Human Nature

Rocket Booster

Clemens, Pettitte, and “performance-enhancing” drugs.

Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte

Two weeks ago, New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte admitted to using human growth hormone for three days in 2002 and 2004. “I want to apologize … to all my teammates and to all of baseball fans for the embarrassment I have caused them,” Pettitte said at a press conference. “I am sorry, especially any kids that might look up to me.”

Pettitte’s old pitching buddy, Roger Clemens, expressed dismay at Pettitte’s confession. “When he said that he used HGH, I was shocked,” Clemens told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Clemens admitted that he had received injections from the same trainer who injected Pettitte. But Clemens insisted that his own booster shots were vitamin B-12, not HGH. “My mother in 1988 suggested I take vitamin B-12,” Clemens testified. “It’s a good thing, it’s not a bad thing.”

Set aside, for the moment, all the evidence that Clemens in fact used HGH and steroids and is now lying about it. Set aside the hypocrisy and treachery of his professed dismay that Pettitte could have stooped to the lesser of these drugs. Focus instead on the chemicals. Even if both men are telling the truth, why is Pettitte’s use of HGH worse than Clemens’ use of B-12? Why is one a confession and the other a defense?

The day before Clemens testified, the House committee held a hearing on HGH and B-12. The evidence showed that for professional athletes, B-12 was useless and harmless. In his opening remarks, committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said HGH was different. “This powerful drug,” he warned, could cause diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

The expert testimony, however, was more circumspect. “There is no credible scientific evidence that HGH substantively increases muscle strength or aerobic exercise capacity in normal individuals,” said Thomas Perls, a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine. Todd Schlifstein, a professor at the NYU School of Medicine, testified that “when studying the performance-enhancing effects of HGH by itself, it has failed to improve performance.”

The side effects, too, seemed overstated. Experts agreed that they depended on dose and duration. The most serious risks of HGH appeared to arise not from the drug per se but from contamination and ignorance of safe dosage. Waxman had pointed out that “it’s actually a disease when the body produces too much HGH.” But that disease, as Dr. Alan Rogol of the University of Virginia explained in his testimony, entailed muscular weakening. No athlete in his right mind would dope himself to that degree.

Don’t get me wrong. You’d be a fool to mess with HGH. The benefits aren’t worth the risks. But the notion that Pettitte harmed himself by taking it for three days over two years is ridiculous. And even if he’d taken it every day, it would have done nothing for his pitching.

Is B-12 more natural than HGH? Hardly. Your body produces HGH but not B-12. Vitamins seem natural because they’re the kind of thing your mom tells you to take. That’s why Clemens, in his case for the wholesome goodness of taking B-12 shots in the buttocks, invoked his mother’s advice. But the reason your mom told you to take vitamins is that they’re foreign. As Dr. Susan Shurin of NIH explained to the committee, “A vitamin is a chemical substance that is required for a particular chemical reaction to occur in the body, but is not synthesized by the body, and therefore needs to be included in the diet.”

That brings us to the question of intent. Was Pettitte’s stated motive for taking HGH worse than Clemens’ stated motive for taking B-12? In his Feb. 4 deposition, Pettitte testified that he had resorted to HGH after an elbow injury disabled him in 2002. He had felt obliged to “do whatever I could to try to get back on the field and try to earn my money.” Why HGH? “I just thought that that it could help me, you know, heal up quicker,” Pettitte said. Athletes often lie about their reasons for doping. But by all accounts, and by the evidence of his conduct since baseball’s report on doping came out, Pettitte has been particularly honest. And you don’t have to take his word for it. The trainer who injected both pitchers has corroborated Pettitte’s story.

Why did Clemens get B-12 shots? “I think it’s beneficial,” he told the committee. “It was most common if anybody was sick on the team or if your energy felt run down.” The former chief doctor for Clemens’ old team said Clemens came to him for a B-12 booster because “he was feeling fatigued.” A fellow player, C.J. Nitkowski, recalled hearing about B-12 from Clemens when players were saying it was “great for your immune system and great for giving you energy.”

Let’s tally the score. Pettitte took HGH while on the disabled list. Clemens took B-12 while healthy. Pettitte took HGH to heal an injury. Clemens took B-12 to avoid sickness and restore energy. It’s hard to see how Clemens’ motives were more therapy-oriented, as opposed to enhancement-oriented, than Pettitte’s were. Neither drug made a difference. Neither drug enhances performance. Taking vitamins is normal and risk-free, but taking them in your ass is not. The chief difference between HGH and B-12 is that HGH is legally restricted  because, in excessive doses, it can be harmful. But it’s hard to imagine anyone better positioned to avoid that harm than a professional athlete under elite medical supervision. Furthermore, if baseball regulated drugs according to harm, you wouldn’t see players and managers chewing tobacco in the World Series.

Why is Pettitte, unlike Clemens, apologizing? Because Clemens, unlike Pettitte, has chosen to lie. And because what Pettitte did—unlike what Clemens admitted to doing—somehow counts as cheating. The first difference is already under investigation. The second deserves no less.