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Opinion

After A-Rod doping penalty, don't expect meritocracy in baseball

Doping sanctions leveled against A-Rod and 12 others don't mean that meritocracy has returned to baseball. The field is already tilted. In sports, as in life, some people get terrific coaching and instruction from the time they can walk. Nobody calls that 'cheating,' but it's also not 'fair.'

By Jonathan ZimmermanOp-ed contributor / August 8, 2013

New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, or A-Rod, leaves the dugout to take batting practice before a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Chicago Aug. 6. He's appealing a doping penalty. Op-ed contributor John Zimmerman writes: Doping restrictions 'were never really about health.'

David Banks/AP

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New York

So here’s a quick quiz for all of the baseball fans out there: Which of the following players have taken performance-enhancing drugs?

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 a. Barry Bonds

 b. Alex Rodriguez

 c. Henry Aaron

The answer might surprise you: all of them. You surely guessed Mr. Bonds, who used steroids during his pursuit of Aaron’s home-run record. And everyone knows about Mr. Rodriguez, who has admitted that he took steroids earlier in his career. Rodriguez was suspended on Monday for the rest of this season – and all of the next one – for  allegedly taking PEDs again. Rodriguez appealed the suspension, which will allow him to play until an arbitrator rules on his case.

But you probably left out Hank Aaron, who surpassed Babe Ruth’s own home run total. In 1968, mired in a prolonged slump, he took an amphetamine that a teammate gave him. “When that thing took hold, I thought I was having a heart attack,” Aaron wrote in his autobiography. “It was a stupid thing to do.”

Let’s leave aside the question of whether amphetamines can actually improve performance on the field, or whether they’re as dangerous as steroids. Aaron believed that the drug would give him an edge, so he took it.

And did you know that the great Babe Ruth once tried to inject himself with extract from sheep testicles, hoping to get a boost of strength and energy? For more than a century, athletes around the world have taken drugs for exactly the same reason. The only thing that has changed is our attitude toward the substances and people who use them. 

Consider the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, where marathon champion Tom Hicks received doses of strychnine and brandy from his doctor as he ran. In the same race, another runner was disqualified for riding in an automobile part of the way – a practical joke on a hot day. But nobody accused Hicks of cheating; to the contrary, his doctor boasted about the pharmaceuticals he used. “The marathon race, from a medical standpoint, demonstrated that drugs are of much benefit to athletes along the road,” the doctor wrote.

Drug use among athletes probably peaked during the cold war, when Western commentators charged – correctly – that many Russian and East German Olympic competitors were taking steroids. But so were many Western athletes, whose physicians studied and often imitated Communist drug regimens.

“The feeling of these doctors was that if they could in any way help an American athlete bring home the gold, they had somehow struck a blow for freedom,” American bodybuilder Bob Goldman once recalled. “The choice seemed to be to give drugs or risk an American humiliation and an open the door to Communism.”

Back home, meanwhile, steroids became the drug of choice in pro football. The 1963 San Diego Chargers distributed steroid pills at team meals, supervised by a strength coach who had observed Russian weight training methods. “I learned a little secret from those Russkies,” the coach quipped.

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