'll have some takers. Right?