November 24, 2014

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Dan Coughlin: Athletes always have and always will try to find a competitive edge

Sign me up. I’m joining the club that thinks it’s a waste of time and money for Congress to prolong its investigation into steroid use in baseball. This is baseball’s problem and baseball should solve it.
But Congress has made a good point. Except for the attention focused on Barry Bonds’ hat size and his run at Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record, baseball didn’t think it had a steroid problem. The fallout from the Congressional inquiries seems to contradict that. The age of innocence is over. Steroids are rampant in baseball.
They’re bad for you. They’re unhealthy. But they’re absolutely consistent with the competitive spirit. Since the beginning of time, athletes have sacrificed their bodies in order to succeed. In Roman days, gladiators risked loss of life. In medieval times, jousting was deadly serious, literally.
Sports are a lot more tame today. Wrestlers sometimes develop cauliflower ears, not a life-threatening condition. Among serious wrestlers, in fact, cauliflower ears are a badge of honor.
I’ve always wondered about the nutritional consequences of high school wrestlers starving themselves to make weight, but the medical community seems to have signed off on it.
As for boxing, a century of overwhelming evidence proves that it’s not good to get hit in the head. But no risk is too great when that championship belt is wrapped around a pot of gold.
Sometimes the incentive is a lot less than that. State boxing commissions attempt to protect small-time club fighters from themselves, but when they’re hungry they go to the state next door for a license, a beating and a couple hundred bucks. You may think they’re self-destructive, but in reality they’re only desperate.
What could be more desperate than a pitcher with a bad elbow undergoing risky surgery in order to squeeze another couple of seasons out of the damaged wing? A lot more money is at stake, of course. Even a marginal major leaguer can make a million dollars a year. The average salary is $3 million.
Many years ago, a fearless Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder named Pete Reiser played with unprecedented mayhem, slamming into outfield walls in pursuit of fly balls. He won the National League batting championship in 1941, only his second year in the league, but one too many concussions forced him out of the game in 1952. He finished his career with the Indians at the age of 33, hitting .136 in 34 games.
Sandy Koufax, one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all time, was a rarity. He cut short his career at the age of 31 on the advice of doctors, who said his left arm would be crippled if he continued to pitch.
Koufax was at the peak of his career. He had just led the National League in ERA for five straight years, a combined average of just under 2.00. In his last four seasons he had a combined record of 97-27, maybe the greatest four years in pitching history. But in 1966 he retired.
What if he were tempted by today’s salaries? His value on the free agent market today would be unprecedented, maybe $50 million a year. It would be a temptation of biblical proportions. We’ve all heard the expression, “I’d give my right arm for that.” Who hasn’t said that? We’ll never know if Koufax would have traded his left arm for such a contract.
If you have ever attended the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Canton, maybe you were moved to tears by the parade of old-timers at the beginning of the program. One by one they are introduced and they take their seats on the portable stage — limping, on canes, in wheelchairs.
It is the saddest sight in sports. These are the old Hall of Famers, the best of the best. They gave their all for the game. Pathetically, their union makes them grovel for a few dollars in medical care.
So the guys who used steroids sacrificed their bodies for the contract. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last time.
Dan Coughlin is a columnist for The Chronicle-Telegram and a sportscaster for Channel 8. Contact him at ctsports@chroniclet.com.