'Andro' leaves mark of doubt

August 31, 1998|By John Eisenberg

It's a shame that Mark McGwire is taking androstenedione, a testosterone-producing chemical, as he makes his run at Roger Maris' home run record.

Not because "andro" has turned him into a slugger capable of such a feat.

And not because there's any evidence that the substance has enhanced McGwire's performance this season.

There's every reason to believe he'd have 55 homers with or without "andro."

But there's also a chance that it has helped him, however minimally. And even a microscopic boost would be enough to taint his run at history.

The problem is we don't know if "andro" has made a difference, and we may never know. That's what's so unfortunate. This is a great story, one of baseball's best and least ambiguous in years, and now there's an element of doubt.

Unfortunately, McGwire's use of "andro" has thrown his story into the ungoverned nether world of steroids, hormones and protein supplements -- a murky and cynical world of conflicting ,, opinions and inadequate data, and a world in which, make no mistake, the goal is to find an edge.

You don't think McGwire is taking "andro" to diminish his chances, do you?

His defense is that it's legal in baseball, unlike in the NFL and the Olympics. That's fair and fine and all that, but it doesn't address the ultimately central issue of whether the chemical possibly enhances his performance.

The fact that "andro" is legal in baseball can't be regarded as confirmation that it doesn't enhance, not under the terms of baseball's ridiculous drug policy, which is about as aggressive as a 4-year-old child digging into a plate of Brussels sprouts.

The legality of "andro" in baseball probably means only that "commissioner" Bud Selig and the rest of his band of progressive thinkers have lagged behind the other sports again.

Now, after the fact, Selig and union chief Don Fehr have agreed to study the chemical's possible effects, which means there's a chance it could get banned down the line. Great. Wonderful. Imagine if McGwire breaks the record and "andro" is later banned.

See why it's such a shame that he's taking it?

Here's wishing "andro," creatine and the whole blasted lot of supplementary products and systems would just up and disappear. They stink. All of them.

They're fine for bodybuilders and gym freaks, but they have no place in competitive sports.

That's a naive idea, yes, because they're everywhere now and the science of sports has come a long way. This isn't 1962.

But let's face it, they're all about tilting the playing field, not leveling it.

Not that anyone can prove "andro" has had a meaningful effect on McGwire's home run stroke this year, or, for that matter, any effect at all. Who really believes that's the case?

One of baseball's oldest sayings is you can't make a hitter. That's certainly true. Michael Jordan, the greatest athlete of this era, was a .200 hitter in the minors, and John Kruk, a tubster whose idea of exercise was walking to the fridge, was a career .300 hitter. The lesson? The ability to hit is a near-mystical skill combining mostly unmeasurable qualities such as quick wrists, bat speed, overall reflexes and hand-eye coordination.

Basically, either you're born with the right swing or you aren't. And your physical condition isn't nearly as important as it is in other sports.

Along those lines, the ability to hit homers often isn't a product of sheer strength, either. The game's history is full of little guys with sweet swings who hit loads of homers, and massive studs who couldn't reach the fences if they'd swung from second base.

Guys who either were born with the stroke or without it, in other words.

The lesson? There's no correlation between testosterone levels and home run totals. McGwire was hitting home runs by the bushel long before he touched "andro." He is one of the greatest power hitters ever. He deserves better than to have his pursuit of Maris marred.

But of course, he brought this controversy on himself with his use of "andro."

Maybe that's not fair. He did nothing illegal, after all.

But here's wishing he'd stop.

For starters, there's no avoiding the fact that it puts an element of doubt into his pursuit of Maris. If "andro" raises his game just 1 percent, for instance, and he goes on to break the record, who knows if that 1 percent didn't make the difference?

As well, it sets a terrible example. If McGwire thinks "andro" helps, lots of people will try it. And boy, is that a bad idea. Sorry, but it's just not natural for people, particularly kids, to pump their bodies full of testosterone-producing chemicals.

There are reasons why the NFL and the International Olympic Committee banned the stuff. And there are reasons why the chain of General Nutrition Center stores pulled it off the shelves two months ago.

There's no consensus of opinion. No unalterable lesson in the data circulating in the medical and scientific communities.

No way to say for sure that "andro" helps McGwire or doesn't do a darn thing.

And the fact that even that small element of doubt exists, bubbling on the surface as McGwire closes in on Maris, is a shame.

Pub Date: 8/31/98


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