Any major league player has been part of a conversation that ended this way: "Well, PEDs don't make you hit the ball."
No, they don't. But that is not the point.
I have heard a number of arguments addressing the PED question. The moral high ground, the health risks, the level playing field, the personal choice. In fact, one of the most compelling was from a friend of mine, philosopher Jake Beck, who said PEDs create an "unsustainable arms race." And that race will eventually be between who has the best scientists and pharmacists instead of who you really want competing: great pitchers with great defenders vs. great hitters.
With the suspension of Dee Gordon, it is an indication that PEDs are and have always been tempting for everyone. He is not a power hitter, he is not a rocket-armed closer; he is a speed guy, who makes good contact and plays great defense. Sure, it took a while for PED science to figure out how to help all the different body types and strengths of different players, but the advantage gained has always been beyond just the gain in strength.
Baseball is a game of endurance. It is a game that slowly wears you down to the nub, day by day, week by week, year by year. You are bone-on-bone before you look up at 30 years old. The games come at you at a pace in which you can't tell Tuesday from Friday. The pain in your side has nowhere to go but worse; there is no such thing as a day off. That is baseball.
Players must last -- not just be strong, not just hit a ball. And it is clear the skills required are more versatile than ever. Every kind of player must be a physical, genius-level specimen. At the same time, this sport is more specialized than ever, so if you are going to be the best at your niche, you better make sure your niche is as big as a canyon.
In Dee Gordon's case, he first dug his canyon out of speed. Catch the ball, outrun the ball, steal the base, cause havoc on the bases and make contact. Notice I did not list hit the ball, because that is obvious. He just had the added luxury of not having to hit the ball that far to be successful.
We often forget that everyone in Major League Baseball is good. Really good. So with PEDs, we are not giving advantage to the major leaguer over one guy who couldn't hit the ball out of the infield in high school; we are splitting hairs between athletic genius. We are giving razor-thin advantages to greatness, while trying to distinguish greatness between two different players. And in that stratosphere, the slightest edge matters -- a lot. Don't get that twisted.
Guess what? All big league hitters can hit a fastball; they all have special skills that if honed in on (enhanced), could make the difference between having a four-year career and a 14-year career in the big leagues. Enhancing that edge is inherently a difference-maker between greatness and sustainable greatness, because all these guys can be highly productive for a year or a few years, but can you do it for a 10-year contract without some "help"?
That is not saying every current major leaguer could be Barry Bonds with this kind of help, but having a large endurance tank to enhance their talents will make for better odds of enjoying a lasting career.
Hitting the ball a mile is not a given, being as good as you were at the beginning of a seven-year deal is not a given, never being tired after a West Coast swing is not a given. In fact, it is a given that every environmental factor around the game is working toward your decline. Time included. So can you find a separator that slows or even reverses this reality?
Forget the bat. It was about surviving the long season with skills intact; playing day in, day out past your 30th birthday without blowing out your hamstring -- and having the coverage of a long-term deal. (I did that.) Enduring pain, medicating through doubt, numbing the effects of travel exhaustion, working out after the game when mortals could not. And you must be able to recover quickly from the bumps and bruises, so you can do it all over again the next day.
My Cubs outfield coach Jimmy Piersall used to say, "This game will bring you to your knees. There is no mercy." When I heard that at 21 years old, I thought, "He must be talking about being a Navy Seal or a world-class soccer player, or maybe marathon runner." But then I got to the big leagues and approached 700 plate appearances in late September of 1998. I literally thought I was crawling to home plate from exhaustion with my bat dragging behind me.
In 1994, when Michael Jordan played minor league baseball, I played in the same league. One game, after he had played tens of them in a row, he told our third baseman, "Man, I have never been so tired in my entire life." Baseball is a tough game when you look at the long view.
In the meantime, Dee Gordon has shown us all what we did not want to recognize: The difference at this level between good and great is not very big at all. Everyone's career can go left or right with just one moment, one choice. Somehow it feels anti-climactic when Superman is just Clark Kent with a syringe. He needs to at least come from another planet, we tell ourselves.
I hope Gordon can inspire by just being a man who worked hard, but the PED cat is out of the bag again.
Can we get it back in?