|Tuesday, February 25
Updated: March 13, 12:31 PM ET
Baseball needs to take a stand on ephedra
By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com
This just in: Baseball doesn't need to wait before banning ephedra. It doesn't need a toxicology report, nor Steve Bechler's full medical file, nor the results of a lawsuit planned against the company that makes the ephedra-containing product Bechler had in his system when he died.
Baseball doesn't need another case study, nor another autopsy, nor another testimonial. It has case studies growing out of its case studies. It has testimonials stacked so high that, in the immortal words of Pete Rose, a show-dog couldn't jump over them.
You know what baseball already knows? This much exactly: Athletes cheat. Not all of them cheat -- not even most of them, maybe -- and even the cheaters don't cheat 365 days a year. But athletes cheat.
They will do just about anything to gain an edge, and if that includes the ingestion or injection of questionable or outright dangerous substances, so be it. And if those substances are legal, so much the better -- but it's not the No. 1 concern.
Athletes will look for the edge wherever it may lie, and you don't need my words to convince you of it -- any quick review of the professional sports leagues in America will tell you. Put it this way: There was a time when pitchers cheated with sandpaper and Vaseline. Today, that's considered positively quaint.
And so baseball -- baseball in the collective, cooperative sense, the sense that includes MLB officials and union leaders and the players themselves and the retired guys and the broadcasters and the writers -- already knows what it needs to know. It already knows, in this very particular case, that players have taken, are taking and will take the legal, over-the-counter substance ephedra and abuse it wildly.
And that is exactly the point at which a ban not only makes sense, but walks right up to the verge of an imperative.
It doesn't need to wait.
Though Bechler's tragedy has put this issue in front of the public again, it has, in one important way, skewed the debate. By all accounts, Bechler was taking significant quantities of Xenadrine in an effort to promote a rapid weight loss while he tried to move up the ladder of candidates in the Baltimore Orioles' spring training camp.
Anecdotally, that's not what most baseball players take ephedra-based products for. These products are primarily valued for their amphetamine effect on the system. Or, as Toronto pitcher Josh Towers noted last week, "Let's be real: Who doesn't take it? It's a common thing in clubhouses ... Over the course of a 162-game season, sometimes you need a pick-me-up."
It's practically a baseball tradition, the pick-me-up. A couple of decades ago, the presence of "greenies" and other speed-like pills was so accepted that players made no effort to keep them hidden. But in the brave new world of doping, we are learning not only the myriad effects of these substances, intended and otherwise, but we are learning the lengths to which athletes will go to gain that edge -- and the rewards, riches and horrors that can go along with that chase.
The stance of baseball's players union has essentially been that it is extremely reluctant to accept a ban on any substance that an adult may freely purchase at the local drug store or nutrition center. In free-society principle, that is a wholly laudable position. In the practice of high-stakes, massive-payoff athletics, it's a disaster waiting to happen.
Sports leagues and governing bodies ban legal substances, or specific levels of those substances in the human system, all the time. They do so for the pefectly logical reason that they have discovered athletes abusing those legal substances to gain an edge.
It is why national sports societies ban ordinary things like cough and cold medications. It is why it is possible, at an Olympic Games, to test for an unacceptably high level of a seemingly innocuous thing like caffeine in the system. The IOC doping-control effort, in a nutshell, is an ongoing experiment in being five percent behind the cheating curve -- it is banning substances only after discovering that elite athletes have figured out a way to cheat with them -- and yet it's the only way to go. It is what the IOC can do, as opposed to what it can't.
Ephedra already has been banned by the NFL, by the IOC, by the NCAA. That is not the same as saying no athletes in those arenas use or abuse the stuff. But a ban is what the sanctioning bodies can do, and so it is what they have done. It's not so much wilfully simple-minded as it is a basic step -- not an end-all, a step.
Baseball can take that step. It needs not a single further piece of evidence in order to do so. What it needs, quite simply, is an abiding interest in the success of the league, the health of its players and the notion of a fair game.
And soon enough, we'll be on to the next area in which athletes attempt, legally or otherwise, to gain that precious edge. We can't burn that bridge until we come to it. This is the bridge in front of the sport right now.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor of ESPN.com