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The Dope and the Dopes

Was HGH or the baseball press responsible for Rick Ankiel's fall from grace?

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If gamesmanship is what we do to them and cheating is what they do to us, one of the reasons steroids are despised in America is that our enemies used them first. Do you remember 1976, when our graceful women swimmers were routed at the Olympics by East German amazons with mustaches? That calamity put steroids on the map as a commie tool.

There's no place for pharmaceuticals in a storybook, and Americans like their sports heroes to lead lives that can be recounted to eight-year-olds at bedtime. Late this summer, Rick Ankiel of the Saint Louis Cardinals briefly became one of those heroes. A 20-year-old pitching prodigy in 2000, his rookie year, Ankiel was handed the ball to start the Cardinals' first game of that year's playoffs and disaster struck. Wild pitch followed wild pitch as he experienced some sort of breakdown, a total loss of control.

Ankiel spent seven years in the wilderness. But he had pluck. He believed in himself and he never gave up. This year word reached Saint Louis that Ankiel was lighting up the minors as a power-hitting outfielder. "Young Musial," Cardinals fans began calling him, after the local immortal who some 70 years earlier had made his own transition from pitcher to slugger. One day in August Ankiel returned to the big leagues and--guess what--immediately hit a three-run homer. In his first 26 games back with the Cardinals he hit .358 with nine home runs, and the Cards won 17 of the 26 to climb within a game of first in the NL Central. Because there was no quit in Rick Ankiel, he became a bigger hero than ever. (Night night. Sweet dreams.)

To syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer Ankiel was more than "Young Musial." He was the second coming of Roy Hobbs, the vanished phenom who reemerged years later to hit towering home runs with his magical bat Wonderboy in Bernard Malamud's The Natural (and in the sappy Robert Redford movie based on it). Ankiel's return, wrote Krauthammer, "is the stuff of legend. Made even more perfect by the timing: Just two days after Barry Bonds sets a synthetic home run record in San Francisco, the Natural returns to St. Louis."

But a better literary model might have been Joe Hardy, the slugger from nowhere who back in the 50s transformed the Washington Senators in Douglass Wallop's The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant and the musical Damn Yankees. Hardy was the sculpted Adonis a middle-aged fan had become in return for selling his soul to the devil. On September 8, New York's Daily News reported that in 2004, when Ankiel still regarded himself as a pitcher and was trying to recover from a serious injury, he'd received a year's supply of human growth hormone from a notorious warehouse in Florida. Just like that the spell was broken and the devil collected his debt. Ankiel scratched out two singles in his next 29 at bats, and the Cardinals lost nine straight games to fall out of the pennant race.

"Wonderboy becomes the Unnatural," snickered Gwen Knapp, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Morality in sports isn't codified; it's a feeling. That's where the Tribune's Melissa Isaacson wound up when she tried to sort out why there's nothing wrong with stealing signs in the NFL but the New England Patriots' use of videotape was unforgivable. "I don't know if there's a particular rule that says you can't do it," she quoted the San Diego Chargers' star running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, as saying, "but everyone knows it's really not right."

Big-time sports has cast human growth hormone, or HGH, as the smaller, sneakier kid brother of anabolic steroids in a pharmaceutical rogues' gallery. What it does for athletes isn't clear, and it might not do much of anything, but the major leagues now ban it. And HGH is pretty much undetectable, which makes it doubly sinister.

Because one of my kids needed the hormone to reach a normal height, I've prepared and administered hundreds of HGH injections that I hope were vastly stronger than anything Ankiel took (it would be reckless to give a dose one-tenth as potent to an adult without an HGH deficiency). I respect HGH, and as a Cardinals fan I'm partial to Ankiel. I won't excuse him, but I ask sportswriters to curb their sanctimony and get their facts straight.

A new paper by three endocrinologists in Ireland and Britain tells us that "although it is clear that GH abuse by athletes is widespread . . . there is no evidence of its efficacy." The next study demonstrating that it enhances either the strength or endurance of healthy athletes will be the first. According to two American endocrinologists I've talked to, there's also no evidence that HGH does what Ankiel apparently wanted it to do--accelerate the healing of bones and muscles. But the jury's still out. "Anabolic steroids were widely abused for more than 40 years . . . before they were definitively shown to increase strength," the Irish/British paper cautions, adding that the administration of HGH and steroids in combination remains a particularly unstudied topic.

In short, we don't know if the HGH Ankiel took did him any good, let alone the kind of good that we should disapprove of. If it helped his body heal unnaturally fast--and who can say it did?--what exactly is the problem with that? There was a time when medicines that did that--penicillin for one--were worshipped as wonder drugs.

As the headline to a September 7 column by Jeff Passan at Yahoo! Sports nicely put it, "Ankiel's feel-good story now doesn't feel right." Passan didn't know much--the Daily News story was at most just a few hours old--but he knew how he felt. He felt lofty, like a sage in an endowed chair of ethical studies who got to make pronouncements. As Ankiel was hitting all those home runs, Passan wrote, "the irony of his new nickname must have dawned on him. The Natural." For now the world knew what Ankiel must have known all along, that "the author of baseball's greatest story this season . . . was allegedly just like Barry Bonds: seeking glory through needles."

Just like Bonds? Bonds is accused of turning to steroids to reshape his body and increase his seasonal home run totals from the 40s to the 70s. In 2004, the year Ankiel ordered HGH, he was a broken-down, washed-up pitcher whom no one expected to play another inning in the big leagues.

By Passan's own admission, a lot of his readers didn't buy it. His column drew about 2,000 responses, many of which "encouraged me to perform acts heretofore believed anatomically impossible." I assume these readers told Passan to go fuck himself. Others would have held that his head was already up his ass. These readers couldn't see why it was wrong for Ankiel to try to get back in shape by taking a drug the major leagues wouldn't ban for another year.

So Passan wrote another column to explain. Citing the Food and Drug Administration Web site, he said that HGH has been approved for "children with growth problems and adults with growth hormone deficiency," and that Ankiel fell into neither category. "He said he received it to help rehabilitate his arm," but rehabilitation wasn't an FDA-approved application of the drug. "I have no doubt Ankiel's health improved because of human growth hormone," Passan wrote. "Whether that makes it right is an area that remains gray. But the FDA doesn't allow it."

Passan is certain that HGH improved Ankiel's health, despite the lack of evidence that HGH is anything but a placebo. (Or worse: a 1999 European study of more than 500 critically ill or injured patients found that the ones given HGH died in the hospital at roughly twice the rate of the ones who weren't.) And he's also certain that even if HGH did Ankiel a world of good, he was wrong to take it. Remember the exchange in The Fugitive? "I didn't kill my wife." "I don't care." Passan didn't care if HGH helped Ankiel. He took it for a reason "not deemed legal by the FDA," so he deserved to be hammered.

But Passan got it wrong. FDA doesn't stand for Federal Deeming Authority. The FDA doesn't deem drugs legal or illegal. It approves them for specific uses or it doesn't, but once a drug is on the market doctors are free to prescribe it for other ailments. That's called an "off-label" use. Ankiel put HGH to an off-label use, and off-label uses are neither illegal nor uncommon. Aspirin was prescribed by doctors to prevent heart attacks for years before the FDA eventually approved it for that purpose. Ankiel didn't break the law.

The Cardinals' general manager, Walt Jocketty, was being factual when he said, "The medication and prescriptions [Ankiel] received were legal and [written] by licensed physicians. There were no violations of Major League Baseball rules. There were no violations of any laws." But the facts are no shield against press-box moralism. The Sun-Times's Chris De Luca snickered at Jocketty's comment: "In typical Cardinals fashion--remember the Mark McGwire mess years ago--they are standing by their stained man."

Because "shame on you" stories virtually write themselves, the drug scourge is one of the best things that ever happened to baseball columnists. They wake up on the side of the angels, thwack the devil, and sleep like children. "I'm not jumping to any conclusions about his innocence or guilt," allowed Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We don't have nearly enough evidence." So why was he writing at all?

Because, his column went on, "we have more than enough circumstantial evidence to raise another doubting eyebrow at yet another suspicious athlete." The evidentiary standard for raising a doubting eyebrow is so extraordinarily low that I'd like to think no court takes it seriously but the one parents convene when cookies disappear and children are on the premises.

But among journalists, even if there's no proof, even if there's no evidence, even if there's only circumstantial evidence of evidence, there's an airtight justification for a column.

For more, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rick Ankeil.

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