Everyone, obviously, has heard of the steroid era in baseball; probably way more than they wanted to. We haven’t talked about it much around here, because we were hearing too much about it and figured everyone else was too. But I’ve got some things bouncing around my head about performance enhancement, so bear with me. Trust me that this will not be yet another me-too indictment of Bonds, Clemens, or anyone else who was alleged to have taken steroids.
(And this post is longer than usual, so I apologize if you prefer the shorter ones.)
The crux of the anti-steroids movement has been that it is “cheating,” and that it gives players an unfair advantage in defeating their opponents and in chasing the hallowed records of yesteryear. The non-anti-steroids camp (I choose not to use “pro-steroids” because I doubt they would call themselves that) has said, basically, that players using steroids is far better than players using cocaine or alcohol — given the choice, wouldn’t you rather go out and watch guys who spend their entire lives working out and getting stronger so as to be better at baseball, rather than watching hungover guys staggering around after an all night coke party?
But is “it makes players better” really the problem? I recall reading an article in Sports Illustrated in the 90’s, in which it described the Seattle Mariners practices, where all the players would go over to a table (supplied by the team) and chug paper cup after paper cup of creatine — a performance enhancing supplement that is supposed to help with muscle recovery and growth. Creatine, I believe, is still used. As are supplements from companies like EAS, who advertise that their products help with muscle recovery and the development of new muscle tissue. These are all the same effects that steroids purportedly have. Players seem to be allowed to attempt to improve themselves.
It’s possible that the “real” steroids are worse for your body, and that’s why there’s such an outcry against them. The worse long term negative effects may be a mirror of their more powerful short term positive effects. And if that’s the case, it makes sense. Especially in the context of players being “role models,” or more accurately in raising the bar of competitiveness such that 18 year olds feel compelled to take supplements or steroids in order to compete.
The Twins haven’t had a huge problem with steroids. The only Twins to show up in the Mitchell Report were Chad Allen (who made a great play for the Twins in which his foot got caught in the Dome’s turf and it tore up his knee, and he hopped to the ball and threw it back into the infield despite surely knowing his career was done — he used HGH afterwards while attempting to make a comeback), Rondell White (who was always injured and sucked anyway), and Chuck Knoblauch (who started once he got to New York and got the yips). Tom Kelly looked bad because he didn’t turn someone in when they left a syringe in the visitor’s clubhouse. But ultimately, the Twins haven’t really had a problem.
This has made me happy, because I don’t want my own team and its reputation sullied, least of all in my own mind. But in the overarching area of “performance enhancement,” I fear the Twins may be on the cutting edge of a new trend, and I don’t know how to feel about it.
In the 2007 offseason, Denard Span knew he’d be competing for the center field position in 2008. He knew his minor league numbers didn’t look good and that the organization seemed to be souring on his future prospects. He then had laser eye surgery, which he claimed improved his eyesight and let him see the ball better, sooner, and improved his ability to evaluate whether or not to swing.
In 2006, AA: .285/.340/.349 In 2007, AAA: .267/.323/.355 In 2008, AAA: .340/.434/.481 In 2008, MLB: .294/.387/.432
Note the huge jump in performance between 2007 and 2008, and also the huge jump in his IsoD (isolated discipline, or OBP-AVG). From 2006 to 2008 it increased from: 55, 56, 94, 93. That jump in plate discipline is the difference between Span being a decent player scraping by in the majors while we look for an upgrade and being a significant part of this team’s future plans as well as garnering a following. A .387 OBP is extremely valuable … and a .347 wouldn’t look nearly as impressive.
Could it be that he just turned a corner and improved that significantly? Sure, it’s possible. It’s possible that Torii Hunter’s advice (to “play angry”) made all the difference in the world for Denard Span. But, and this is purely speculation, it doesn’t seem to me that playing “angry” would improve your plate discipline and increase your likelihood of taking on a pitch. It certainly didn’t do that for Hunter, who remains one of the free-est swingers in the game.
You know what would increase a player’s likelihood of taking pitches? Drastically improved eyesight. Something that Denard Span acquired between the 2007 and 2008 seasons. It seems to me that this is easily worth looking into. Especially since he will now be joined by Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, who both had laser eye surgery this offseason. And this time around, the players are getting approval from the team before doing it, so there can’t be the plausible deniability “we didn’t know they were doing it” this time around.
Denard Span credits the surgery with turning his career around, so the Twins have given other players their blessing to have the procedure. “I had multiple discussions with people on it,” general manager Bill Smith said. “The biggest thing is making sure the people involved are reputable, and they were.” (USAToday)But is this fair? Sure, anyone can do it, especially with the monetary resources of a professional baseball player and the medical resources of a professional baseball team. And there’s no indication that it’s “bad” for you in any sense.
And there’s also the question of those hallowed records. Of reducing the legend of players past by surgically or chemically altering current players who are subsequently more able to chase the legendary numbers. There has been a massive outcry since Barry Bonds used drugs to get as big and strong as Babe Ruth, and Roger Clemens used drugs to get as big and strong as Walter Johnson.
Will there be a similar outcry if people have themselves surgically altered such that they have the same perfect eyesight as Ted Williams? The key to Williams’ ability to hit was his eyesight — he famously claimed to be able to count the stitches on the ball while it was in the air. If he hadn’t been able to see that well, he almost certainly wouldn’t have been as great a hitter. At the same time, players now are surely bigger, faster, and stronger than he was (as all humans are compared to their predecessors from six decades ago). If they can have a surgical procedure performed to give them eyesight as good as Ted Williams, how is that different from Bonds and Clemens using drugs to become as strong as Ruth and D-Train?
Span’s jump in plate discipline isn’t nearly enough of a sample to make any conclusions. If he continues to hit (and walk) this well, and if Morneau and Cuddyer have similar jumps in performance of their own, then we’ll be well on our way to seeing if laser eye surgery can be an effective way to enhance your performance while skirting the rules against “performance enhancing drugs.” Will we soon be hearing of “performance enhancing surgeries” and a subsequent study into their use? What about genetic therapy? Where does this arms race end?
And if you’re a player, having a surgery like this isn’t exactly reversible; fewer people would have accepted the apology from Andy Pettite if they thought he was still using HGH. But in a dark future, nobody will accept an apology from Span for his eye surgery, since they know his eyes are still better than the ones he was born with.
Does anyone else have any thoughts on this possibly upcoming issue? Should eye surgeries be frowned upon and illegalized like steroids, and should the players benefiting from them become pariahs like their drug-taking predecessors?
Or can I keep being a big Denard Span Fan?5 comments