Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Three PED Strikes, Out For Mejia

By Jeff Kallman

In the nebulous world of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, Jenrry Mejia is going where no man has gone before. And it's entirely possible that his edginess over being injured yet again sent him there.

Not Barry Bonds. Not Mark McGwire. Not Alex Rodriguez. Not Roger Clemens. Not any of the men heretofore linked to any extent with actual or alleged PEDs. None of them received a permanent banishment from baseball for testing positive three times for a steroid. Mejia has.

A promising career that's been compromised enough by elbow injuries is now stained by Mejia's third positive steroid test in less than a year's time, earning him the permanent ban. And there may be a cause-and-effect factor involved no matter Mejia's apparent denial that he inadvertently took boldenone, known better under the trade name Equipoise.

You guessed it: it was developed for veterinary treatments and customarily used to treat racehorses. Start getting the jokes about Mejia thinking he could just run the ball over the plate out of your system. And lament that he seems to have shown a lack of horse sense.

Mejia can apply for reinstatement after one year even though the complete banishment lasts two under baseball's drug rules. If he's reinstated, he'll be 29 or near it by the time he gets to throw a major league pitch again, if he gets to throw one. If he hadn't been bagged under the drug rules, his elbow might have betrayed him yet again.

The reluctant relief pitcher who emerged as the Mets' closer in 2014 only to lose that gig to Jeurys Familia last year under suspensions one and two (first as the 2015 season began, when he injured his elbow warming up; then, after he returned from that suspension) has had a nastily barking elbow since a year after he became the youngest Met since Dwight Gooden to make an opening day roster.

Originally a starter, Mejia first ran into trouble five games into 2011, when he tore an elbow ligament in a minor league game and underwent Tommy John surgery. He returned to the majors in mid-2013, experienced continuing elbow problems, and saw his 2013 end prematurely thanks to bone chips in the elbow.

The Mets moved him to the bullpen after a 2014-opening seven-start struggle, but Mejia was a reluctant convert. Observers seem to have thought he feared yet another arm or elbow injury in a role in which he might not know when or how often he'd pitch, how fast he'd have to warm up to do so, or how often he'd have to warm up in a game before either going in or taking a seat.

Relief pitchers whom you think are single- or double-inning workers alone potentially pitch more often than you think before you see them come into a game. There have been managers who've warmed up a reliever twice or even three times before bringing them into a game. Such managers and the fans who watch the games barely seem aware that those pitchers might have pitched the equivalent of a quality start (say, five or six innings) before taking the mound.

Jenrry Mejia isn't the most educated young man in baseball, but who's to say he was unaware of such risky work and preparations and trepeditious of the toll it might take?

He established himself as the Mets' closer in 2014 with a fine 28 saves in 31 chances performance, but he injured his elbow yet again warming up on opening day 2015. And who's to say Mejia didn't turn toward some sort of extracurricular help in a bid to keep that injury bug at bay? He wouldn't be the first or the last to try it.

It was one thing for Alex Rodriguez to admit he dipped into the actual or alleged PED wells at first when he feared he wouldn't be able to live up to his first glandular multi-season contract. But ill-fated infielder Ken Caminiti, whose revelations first blew the proverbial lid off the depth of baseball's steroid presence, did it in a desperate bid for faster recovery from a shoulder injury.

Mark McGwire's subsequent admission to using actual or alleged PEDs included his revelation that he tried it in the first place after battling numerous injuries. Andy Pettitte's elbow issues prompted the left-hander to try human growth hormone, which isn't a steroid but has been banned since, though he stopped almost at once. Four-time all-star Troy Glaus (the MVP of the 2002 World Series) admitted using steroids starting in 2003 to combat persistent shoulder trouble.

And Ryan Madson — now an Oakland relief pitcher — went on record in 2013 saying hGH should be allowed for players rehabbing injuries. Madson missed 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery and told MLB.com he thought baseball should reconsider its hGH ban and allow it under proper medical supervision.

Mejia is not innocent. He made a choice and pays the price. If he was merely looking for an edge, and it's still a powerful unknown as to just what real edge if any his solution might provide, there's little enough defense for it. It's a fool's errand to seek that kind of edge with something that really can't be proven to provide it but that's on baseball's official don't-even-think-about-it list.

But this is a sport which once believed the way you recovered from an injury was to play through it, or at least to try. Men such as Dizzy Dean (foot, then elbow adjusting his mechanics wrongly), Carl Erskine (shoulder), Herb Score (elbow), Steve Barber (elbow), Jim Bouton (arm), Bo Belinsky (rib cage), Dick Radatz (likely arm fatigue after three years' overwork, then trying a sinker he was ill suited to throw), Randy Jones (arm nerve), Don Gullett (rotator cuff), and Mark (The Bird) Fidrych (rotator cuff) could tell you how foolish that philosophy proves to be.

Remember Ernie Broglio? Sure you do, if only because of Lou Brock and That Trade in 1964. Broglio looked like a comer with the Cardinals before that: a 21-game winner in 1960 (and a would-have-been Cy Young Award winner if WAR had been an accepted measurement: Broglio led the National League in it that year, believe it or not), a monster curve ball, an 18-game winner in 1963.

Lew Burdette, who'd been with the Cardinals earlier in 1964, tried to warn the Cubs against dealing for him because he developed elbow trouble and was taking cortisone shots. The Cubs made the deal anyway, and Broglio kept trying to pitch through it anyway. "In those days," Broglio said in 2011, "you didn't approach the front office, you didn't approach anybody. I didn't want to lose my job."

He underwent ulnar nerve surgery later in 1964. He won exactly five more major league games pitching through pain and entered the land of Cub-infamy trivia contests. He also struck a friendship with Lou Brock and has a sense of humor about his career. "Some [Hall of Famers] I played ball with," he says, "and some I helped put there."

Jim Palmer was so demoralized by his treatment in the minors, injured after his promising 1966 rookie season, that he guarded his health forever after to the point where his Orioles teams thought him a whining hypochondriac. Belinsky suffered a rib cage injury with the 1965 Phillies, would never again be the pitcher he promised to be with the Angels, and tempestuous manager Gene Mauch accused him of covering up something he'd gotten surfing in the Pacific.

Who's to say those men wouldn't have been tempted to turn toward actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances — other than the "greenies" and the "reds" long known to have been common in major league clubhouses in those years — to get back onto the field, to the plate, or on the mound sooner than realistic medicine would rule?

Professional sports are not always renowned for empathy with the injured. Baseball's long road is strewn with the pockmarks of its casualties just as its lined with the greens of its greats. Jenrry Mejia may not be its brightest bulb but he might well have had an injury paranoia that prodded him to the wrong or at least the unlawful remedy.

If so, and if he's hardly the only ballplayer who ever turned that way over it, knowing the jeopardy into which even one injury can place a player's already finite earning ability, it means at minimum that baseball — which actually allows at least one steroid to be used medically: cortisone — still needs, very badly, to review the conditioning and medical side of the game.

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