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4.02.2004

Stickfigure It Where the Sun Don't Shine

In the latest example of why ballplayers are generally not the most reliable sources for objective information about their own professions, former Cy Young Award winner Jack McDowell was quoted on a Chicago radio show and in the Chicago Sun-Times that Mark Prior's achilles tendon injury is a sign of steroid use.

My favorite Cubs' blog, The Cub Reporter (even more favorite now that TCR has absorbed Alex Ciepley and Ball Talk) hasn't weighed in on this, but I'm curious to see its take. (TCR has noted that the Achilles' tendon problem may have led to, or is a distraction from, a bigger problem: Prior's elbow. From the above link, scroll down to "Achilles, Whatever. Elbow? Hello!")

Until then, here's mine:

Haven't we heard that one of the main benefits of steroid use, other than big bulging pecs that chicks really dig, is recovery time from injuries? They help athletes heal faster, supposedly. Unless they don't, which is McDowell's case against Prior. Prior's lingering achilles' tendon problem, which surfaced last year and didn't heal over the winter, must be from all the juice that has overloaded Prior's muscles and taxed his tendons. Says McDowell.

I'm not saying that one argument is right and the other is wrong. We simply don't know. The danger from steroids may be totally overblown, as some suggest. (I tend to disagree, but I'm willing to change my mind.) We really don't know how much competetive advantage they confer, especially when it comes to hitting or hurling a baseball. We don't know how much they help heal sore muscles faster, or damage internal organs faster, or stress joints faster, etc. I am not arguing, like some people argue, that until we know more the government should stay out of our dop kits and let athletes do whatever they want.

What I am saying that Jack McDowell is talking out of his ass, just like many athletes do. As people like Rob Neyer love to point out, humans (especially, it seems, humans who play sports or follow a sports team) extrapolate their own personal experiences, or the small slices of experience that reside within their short-term memory banks, into grand theorems. In general, we have a hard time stepping out of our skins. Because of their upbringings, their societally-encouraged narcissism, their obsession with the physical, athletes are even more prone to this blinkeredness.

World-class athletes, like champion thoroughbreds, live mostly for one purpose: physical excellence. Everything else -- like school, or reading, or intellectual debate -- is a distraction. There are many exceptions, yes. Curt Schilling is a history buff. Miguel Batista is a published poet. (His most recent work is called "Ringing Freedom's Bell.") Former 49er John Frank quit football to become an MD. Penn grad Doug Glanville is so analytical he's quoted by Jayson Stark at least twenty times a week.

But athletes from an early age have been taught not to think too much. (I was once told exactly that by my high school coach. I did something wrong. He confronted me and I started to say, "But I thought--" "Don't think!" he bellowed. "Just pitch!")

Thinking in the cause of in-game strategy is fine, unless you screw up the strategy; thinking that distracts from repetitive exercise or conditioning is bad. How often do you realize that because of extra work at the office, or because you really want to sit and read the Sunday paper, or because you have to get to the theater for opening night, you won't be able to run or go to the gym? A pro athlete does not have that problem. For the short, damselfly moment of their pro careers -- be it 2 years, 5 years, or 15 years -- athletes at the peak don't have time for much else; and if they do, it's because they're not committed to staying at the peak.

Ballplayers are entitled to their opinions, of course, and those opinions are often insightful, prescient, or just plain entertaining. Sometimes a ballplayer can be a font of wisdom on one subject --for example, Barry Bonds on hitting, on technique, on the world of in-game subtlety that mere mortals don't see -- and an absolute dolt on others.

Rare is the athlete who's willing to engage in some deductive reasoning, provocative cultural enrichment or objective analysis, which is fine. But let's not put much stake in their observations.


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