‘Steroid Cloud Hovers Over Baseball’s Feel-Good Stories’ (full text from Beyond Chron)

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June 15, 2009
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[originally published at Beyond Chron on June 15, http://quartz.he.net/~beyondch/news/index.php?itemid=7030]

By Irvin Muchnick

Anyone who cares about good government must scour the Washington coverage critically. Similarly, if the public-health implications of sports’ steroid scandals matter, you need to read the sports pages with equal skepticism. The feel-good comeback narratives of two baseball players – Rick Ankiel of the St. Louis Cardinals and Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers – illustrate the latter point.

Both Ankiel and Hamilton were on the list of athletes and entertainers, compiled in 2007 by the Albany, New York, district attorney’s office, who received shipments of steroids or human growth hormone from the gray-market Internet dealer Signature Pharmacy.

I don’t mind Ankiel and Hamilton being forgiven for their mistakes – any more than I begrudge Miguel Tejada, a one-time hero in my household, for his fine current (and, apparently, performance-enhancing-drug-free) season.

The steroid story should not just be about naming names. Still, only an apologist could argue that the game of gotcha has no real-world value. Specific examples reveal the range of subtle motivations and manipulations of drug cheats. Again, the key word is “drug,” not “cheats.” Hundreds of pro wrestlers have died young over the last generation. In the coming decades, dozens of our “legitimate” athletes will follow them in the record book of life.

Rick Ankiel was a phenomenal rookie pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2000, whose career went suddenly south in an incurable bout of wildness. In a makeover unprecedented in modern baseball, Ankiel reinvented himself as a slugging outfielder and returned to the major leagues two years ago. Then came the Signature Pharmacy revelation, but it blew over.

“Crash adds chapter to Ankiel’s amazing story,” read the headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 5 of this year. Ankiel had just injured himself running face-first into the center field wall at Busch Stadium on a great catch. He got hurt “playing the way he always has approached any of his baseball jobs: full speed ahead,” wrote baseball columnist Rick Hummel, who has been inducted into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame and is nicknamed “Commish” (for “commissioner”).

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called Ankiel “a guy who’s had more than his share of adversity, but he’s shown a lot of courage and strength.” La Russa’s chief lieutenant, Dave Duncan, added, “You have a certain respect for all the things he’s gone through and how he’s dealt with it.”

Not a word from the Commish about Signature. Though the trauma injury of crashing into a wall didn’t have anything to do with steroids, a full account of Ankiel’s “amazing” biography surely did. But as Mark McGwire said to Congress, who wants to talk about the past?

Josh Hamilton was a seemingly can’t-miss prospect who seemingly missed, due to drug addiction. Eight times he went into rehab to shake a cluster of vices, including crack cocaine. Last year he finally emerged as a star with the Texas Rangers, driving in an otherworldly 95 runs in the first half before tailing off, and putting on a show for the ages at the homer-hitting contest before the All-Star Game.

Like Ankiel, Hamilton has a hard time staying off the disabled list. (Ankiel tore a muscle in his side, hampering his swing, just as he was returning to the lineup following his outfield collision.) Now Hamilton is shelved by a torn abdominal muscle, which is said to be a result of running into a wall. Maybe, though running into walls usually causes bruises, not the torn abs, pectorals, and triceps that are relatively recent line items in the sports medicine literature, and are ascribed by experts to steroid abuse, which causes overdeveloped muscles to overload the tendons holding them together.

“Hamilton’s past might still haunt him,” read the headline in Yahoo Sports on June 9. This story was written by Gordon Edes, who last year left the sinking ship of The Boston Globe to become Yahoo’s baseball columnist.

Was “Hamilton’s past” a reference to his steroid/HGH use? Naw. It was the cocaine.

Jose Vasquez, the Rangers’ strength and conditioning coach, who called Hamilton’s strength “off the charts,” told Edes, “His challenge is his health. We just don’t know how his body will bounce back from all those years of drug use. It’s a mystery to all of us.”

Edes wrote that the team was worried about Hamilton’s recovery from surgery: “Last season, Hamilton had a stomach ailment that sent him to the hospital; he wound up on the disabled list. ‘The years of drug abuse tore up my immune system pretty good,’ he said at the time.”

Fans who believe depressed immune systems from cocaine abuse are relevant to torn abdominal muscles need a crash course on how to read the sports pages.

Irvin Muchnick’s CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death will be published in the fall. See the book’s website, http://benoitbook.com, and follow Irv at http://twitter.com/irvmuch.

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