Commentary

Bartolo Colon surgery: New arms race?

Updated: May 25, 2011, 5:00 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Early in 2005, with the steroid era at its most entrenched, then-players' association head Donald Fehr projected forward beyond the day's headlines of grand jury testimony, Jose Canseco and "60 Minutes," the House Committee on Government Reform, BALCO and Barry Bonds, and the fascination with who used and forecast the ultimate clash of science and technology, ethics and morality.

[+] EnlargeBartolo Colon
G Fiume/Getty ImagesBartolo Colon did not pitch in 2010 because of elbow and shoulder issues but has looked good this season.

"In a short span, people are all going to wonder what the big deal about steroids was all about," Fehr told me then. "Wait until you start hearing about the stuff that's coming: gene therapy and genetic engineering. This is just the start."

Six years later, Bartolo Colon -- who turned 38 years old Tuesday, who missed the entire 2010 season with elbow problems, who hadn't appeared in more than 19 games since 2005 and looked like another of yesterday's men at the end of his baseball journey -- is enjoying a revival that is, in these suspicious times, newsworthy. Colon signed a one-year, $900,000 contract with the Yankees as a non-roster player, a nothing deal, yet is in the starting rotation, throwing harder than ever, setting off alarms suggesting performance enhancement no different from a slugger having his best seasons as he approaches his sunset years.

The secret behind Colon's rediscovered success, he says, is not better diet (easily confirmed by anyone who has seen him in uniform this season) or Pilates, rededication to the game, flaxseed oil or all the other old canards that masked a dishonest era. To treat an ailing elbow and rotator cuff, he was injected with stem cells. This procedure is so nascent that many doctors are viewing it through a lens of science fiction.

Because Colon underwent the surgery in the Dominican Republic, where steroids and growth hormone are legal, and because the doctors have used HGH in past such procedures (although they say they did not for Colon), Major League Baseball is investigating. Meanwhile, one of the doctors who performed the surgery, Leonel Liriano, says he has been contacted by at least 10 pitchers who want him to do for them what he apparently did for Colon.

Although Colon did not have gene therapy -- experimental procedures that, according to the National Institutes of Health, insert genes into a patient's cells instead of drugs or surgery, replacing a disease-causing gene with a healthy replica or inserting a new gene from another human being -- we're another step closer to Fehr's space-age frontier.

Meanwhile, the old era of suspicion has not entirely faded. Last spring, multiple baseball players and Tiger Woods were tied to Dr. Anthony Galea, who claimed to have treated them by removing blood, spinning it and reinjecting it (he has been accused of injecting athletes with HGH and Actovegin). Jose Bautista of Toronto followed his surprise 2010 home run championship with gaudy 2011 numbers that draw steroid era comparisons. Colon represents a new conversation surrounding an old question.

[+] EnlargeBrian Wilson
Brad Mangin/Getty ImagesWithout Tommy John surgery, Brian Wilson might never have pitched in the majors, much less the World Series.

The difference is that the question -- Is Bartolo Colon cheating? -- now centers on a discussion of science, medical evolution and technology instead of cheating. At its core, the narrative of the steroid era was never technology or science but rather honesty and dishonesty. The players most deeply involved in performance enhancers -- and ultimately most deeply discredited by them -- understood or at least believed intuitively that what they were doing was wrong and illegal, as did their providers. Hence the parade of subterfuge, dirty doctors, underground wellness clinics and finger-wagging lies.

In 1998, Mark McGwire did not begin the conversation regarding Androstenedione and anabolic steroids with honesty. He denied that he was a user. The same was true for Barry Bonds and, perhaps most famously, Rafael Palmeiro. The players in the next wave of the steroid era did not approach the changing methods of rehabilitation through reputable medical institutions but through the shadowy world of "wellness clinics" and packages of illegal drugs sent through the mail.

Their shady actions -- as well as the fact that their substances were not legally obtainable -- gave the impression players were cheating, and the result was, rightfully, a conversation of accusation, of defensiveness and prosecution. Players were lying to the public, the media, (in some cases) the government, their teammates and themselves. The concept of cheating overwhelmed the larger topics that have resurfaced with Colon's resurgence.

The real question is where on the continuum of available therapies rehabilitation and recovery ends and gaming the system begins. One end of the spectrum is Gatorade and aspirin, which are legal, available to everyone and widely used. But it gets murkier as the treatments grow more aggressive, experimental and scarce: from ibuprofen to cortisone, glasses to laser eye surgery, Tommy John surgery to stem cell procedures. What of cloning and gene therapy and the ideas doctors and scientists are just beginning to explore in labs? It is a question that has never been answered, and the league's attempts at regulation -- such as limiting the number of cortisone shots a player can receive in a given season -- disappear in a pennant race or contract drive.

The first casualty of scientific progress undoubtedly will be the already wobbly idea that sports is an athletic meritocracy, that these games are intrinsically linked to the nation's core values of fairness and character and natural gifts, not merely entertainment outlets no different from "So You Think You Can Dance." Even before PED and science questions, the idea was specious. Sports mirrors a society constantly aided by new science, whether it be treatments for erectile dysfunction, infertility and bad cholesterol or cosmetic surgeries. We're reminded that sports does not represent pure and natural competition each time a pitcher needs a cadaver to replace his elbow ligament.

Laser Eye Surgery
China Photos/Getty ImagesEye surgery has improved many athletes' vision. Is that a fair competitive advantage?

The results are obvious: Tommy John surgery has, in many cases, allowed a pitcher to throw harder than before. For a hitter, eyes are arguably the most important commodity, yet there was virtually no conversation regarding the competitive implications of laser eye surgery, in which a player's vision can be improved to nearly perfect levels. Numerous players, including Bernie Williams, have undergone the procedure in recent years, potentially improving their play and extending their careers. Players of previous generations lost the eye and their careers (Jim Rice and Willie Mays, for example, might have had additional seasons with laser eye surgery).

For a professional sport to cling to the facade that it is primarily a contest of one athlete's natural ability against another's, its leadership should be far more proactive than baseball's was with the steroid era. In the 1990s, the sport allowed players to establish an underground culture of cheating while refusing to acknowledge its existence, never mind attempting to address it. Teams paid richly for players who bolstered their numbers with steroids.

The problem is that the people who run sporting behemoths are completely unqualified to make these choices and have always been averse to outside influence. For their part, team owners and commissioners and unions have too much of a vested financial interest in the outcome to determine whether "Bartolo Colon surgery" is as advantageous to a player as a steroid cycle.

In a sense, Colon's example suggests it is already too late, for Colon is already on the field, his career revitalized, already demonstrating the possibilities for those with nagging arm problems. Next could be the realization of Fehr's premonition comes true. What if Randy Johnson allows his genes to be researched to create, Captain America style, the next super-pitcher?

A result could be players experimenting with surgeries not for rehabilitative reasons but for performance-enhancing ones, much like an actor choosing cosmetic surgery for image purposes instead of medical necessity. If Liriano is to be believed and players are already inquiring about the Colon procedure, the culture might already be forming.

Or perhaps, if these questions of performance enhancement versus science versus performance enabling versus cheating and ethics are too daunting to consider for baseball's leadership, the real solution could be the old David Wells argument: Deregulate the entire game, let players use whatever substances they want, and discard, once and for all, the pretense that professional sports is about virtue or values, character or "natural competition" -- that it is about anything other than money.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.

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