Defending Baseball’s UnNatural

This commentary aired on NPR’s All Things Considered on September 13, 2007. You can listen to it here.

At the age of 20, Rick Ankiel was a starting pitcher on a playoff-bound St. Louis Cardinals team. Then it fell apart. I was there. I saw him throw five wild pitches and walk four against the Braves in a single inning. He never got over that. He tried the minors to find the lost magic in his arm. Then surgery. Nothing helped. The dream died.

But Ankiel wouldn’t let it die. It took him almost seven years, but he made it back to the major leagues as an outfielder. That was heartening enough. But he did more than make the team. He played with flair. With grace. With excellence. Suddenly, he was leading the Cardinals toward first place.

Then came the news that Ankiel had ordered human growth hormone, or HGH, in 2004. Suddenly, the golden boy was tarnished. Sports writers called it a tragedy. My nine year old son’s face fell when I told him. Why are you sad, I asked. All those things he did, he said. It wasn’t him.

I think that’s what most people thought. It wasn’t him. We thought it was Rick Ankiel who was playing The Natural in real life. But it wasn’t him. It was the Unnatural. The enhanced Ankiel. Ankiel with an asterisk.

But I don’t see the tragedy. He hit the homers. HGH doesn’t let other people hit the home runs for you. It doesn’t move the fences closer for your at bat then move them back. It makes you stronger. So does weight-lifting. Should we call all the weight lifters cheaters? How about the ones who lift longer than the average?

Human growth hormone wasn’t banned in baseball until 2005. But suppose Ankiel found a way to order HGH after 2004. Ooooohhh. Maybe he’s taking it now. But we now he wasn’t alone in 2004. We know lots of major leaguers took steroids and HGH and who knows what else to try and improve their performance.

I think what we really dislike about the Ankiel story is that it shatters the illusion of what sports is about. Sports is about people in intense competition with a lot of money at stake. That money is at stake only because we care so much about who wins and loses. We call it a game and blame the owners for treating it like a business. But we’re surprised and disappointed when the players act that way, too. They’re supposed to do what they do for the same reason we throw a baseball around with our kids—for the love of the game.

We don’t want to be reminded of what people will do for money and fame and adulation. They’ll do a lot. Actors and actresses enhance their performance with surgery. We understand it’s not about vanity. It’s the competition. We don’t judge the Academy Award winner who had surgery to stay in the game. There’s no tragedy that people are always looking for an edge. Why should we be surprised or disappointed when athletes do the same thing?