Monday, January 25, 2010

The "What If?" Monster

Let's play a game - everyone's favorite game of "What If??". You may want to call it "Hindsight is 20/20" or "shoulda, woulda coulda" or one of any number of other similar names. The dreaded hypothetical. Here goes.

What if there was a young man (let's not get into whether women should play in a men's league) who wanted to play professional baseball. This hypothetical young man is 19 years old these days. He's fast and has good athletic skill and has been playing baseball most of his life. He's very strong, so he can hit the ball a country mile. And he can throw from right field like there's a cannon out there. He strikes out a lot though, so scouts for major league teams have concluded that he likely won't do much in the majors. After much review of his mechanics and studying film and whatnot, this player and his coaches determine that he can't see the ball very well. He can see just fine to drive a car, but needs glasses to read a book.

So the kid needs glasses to play. Except glasses are too dangerous to wear on the field, so he gets these tiny lenses to place on his eye to improve his vision. Contact lenses make his vision pretty close to 20/20. Ballplayers a couple generations ago couldn't dream of that advancement, but now it's pretty standard. He starts striking out less, which is good!

His fledgling career is going aces until he slides awkwardly into third base legging out a triple and tears his ACL. Bummer. He has it surgically repaired and is as good as new in about a year. Players a generation ago would have had a new career selling cars, but modern medicine allows for his baseball career to continue, this just being a speed bump on his way to stardom. He's 20 years old now, almost 21, and still considered a future All-Star!

That is, until he crashes into a wall making a spectacular catch in right field. His knee again, this time the cartilage. Good news for him - there is a new procedure called micro-fracture surgery, and he can keep playing! Players just five years ago or so with this injury would have been done, but this is now a lifeline for his baseball career. Twelve short months later, he's playing again!

Our baseball man is now 25 years old and fresh off his first All-Star season. His vision starts bothering him again in Spring Training, and he's not hitting very well. It gets worse, and he drops in the batting order. He sees a specialist, who recommends laser eye surgery. Zap - one week later his vision is now better than ever, being a tested 20/15! Amazing - he starts tearing the cover off the ball again.

Fast forward four or five years. Our boy is pushing for that big free agent contract a year from now. One game he uncorks a throw from right that nails the runner at the plate, and he feels a pop in his arm. It's his elbow, and he needs surgery. This one has become fairly routine, the procedure commonly known as Tommy John surgery. Twelve months later, still with time left to push for that contract, he's back on the field and can seemingly throw even harder. Players 40 years ago may have had to quit, or at least switch to first base maybe, but not out modern player!

Move forward another five years. After corrective lenses, two surgeries on his legs, vision enhancing surgery on his eyes and a procedure on his arm, our guy is still playing at a fairly high level, but wants one last big contract. At this point in time, medicine has developed a pill that can reverse, or at least forestall, the effects of aging at the cellular level. It's not approved by the FDA yet, but Canada has it readily available. Upon taking this pill for a while our 36-37 year old feels ten years younger, can run as fast as he did when he was 25, can see better and does not get tired anymore. He continues putting up good numbers as an outfielder.

Ten years later our guy retires from professional baseball, having made over $300 million in his career and putting up numbers that will make him a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer, including a 75-homer season when the League expanded to 34 teams (more bad pitchers in the L).

Is it just me or is the line between ALL OF THIS and steroids and greenies really, really, fuzzy? Is it simply the illegality of the particular enhancement that bothers people? If so, that I can get on board with. But much more often than not I see the moral argument being made, that the steroid user "cheated the game" (as entirely distinct from "broke the law") and had an unfair advantage. And THAT'S that reason Bonds doesn't really compare to Ruth. Help me find the line, people!


  1. I don't believe the line is fuzzy. The difference between the modern medical advances you mention above—contact lenses and laser eye surgery, high-tech tendon/ligament surgery for injuries that ended careers just a few decades ago, etc.—and the use of performance-enhancing drugs is that contact lenses (for example) do not give ballplayers a superhuman advantage over their competitors.

    By returning his vision to a normal human standard, contact lenses allow your hypothetical player to compete to the best of his natural ability. Same thing with laser eye surgery—while 20/15 is better-than-average eyesight, it still falls well within the range of normal human vision.

    PEDs, on the other hand, are used specifically to allow a player to gain an unnatural, superhuman advantage over competitors. Take two players—one clean, one taking steroids—and have them work out as hard and as efficiently as humanly possible. The clean player will add strength and muscle as efficiently as well, for all intents and purposes, as humanly possible. The steroid user will add strength and muscle faster than that. Faster than humanly possible.

    If the steroid-using player stops taking his PEDs but continues to work out exactly as hard and as efficiently as he had before (again, as hard and efficiently as humanly possible), he won't even be able to maintain the muscle mass he gained while using his PEDs. He'll get smaller, weaker, despite continuing to work out like mad. That muscle loss, despite his best natural efforts, is strong evidence that the mass he gained on PEDs is not within normal human standards, and thus shouldn't be acceptable within the rules of the game.

    The same rules apply to the spitball. A human being can't naturally throw a ball that behaves the way a spitball does. It's an unnatural, un-human motion, and it gives the pitcher an unnatural advantage, so it's illegal. If humans eventually evolve to the point where we naturally secrete some sort of pitch-affecting ooze from our fingertips, we may have to revisit the rule here, but until then, the outlawed spitball is a good precedent for outlawing PEDs (regardless of whether spitballers are praised as "colorful" or criticized as cheaters).

    And (to use a goofy example) the same thing would go for a hypothetical laser–eye surgery that allows our batter to look through the pitcher's glove (and/or body) to see the grip the pitcher has on the ball, thus allowing him to better predict the location, curve, and speed of the coming pitch. That's an unfair advantage because, again, it's superhuman—not within the range of normal human ability.

    Just like the outfielder or pitcher with the literal cannon grafted onto his throwing shoulder, or the batter with the RoboCop-style microchip in his brain that allows him to make contact with 95% of pitched strikes, PEDs allow players to perform not just at high levels (which is okay, that's why they get paid to play) but at unnatural, superhuman levels.

  2. Some Guy - so the problems you have with steroids is the ineqity in performance? Cool! Let's give everyone 'roids and call it a day - problem solved.

    I disagree with the premise of your argument - that steroids propel an individual to SUPERhuman abilities. That's obviously not true, as humans performed what you are calling unnatural feats. It's just not true that steroids allow for speeds and strength beyond what's humanly possible, and saying so is simply hyperbole. That distinguishes (for the better, if I read your argument correctly) PEDs from corked bats and spitballs.

    Why can't anyone just say "He broke the law" as a reason to be angry? No, there has to be some moral high ground taken.

    Did anyone watch the NFC Championship game this past Sunday? Remember the Saints kicker, the hero who won the game for the insirational Saints and propelling them to the Super Bowl for he first time? Hartley, wasn't it? He was suspended four game THIS SEASON for testing positive for a banned substance. Where is the menacing outcry, the indignant rage, for him, the Saints and the entire game of football?

  3. Superhuman: exceeding normal human power, size, or capability.

    I used the phrase “superhuman advantage” because took a lot less time to type that out a half-dozen times than “an advantage that could not be acquired within the limits of normal human ability, in other words, without unnatural chemical enhancement.” Same with “faster than humanly possible”—it’s a lot quicker to type that out than “faster than a normal human can do, even with maximum effort, without unnatural chemical enhancement.” It’s not hyperbole, it’s an accurate description of what performance-enhancing drugs do. The strength one gains on PEDs is not and cannot be maintained when a user stops using, no matter how hard he tries to maintain it, indicating that said strength is not within the bounds of normal human ability. Superhuman.

    So the problems you have with steroids is the inequity in performance?
    You didn’t read that in anything I wrote. I have no problem with inequity in performance; without it, there’d be no reason to compete. I have a problem with an unfair inequity in performance, which is what you get from, among other things, steroids and spitballs.

    No, there has to be some moral high ground taken.
    I don’t see what’s so wrong with taking a moral high ground on a moral issue, unless you’re really saying that there’s no moral dimension to cheating and lying.

  4. I suppose now we'll have to quibble about what is "normal" in your definition of superhuman abilities. Did Guillermo Mota obtain any superhuman ability to throw a baseball? Pretty clearly (based on his success, or lack thereof) not. I think the word normal denotes some type of average, whereas you are applying it to each individual's capabilities. It is apparently beyond my own capabilities to get over a cold in less than 24 hours, but if I take XYZ SuperDuper Cold Medicine I won't feel the effects as much and can go out and play! Is that an unfair, superhuman advantage to me? Hmm - one step further: the guy who has arthritis in his shoulder who takes regular Cortisone injections to allow him to pitch, increasing the chances he'll continue to be paid playing baseball instead of someone else. He therefore has evened the playing field compared to the other guy who does not have arthritis. The only distinction I see there is that one is legal and the other is not. If that's what Some Guy had been arguing we would be in agreement - but it's not.

    Don't bring lying into this, because that's not what we were talking about. The Squid Bandit, at least, was focused solely on why steroid users in baseball get such wildly disparate treatment from other forms of cheating and from athletes in other sports. I do not believe that analyzing that question is a moral issue.

  5. If I take XYZ SuperDuper Cold Medicine I won't feel the effects as much and can go out and play! Is that an unfair, superhuman advantage to me?

    I think I’ve pretty clearly laid out the answer to this already. Is “not feeling like you have a cold” within the normal range of human experience? If, hypothetically, members of your species always feel like they have colds—or if one of the ground rules in the league where you play requires its players to have colds all the time, no matter what—then XYZ SuperDuper Cold Medicine is a performance-enhancing drug and that gives the user an unfair advantage. If, however, you’re part of a society/league/planet where it’s normal to feel normal, then feeling normal—having arrived at that state normally—is not an unfair advantage.

    Don't bring lying into this, because that's not what we were talking about.

    So you weren’t talking about cheating or lying when you wrote “So that romance is shattered, stolen by a cheating liar”? Lying, cheating, and the moral dimensions of the issue are things we’re talking about, not just because you brought them up in the first place, but also because you directly asked a question about them (“Why can't anyone just say ‘He broke the law’ as a reason to be angry? No, there has to be some moral high ground taken”) and I responded. If you don’t want to keep beating this particular horse, I won’t mind a bit, but I don’t think you can give me grief for answering your question.

    The Squid Bandit, at least, was focused solely on why steroid users in baseball get such wildly disparate treatment from other forms of cheating and from athletes in other sports.

    I am morally outraged that steroid users in non-baseball sports do not get disparaged to the same degree that steroid users in baseball do, and believe that Garrett Hartley and Shawne Merriman should be banned for life from Cooperstown.

  6. You ever get the feeling that we're just talking to ourselves?

  7. Yes. :(

    And thank you Some Guy for throwing me the bone about Merriman and Hartley....

  8. Some Guy, where do you draw the line? At some point, someone (very much like me) will invent mechanical prosthetics that will allow "users" to have better/unfair performance over their competitors. What now? Do we draw a line, or make ballparks the size of Vermont and call it good?

  9. Oops...that's aimed at Squidy-boy...