Thursday, October 25th, 2007
(First published October 24 in Beyond Chron, http://www.beyondchron.org/articles/Byrd_Flies_With_Sports_Newest_Scam_Hormone_Replacement_Therapy__5034.html)
With the Indians losing to the Red Sox and the World Series beginning tonight, it might be easy to forget the revelations about Clevelands Paul Byrd. But Byrds use of human growth hormone supplied in part by an Internet gray-market dealer and prescribed in part by a dentist offers important clues to the decadence of contemporary sports, and not just because Byrd became the first accused athlete to merge damage control with a Christian book hustle. (Whats next branded syringes with What Would Jesus Do markings of acceptable dosage levels? At least Lance Armstrong has the good grace just to lawyer himself up.)
The Byrd story (broken by Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada of the Chronicle and Game of Shadows notoriety) is an opportunity for lay fans to clarify some misconceptions about anabolic steroid/human growth hormone scandals. For those few who truly care about things like legitimacy and authenticity, its a clinic in semantic gymnastics.
Why Byrd? Why now? During the American League Championship Series, the 36-year-old pitcher cut a likeable figure as a junkballer who had mounted a late-career comeback from arm problems, using an old-fashioned double-pump delivery. His fastball tops out in the mid-80s mph not very fast. The conventional take is that steroids are supposed to help a pitcher challenge three digits on the radar gun. But such a view shows an incomplete understanding of why some geezer pitchers have gone on the juice.
And make no mistake, some have. The best argument for public-opinion clemency for Barry Bonds has nothing to do with his innocence, let alone his charming personality and penchant for race-baiting. No, its the certainty that a lot of others did it, too, and more pointedly, that a lot of those others were the people pitching to him.
Fans equate anabolic abuse with outsize muscles and with performance enhancement in feats of pure strength (such as powerlifting) or explosiveness (such as sprinting). And to be sure, the steroid/HGH edge can be found there. However, the examples of illegal substances in the more subtle sport of baseball, which involves a range of skills by players of varied physiques, show the inevitable emergence of hyper-sophisticated applications.
For hitters, Im convinced, the key isnt the extra few feet that steroid use might give to a handful of what otherwise would be warning-track fly balls. Rather, its the way the steroids facilitate rapid recovery from longer, harder, more frequent year-round practice sessions. In such a regime, swings stay consistent and grooved. At the major league level of this arcane art, such a seemingly small advantage can make the difference between crapping out as a replacement-level player or landing a nice deal on the free-agent market (viz. Gary Matthews Jr.).
And for pitchers like Byrd (and who knows how many others), this isnt about being able to heave a ball so hard through a car wash that it doesnt get wet. Rather, its about just hanging on, continuing what lets face it is a severely and chronically damaging whiplash arm motion while maintaining a proficiency level high enough to keep getting those $6-million-a-year contracts, or whatever the going rate is these days for back-of-the-rotation inning eaters.
In a plea for sympathy, Paul Byrd said he has a pituitary gland tumor. In what is looking like, at best, a half-truth, Byrd added that his team and Major League Baseball were in the loop on his pituitary issue. Byrd cleverly elided enough chronology that the casual listener might think his pituitary gland tumor and his pituitary issue were one and the same.
Muddling cause and effect is the main rhetorical trick of todays steroid/HGH culture. The best evidence is in World Wrestling Entertainment, the avant-garde laboratory of drug cheating. (I thought youd never ask!) A generation of pro wrestlers took so much anabolic junk over the years that, paradoxically, they became damaged goods as men; with doses of synthetic hormones coursing through their cartoon physiques, their own endocrinological systems shut down the natural production of testosterone.
So when star wrestler Eddie Guerrero dropped dead in 2005, creating a new PR headache for carny-in-chief Vince McMahon, WWE instituted its third iteration of specious drug-testing, this time brilliantly packaging it as a wellness policy. Docs prescribe hormone replacement therapy, often in massive doses, for wrestlers which just so happens to allow them to keep the look they need in order to sell WWE tickets and merchandise. Of course, the homicidal-suicidal rampage of wrestler Chris Benoit, among other recent events, shows how well the wellness policy is working on a human level.
Similarly, Paul Byrd talks in his upcoming book about taking HGH upon realizing that he suffered from adult-onset hormone deficiency. This condition is about as rare in non-steroid users as the torn triceps and pectorals that are so widespread today because unnaturally massive muscle groups overload tendons and give out.
At http://muchnick.net/babylon, Irvin Muchnick blogs about his book Wrestling Babylon; about the newly published Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror That Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport, which he co-authored; and about his forthcoming Chris and Nancy: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestlings Cocktail of Death.