Thursday, May 22, 2008
Permission not to care granted
Letter to the editor of Harper's Magazine, printed in the current June issue.
As a lifelong baseball addict, I admired Lewis H. Lapham's satirical morality play ["Mudville," Notebook, March], wherein he used the steroids mess as a broadaxe with which to hack away at American mores [lol, natch! What else would that old boy do? -ed.]; in particular, I was pleased to see Lapham take on the arbitrariness of cultural distinctions between natural and not. What makes Lapham's argument about the hypocrisies of the crusade against steroids even more persuasive than he may realize is that a number of the reductio ad absurdum scenarios he presents are no longer merely hypothetical. Consider that the medical science supporting player performance and longevity has evolved to the point where distinctions between treatment and enhancement, maintenance and modification, blur to meaninglessness.
Right now, in the same sports sections where writers damn steroids and hail the sanctity of baseball's records, one will also find upbeat features on pitchers who have extended their careers via ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, more familiar to fans as "Tommy John surgery," whereby a player's body parts are rearranged and sewn back together in what might be described as an entirely "artificial" manner. After the operation, the player spends a year rehabilitating and then presto! - an extra decade of useful elbow life. It bears noting that the man behind the eponym, Tommy John, recorded 164 of his 288 career wins after his revolutionary 1974 procedure. John isn't the only pitcher to throw better post-operatively. During one spring training game following his surgery, reliever Billy Koch, whose "original equipment" arm topped out in the upper 90s, clocked in at an astonishing 108 mph. Koch subsequently joked of the surgery, "I recommend it to everybody ... regardless what your ligament looks like."
Among the dozens of current major leaguers whose careers might have ended years ago but for this single procedure is the man who may well go down as the greatest closer in baseball history: Mariano Rivera. In fact, "Mo" probably would never have even had a career without the surgery, which he underwent three years before he joined the Yankees and began breaking opposing players' bats with his hellacious "cut fastball."
Similarly, Lasik and other vision enhancements afford almost any contemporary athlete the visual acuity that helped make Ted Williams a nonpareil hitter and judge of the strike zone. This is not a case of athletes with subpar vision trying to achieve normal vision; it's a case of athletes with normal vision trying to achieve exceptional vision. Even in sports where vision isn't as crucial as it is in baseball, players swear by laser eye surgery. Retired NFL running back Tiki Barber once credited Lasik with contributing to his best season ever.
Now let's add molecular-level improvements in Sports nutrition, workout technology, and miscellaneous gear, and we'll find that today's ballplayers, with their guards, braces, and other aids affixed to various limbs, don't just look like cyborgs as they stride to the plate but have actually become them.