Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Need for Speed

For this week's Wild Card Wednesday, guest contributor Tony Park examines what the effect of testing for amphetamines will have on the quality of play in MLB:

Amphetamines are clinically prescribed to treat narcolepsy, obesity and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). What is known is that through various methods, amphetamines enable neurons to fire artificially longer and more frequently than what the body’s system can naturally sustain for that point in time. I say point in time because a person’s unaided alertness and focus is by no means set at a constant level; Johnny has problems focusing on homework for more than 5 minutes, but has no problems sitting down and focusing intently until finishing the latest multi-disc version of Metal Gear on his favorite game console. At a more holistic level, it is theorized that amphetamines increase focus by targeting neurons in the regions of the brain that increase inhibition and self-control. Presented in 1937, that theory sadly remains the leading, but still unproven, hypothesis to date.

When MLB players and owners announced in November of last year that players would be tested for amphetamines, Rockies pitcher Jason Jennings laid out what could be the biggest problem for MLB players this season:

"It's a long season -- six weeks of Spring Training and April through September, or longer if you happen to go to the playoffs. That's a lot of baseball. It takes a lot to go out and perform at a high level every day for position players, so maybe that's something to look at as far as the schedule goes. A lot of people may not think much of it. They may say, 'You've getting paid millions of dollars just to play a game.' Well, it's not that easy. We want to go out and perform at a high level. So guys are going to have to adjust. Whether they drink coffee, Coke, whatever it's going to take, guys are just going to have to make the adjustment."

Unfortunately for the players, while caffeine is a stimulant like amphetamines, caffeine can’t hold a candle to amphetamine’s impact on a player’s quality and length of concentration. While exactly how and why amphetamines like Ritalin, Aderall, Dexedrine and Concerta achieve these results is still largely a mystery, their ban from baseball is, at the very least, likely to setback the confidence of those pitchers and position players who used amphetamines as a crutch.

If the quality of play is significantly lower this year, with players dozing off in the dugout, pitchers losing steam 10-15 pitches earlier, infielders booting balls with alarming frequency, hitters barely getting bats off their shoulders in the late innings, and closers blowing save opportunities left and right by not being able to spot their fastballs or sliders consistently, I wonder how much of that can be attributed to the loss of the chemical intake of amphetamines, and how much can be attributed to withdrawal symptoms (i.e. depression and loss of confidence) triggered by stimuli with which players usually associate with amphetamines. I'd also be interested to find out how many ball players are prescribed anti-depressants due to significant withdrawal symptoms. Of course, if play doesn't drop off at all, perhaps those who hold Nurture as king can use the players' ability to maintain a "high level" without greenies to renew their fight against the loose prescription of amphetamines to children and adults deemed to have ADHD. Either way, Bud Selig and Congress will keep a close eye. Hopefully they won't fall asleep from boredom while doing so.

- Tony Park

Wild Card Wednesdays appear every Wednesday

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