Tuesday, June 12, 2007


On August 8, 1964, Sandy Koufax was took a lead off second base and barely managed to get back in time to beat a pick-off throw. In the sliding dive back to second, he jammed his pitching arm. Nevertheless, he pitched two more games in rotation, but after his 19th win of the season, he awoke the next morning to discover he couldn’t straighten his arm. He finished the ’64 season with a 19-5 record, and traumatic arthritis in his arm.

Koufax had already pitched 3 no-hitters in his career, and had triumphed in the 1963 World Series, winning two out of the four wins of the Dodger sweep of the Yankees. His record in 1963 was 25-5, and Yogi Berra famously remarked after game 1 of the World Series, "I can see how he won 25 games. What I don't understand is how he lost five."

But some of Koufax’s greatest achievements lay ahead of him, including a perfect game, a second World Series win for the Dodgers, and a second Cy Young award. He could have done none of it without drugs.

He took Empirin with codeine for pain, assisted by Butazolin an NSAID as both a painkiller and anti-inflammatory. But the real drug of necessity was cortisone, a corticosteroid.

Okay, corticosteroids aren’t the same as anabolic steroids. In some ways, they are more dangerous, since physical dependence comes quickly, with the body’s adrenal glands deciding that they can go to sleep for a while, it’s all covered, and then, when the cortisone is stopped, you get “adrenal insufficiency,” which means “die from trying to climb a flight of stairs.”

Any way you figure it, however, Koufax extended his career by using drugs that were unavailable in previous eras. There is no asterisk by any of his records, however. Nothing says, “Perfect game made possible only by the use of drugs.”

I saw a cartoon some while back, maybe in the New Yorker. It showed a young boy in a drug store asking, “Is this where you have the home run pills?” Again, he was inquiring about anabolic steroids, wasn’t he? It wouldn’t have been as funny if he’d been asking, “Is this where I get the fast bicycle shots?” but that would have been part of the zeitgeist as well, though EPO doesn’t have the same cachet as anabolic steroids, partly because you don’t get those really cool muscles.

How many baseball players have taken anabolic steroids. Hard to say, but the short answer is “very many.” How many of them hit over 70 home runs in a single season of professional baseball? One. But he doesn’t count, because he took drugs. Whenever drugs appear in the narrative, the narrative becomes about the drugs. It’s “cheating” to use drugs to enhance performance, even when, as is the case for anabolic steroids, major effort is required to actually achieve that enhancement. Anabolic steroids are an adjunct to weight training; without diligent effort, the gains are minimal. And without serious training, incorporating added muscle mass into a sport can cause a reduction in ability, rather than a gain.

But the narrative says that taking performance enhancing drugs is cheating. Except, of course, when it isn’t. Sandy Koufax benefits from a different, more powerful narrative. He was “playing hurt.” Then it’s okay to take the drugs. That’s not cheating; that’s “heroic.”

So we have contrasting morality plays. Anabolic steroids are bad, because they can hurt you (which is true, especially for adolescents). That argument would carry more weight were it not for the fact that so many sports can hurt you in and of themselves. Try watching a retired pro football player walk—or rather hobble—sometime. If preventing injury were the point of it, would we even allow the sport of boxing?

And the health and injury dangers of anabolic steroids pale in comparison to “play while hurt” or “work through the pain” commandments. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I knew more than one coach in my time who was a sadistic SOB. A lot of “sport” is about pain, the giving and receiving of it, with the sport itself a gloss upon the basic sadomasochistic dance. In any case, compare the number of professional athletes with the number who blew out their knee, or tore a rotator cup, or fill in the blank for yet another career ending injury before the career even happened.

And if you’re really worried about impressionable young athletes, why are you putting these drug stories on the front pages of the newspapers? Do you really think that you can teach a teenage boy that it’s okay to risk destroying his body on the playing field, and that playing through the pain is the highest achievement in sport, and then expect him to refrain from taking a performance enhancing drug just because it might hurt him, and besides, it’s against the rules, or at least it is if he gets caught?


Anonymous said...

so Koufax was a cheater??? hmmm, good to know....

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