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Does doping level the playing field?

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

First, here's a quick primer on what it takes to be a good professional baseball hitter:

Epstein tells us that baseball players have, as a group, remarkable eyesight. The ophthalmologist Louis Rosenbaum tested close to four hundred major- and minor-league baseball players over four years and found an average visual acuity of about 20/13; that is, the typical professional baseball player can see at twenty feet what the rest of us can see at thirteen feet. When Rosenbaum looked at the Los Angeles Dodgers, he found that half had 20/10 vision and a small number fell below 20/9, “flirting with the theoretical limit of the human eye,” as Epstein points out. The ability to consistently hit a baseball thrown at speeds approaching a hundred miles an hour, with a baffling array of spins and curves, requires the kind of eyesight commonly found in only a tiny fraction of the general population.

Eyesight can be improved—in some cases dramatically—through laser surgery or implantable lenses. Should a promising young baseball player cursed with normal vision be allowed to get that kind of corrective surgery? In this instance, Major League Baseball says yes. Major League Baseball also permits pitchers to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow of their throwing arm with a tendon taken from a cadaver or elsewhere in the athlete’s body. Tendon-replacement surgery is similar to laser surgery: it turns the athlete into an improved version of his natural self.

This is why it never made sense to think you could take some kid who runs really fast and turn him into a baseball player. If he runs real fast and has great vision, sure: Give it your best shot. But when I think about all those high draft picks wasted on high-school kids who ran like sprinters but hit .320 in their high-school games ...

Anyway, that quote above is from Malcolm Gladwell's recent essay in The New Yorker about genetic advantages and performance-enhancing drugs, and it's worth reading because Gladwell is more thoughtful than Bud Selig. I'm still not convinced that professional athletes should be allowed to do just about anything to get ahead (or stay even, for that matter). But Gladwell's take is a healthy counterpoint to most of the hysteria written by mainstream sportswriters.