Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What Investigators Believe

For those of you who haven't been to Cooperstown, be advised that it is not the crossroads of civilization. The Norman Rockwell-esque village (of roughly 3,000 people) is in a rural area in central New York, the kind of town where you have to drive a half-hour to go to a movie or buy a pair of shoes. It is surrounded by farms and even smaller towns, and more people are occupied by growing vegetation than by growing their investment portfolios.

Last week, the local newspaper from Norwich (a little town an hour west of Cooperstown) reported the arrest of one of its citizens on charges of growing 56 marijuana plants in a room attached to his garage. Police estimated that his current crop was worth $50,000, which would have made him pretty wealthy for central New York. The front-page article noted that the man is 75 years old (but hasn't lost his entrepreneurial spirit), but the hilarious thing was the final sentence/paragraph of the article. It read: "Investigators do not believe that this was his first time cultivating marijuana."

Duh. That is truly a brilliant piece of investigative work. Would anyone have imagined that he just took it up as a retirement hobby? Did the man claim it was his first time? Did he tell them, "gee, I just got that starter kit over at the WalMart, and next thing I knew there was 56 plants"? I guess the investigators saw through that one. When two-time American League batting champion Ferris Fain was busted in California for cultivating a sizable marijuana crop when in his 60s, he admitted that he'd been growing it for years, pleaded no contest, and got off with four months of house arrest (as the San Jose Mercury heading expressed it, "Marijuana farmer has grass-roots support"). Fain 'fessed up and paid his price.

When you're caught red-handed like that, you have to be a man and level with people. There's no point pretending that it was some fluke event for which you had no responsibility. For me, it wasn't a coincidence that the Norwich man got busted the same day that Manny Ramirez drew a 50-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs--and promptly blamed the positive test result on some unrelated prescription medication he got from his well-meaning physician. Manny bragged that he had passed more than a dozen drug tests over the previous five years, so it had to be an innocent accident that some strange thing found its way into his body to cause that positive result.

In denying his use of steroids, Manny was just following the path forged by other users--Rafael Palmeiro and Alex Rodriguez, to name two--who issued disclaimers that they never used or would use steroids but who subsequently flunked drug tests. Methinks they doth protest too much. If Manny passed 15 drug tests in five years, all it proves is that what we keep hearing is true, that the drug manufacturers are way ahead of the enforcers and can easily produce new forms of PEDs that can't be detected, and by the time tests are devised which can detect them, new undetectable variants will have been created. So it's hard to believe any denial these days. In the court of public opinion, you're guilty until proven innocent.

If that's the case, how did Manny screw up so badly that he got caught? Apparently the red flag was an abnormal increase in his testosterone level. In other words, it wasn't the tester that got him, it was the testes. Investigators determined that he used something called HCG, or "human chorionic gonadotropin." It isn't a steroid but rather a naturally occurring hormone which in manufactured form is used to reinvigorate production of testosterone in weightlifters whose own production has sagged from steroid usage.

Manny claimed that he got this medication from his doctor. As reporter Jayson Stark noted, unless Manny was having problems with ovarian cysts, his doctor wouldn't have prescribed HCG. I visited the website http://www.steroid.com/ (and this stuff is so evil that three minutes on the site caused my computer to crash) and learned some very interesting things. The drug is used "to induce ovulation and treat ovarian disorders in women, as well as stimulate the testes of hypogonadal (underproduction of testosterone) in men." It is recommended following a cycle of heavy steroid usage because the body needs to restore its ability to produce testosterone. Though it is banned by the IOC and can be detected in urine tests, we are told that it is useful when athletes are worried about failing a test because their testerone level is too low, though they run the risk of getting a too-high reading, as Manny discovered.

It's a delicate balance, a pharmacological tightrope that the athlete walks once he starts putting dubious crap in his body. Every short-term or performance-enhancing effect brings side-effects which must be endured or combatted, meaning even more dubious crap thrown into the body's internal test tube. As the website so elegantly explains, "Its use during long or extremely high dosed cycles can be most beneficial where the effects on the hypothalamus causes a depressed signal to the testicles. The result of the depressed signal leads to what is known as testicular atrophy (shrunken nuts)."

See, that's where we've all been wrong about steroids. We've figured that it takes a lot of balls for athletes to think they could get away with using this stuff. It turns out that the problem is a lack of balls. Gonads--go know.

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