Testosterone has been in the forefront of the baseball world recently. Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon were both suspended for elevated levels of the steroid hormone and have been lambasted in the press and the court of public opinion. Cabrera gets more of the criticism, and deservedly so in light of his nefarious scheme to dupe everyone with a bogus website.
But much of the criticism is entirely hypocritical and borne of ignorance. The way these players are allegedly using testosterone, based mostly on the testimony of Victor Conte of BALCO infamy, is by simply using a topical cream or gel applied after a game. The testosterone levels spike temporarily, which essentially speeds up the recovery process beyond what a "clean" human body is capable of.
Due to a loophole or poorly-designed rule, players are allowed to have a ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone of 4:1. This is elevated, beyond what an average adult male has (approximately 1:1), but in athletes who are not using synthetic testosterone, natural levels can reach as high as 3 or 4 to 1 and in rare cases, as high as 5.25:1.
So while it may appear on the surface that players are allowed to get away with unnaturally high levels, thereby giving them reason to try and cheat the system, it isn't unheard of at all for athletes to naturally have testosterone levels that would trigger a failed test if the allowable ration were 1:1 or 2:1.
As far as the actual effect of the synthetic testosterone creams and gels, it isn't what most critics think it is at all. These creams and gels aren't that much different than entirely legal (via prescription) topical applications for men with naturally low levels of testosterone. It's called testosterone replacement therapy.
Well, for someone who doesn't need replacement therapy, these creams can have enough of an impact without having to also incorporate estrogen blockers (see: Manny Ramirez) to maintain healthy testicular size and function.
So what this boils down to is rather simple: testosterone creams, while they represent an advantage, are used much more for their recuperative capabilities. These creams aren't being used to create massive amounts of strength in a short time. This isn't the same scenario as Jose Canseco using mind-boggling amounts of several different anabolic steroids concurrently.
The fact is, testosterone use (strictly topical or pill form and not the injectable form, which does lead to huge strength gains due to the much higher volume of testosterone being used) isn't much different than amphetamine use in the 1950's and 1960's.
And yet, many of the same players who admittedly used "greenies" during their playing days are some of the most vocal critics of players using testosterone today. Hell, Hank Aaron admitted to "experimenting" with greenies during his career and he seems to throw his hat in the ring almost every time someone gets busted.
Look, it isn't for the Baseball Writer's Association to decide which illegal substances used for performance enhancement should be condemned and which should be ignored, just like it isn't their place to determine which ones have negligible impact and which have a great impact. The same can be said for the general sports writing world.
If Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon are crucified in the media for their use of an illegal substance, then so must Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and virtually anyone who drank during Prohibition, which we can assume includes Babe Ruth.
Now, in Ruth's case, alcohol can hardly be considered a performance-enhancer. Or can it? After all, if he was an alcoholic, which by many accounts he may have been, quitting drinking could have been especially problematic for him at first and would definitely have hurt his performance. I think Josh Hamilton can attest to the difficulties in trying to quit an addictive substance midseason.
Regardless, all of these players have one thing in common: they all used (at the time) illegal drugs while playing the game. If we accept the above paragraph about Ruth, then they all were benefiting from and in many cases, purposely breaking the law in order to improve their game. As argued earlier, testosterone creams do not represent nearly the chemical advantage that many of the most vocal critics think they represent.
Even if it was possible to fully quantify the individual impact of every substance, banned or not, that can improve performance, deciding where to draw the line is still entirely arbitrary. Should it be drawn along legal lines? Illegal substances are out, period, and legal ones are in? If that is the case, again, Aaron, Ruth and countless others should be removed from the Hall of Fame. But they won't be. Why not?
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