You don’t have to take my word for this: Athletes cheat. Not all of them cheat not even most of them, in fact -and even the cheaters don’t cheat all the time. But athletes cheat. They look for an edge, and if it is illegal, so be it.
And if it is a shortcut, so much the better.
Athletes look for an edge to get faster, to get stronger, to throw a pitch that can’t be hit, to hit a ball where it cannot be caught, to commit a foul that can’t be seen, to dig in with both cleats when no one’s looking.
They cheat with substances, with supplements, with foreign objects. This does not constitute breaking news. Some athletes treat their bodies as exotic lab experiments. Pitchers once upon a time did their cheating with sandpaper and Vaseline. Today, that’s considered quaint.
Here’s the cynic’s truth: It is a million-dollar question, the question of finding that edge. It can be the difference between reaching the highest levels of athletic achievement and dropping off into a netherworld filled with insurance salesmen who used to be pretty good at a sport.
What I’m saying is there’s no guarantee that Steve Bechler, the 23-year-old Baltimore pitcher who died at spring training Monday, would have kept away from the ephedrine-based weight-loss supplement he was taking simply because baseball put a ban on it.
And you know what? I just handed you the argument that sports governing bodies use all the time to justify their doing absolutely nothing.
It’s the worst, the weakest argument in the world. It can change. And it must.
There is no immediate answer to the question of whether ephedrine played a role in Bechler’s death. The evidence to date is circumstantial: Bechler was taking Xenadrine RFA-1, a legal, over-the-counter dietary supplement containing ephedrine that fuels the metabolism and can produce excessive heat in one’s body; he collapsed on the field during the Orioles’ third full day of spring training in warm, humid Florida; he died of multiple organ failure brought on by heatstroke; he had a history of heat-related illnesses.
That’s it. The rest will take weeks to sort out, as the full results of toxicology tests become known.
Fair enough. But Major League Baseball doesn’t have to wait for any medical report. It already knows ephedra is something its players should be running away from at top speed.
Instead, what you are guaranteed to hear in this interim is the thundering silence of MLB’s top officials and its players union. When they do speak, and mark me on this, it once again will be to discuss what they cannot do rather than what they can.
Baseball has a history here, a pathetic and shabby history. It practically took Pittsburgh’s Dock Ellis noting that he once threw a no-hitter while tripping on acid (to say nothing of a concurrent spate of federal drug trials) before the league acknowledged the rampant substance abuse of its players in the 1970s and early ’80s.
Baseball turned a blind eye to the seamy side of the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home-run chase of 1998: McGwire’s unapologetic acknowledgment that he was regularly using androstenedione, a steroid, to help him both avoid and recover from the kinds of injuries that had shut his body down during previous seasons.
McGwire later became so horrified by the thought that adoring children would embrace “andro,” he publicly announced he had quit using it. But don’t look now, kiddies: Baseball never did get around to banning it, even though it has long since been banished by both the NFL and the International Olympic Committee.
Ephedrine, too, is banned by both the NFL and the IOC, because of their athletes’ clear tendencies to abuse the substance to dangerous ends.
Northwestern’s Rashidi Wheeler and Florida State’s Devaughn Darling died in 2001 after taking ephedrine-based products as part of their football workouts.
Korey Stringer of the Minnesota Vikings used an ephedra product, and the fact that toxicology reports showed no traces of the drug in his system at the time of his 2001 death doesn’t get the substance off the hook as a contributing factor.
Baseball? Well, no. The players union will argue privacy issues, Commissioner Bud Selig will discuss the ramifications of banning something that is actually legal, and the sport will once again bury its head in the sand because, after all, how many ephedra-related maladies is the sport really talking about?
How many? I can’t answer that. But I can tell you this: Steve Bechler was a player looking for an edge, trying to quickly shake off the extra 10 pounds he had brought with him to Baltimore’s training camp. Ephedra was one of the edges Bechler found.
Neither Major League Baseball nor any other governing body in sports can assure you that banning a substance means none of its players will ever use it. What baseball can do, quite simply, is what it can. It should. It must.