MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Commentator Russell Roberts loves baseball, and he also has a weakness for the comeback story. That's why he has some sympathy for Rick Ankiel, the outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals who has admitted receiving human growth hormone, though he says it was prescribed by a doctor.
RUSSELL ROBERTS: At the age of 21, Rick Ankiel had it made. He was a starting pitcher in the playoffs for the St. Louis Cardinals. Then in one inning, everything fell apart. Ankiel couldn't find home plate, throwing five wild pitches and walking four batters. It was a monumental meltdown, and it took place on a national stage. Ankiel was never the same pitcher. He tried the minors to find the lost magic in his arm. Then, surgery - nothing helped. The dream died.
But Ankiel wouldn't let it die. It took him almost seven years. But he made it back to the Major Leagues as an outfielder. And he didn't just make the team, he was on fire. Suddenly, he was leading the Cardinals toward first place. Then came the news that in 2004, Ankiel had ordered human growth hormone or HGH. Sports writers called it a tragedy. When I told my 9-year-old son, his face fell. All those things he did, he said, it wasn't him.
I think that was a common reaction. It wasn't him. We thought it was Rick Ankiel who is playing the natural in real life. But it wasn't him. It was the unnatural. The enhanced Ankiel - Ankiel with an asterisk.
But I don't see the tragedy. It was him, I told my son. He hit the homeruns. HGH doesn't let other people hit the homeruns for you. It doesn't move the fences closer if you're at bat then move them back. Why is a batter who lifts weights and takes protein supplements any different?
One answer is that baseball banned HGH in 2005. Maybe Ankiel found a way to get HGH after 2004. Maybe he's taking it now. But we know he wasn't alone in 2004. We know lots of Major Leaguers took steroids and HGH - and who knows what else - to try to improve their performance. There's no reliable way to test players for HGH. Is it cheating when you break a rule that isn't enforced or can't be? There isn't even any medical evidence that HGH makes you stronger.
I think what we really dislike about the Ankiel story is that it shatters our illusions about sports. Sports is about people in intense competition with a lot of money at stake. We the fans are the source of that money and the competition it creates. The money is there because we care so much about who wins and who loses. We rather not think about the money or the pressure that's there. We call baseball a game. And blame the owners for treating it like a business.
We're surprised and disappointed when the players act that way, too. They're supposed to do what they do for the same reason we throw a baseball around with our kids - for the love of the game. We don't want to be reminded of what people will do for money, fame and adulation. They'll do a lot.
Actors and actresses enhance their performance with surgery. We understand it's not about vanity, it's the competition. We don't judge the Academy Award winner who had surgery to stay in the game. It's not a tragedy that people are always looking for an edge. Why should we be surprised or disappointed when athletes do the same thing?
NORRIS: Russell Roberts is a professor of economics at George Mason University.
This is NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.