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above: Babe Ruth of the Boston Red Sox takes batting practice in 1916 (photo by Charles M. Conlon/Wikimedia/modified by John C. Koch)

Reviews

The Philosopher's Ball Game

[Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark by Alva Noë; Oxford University Press; 208 pp., $21.95]

I artificially altered my body to become a better baseball player.

No, I didn’t take performance-enhancing drugs, though PED use was rampant during my time in professional baseball in the early 2000s. Anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, amphetamines called “greenies” due to their color in pill form, and Adderall, a medicine used to treat attention deficit disorder, were everywhere.

Drugs pervaded every clubhouse, in every league, and at every level I ever played after high school. Pills were casually passed around prior to games. Players routinely mixed drugs into their pregame coffee. Innumerable professional baseball players sought out an ADHD diagnosis in order to get an Adderall prescription. Abused as an attention-heightener, the drug is helpful when you’re about to have a hard object thrown at your head at a hundred miles per hour. Few fans know that once Major League Baseball banned amphetamines, Adderall became one of the most widely used, and most effective, PEDs in baseball.

Players weren’t brazenly shooting needles full of anabolic steroids into their buttcheeks, but they were popping pills out in the open. In short, depending on what time you walked into the clubhouse—usually right after batting practice—you could have confused it for a pharmacy.

But no, I didn’t cheat by taking drugs myself. My artificial enhancement came in the form of performance-enhancing medicines and surgeries, all prescribed by doctors, that assisted and prolonged my baseball career.

In 2003, my first professional season, the team doctor prescribed a powerful daily anti-inflammatory, Vioxx, to manage excruciating elbow pain caused by bone spurs. The pain often reached levels that made it impossible to throw a ball or hold a bat. Oddly enough, that season was the best in my professional career, but it would not have happened without daily pill popping. Less than one year later, the FDA took Merck’s Vioxx off the market after a study showed that the drug elevated the risk of strokes and heart attacks. Yikes.

Later that fall, I underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove the spurs from my elbow. Two years after that, I had surgery, again, for the exact same injury. These procedures not only prolonged my career, they enhanced my performance. How does that differ from greenies?

My elbow wasn’t my only problem. Prior to the 2005 season, I also had LASIK eye surgery. During college I had noticed my professors’ blackboard scribblings blurring over time. My vision progressively deteriorated after graduation. I couldn’t stand the contact lenses I had worn the previous season. I figured if LASIK were safe enough for Tiger Woods, then it was safe enough for me. Plus, my local eye doctor was running a special: buy one eye, get the second half-off. I couldn’t think of a better way to invest my meager 15th round signing bonus. The surgery lasted six minutes. By that evening I was seeing in high-definition.

I enhanced my elbow and my eyes just to further my career in baseball, to achieve my childhood dream: to play in the big leagues. The dream starts with pure, innocent love: the magic of the ballpark, the rush of the crowd collectively rising to its feet, the feeling of connecting a cylindrical bat with a round ball—you know you hit the sweet spot, ironically, when that connection is so solid, you feel almost no physical sensation at all. However, that initial childhood love for baseball no longer served as my primary drive to play the game.

As an average Double-A player subsisting on $1,400 a month while struggling to go one-for-four with a walk, my motivation for making it into the big leagues was much simpler and far more urgent: to earn money. And as the pitches began narrowly avoiding my bat at a seemingly exponential rate, I found myself desperate to do anything to fulfill my dream.

So, though I refused performance-enhancing drugs, I didn’t judge my colleagues who used them. They had their reasons just as I had my reasons for my surgeries. For some players, baseball was all they had. It was the only way they could feed their families or send money home to loved ones. I didn’t consider myself “righteous;” but I believed I could make it to The Show without using PEDs.

And while the press and public vilified my teammates as cheaters, no one questioned my choices. After my playing career, I hopped on the barstool every former professional athlete inhabits to debate the moral differences between LASIK surgery and steroids. After eight seasons in the Minor Leagues and now a decade perched on that barstool, I’m still confused.

As I read the chapter “Making Peace with our Cyborg Nature” in Alva Noë’s book Infinite Baseball, I found myself nodding in agreement as he exposed the blurred line separating our perceptions of what we view as genuinely achieved in sport versus that which is artificially acquired. Noë makes a compelling case that steroids, under the direction of a doctor, are no different than elbow surgery or LASIK.

Humans are all “cyborgs” of a sort, Noë argues—a combination of biology and technology, enhanced by the foods we eat, the medicines we take, and the training regimens we adopt. Academics are allowed to chug coffee and pop NoDoz to help them research—why can’t athletes use similar consumable “technologies” to play ball? Although I still don’t condone the use of PEDs, Noë forced me to question what truly constitutes cheating.

0720-BASEBALL-2But Infinite Baseball has more to offer fans of the sport than a philosophical defense of PEDs. Noë explores the game’s nuances from a philosophical point of view. He connects readers to the game on a deeper level than the cursory treatments provided by Sports Illustrated. This includes discussion of current revolutionary issues challenging baseball’s history and culture, such as pace of play, the use of analytics, and the effect of instant replay.

As a former player, I respect Noë’s appreciation for what makes the game of baseball special. Players feel a bond with the game that they cannot explain to fans. It’s as if we are thinking in another domain, one that only other players can understand. Throughout the book, I felt that Noë was speaking my language, even though he never played professionally. His book connected with me on a level that put me back in the dugout, bantering with long-lost teammates on stultifying bus rides from Batavia, New York, to Mahoning Valley, Ohio.

Consider baseball’s most pressing issue: pace of play. The contemporary slur that baseball is boring is one of the biggest insults you can sling at a former player. Noë defends the game’s seemingly lazy pace. Baseball is only boring to the untrained eye, which does not appreciate the many decisions making up a single inning. Drunken fans rarely think of the planning needed prior to the action. Unfortunately, nine innings over three-and-a-half hours is an unacceptable diversion when your cell phone lurks in your pocket. Ironically, America’s pastime has become countercultural.

Baseball is not boring—it’s a game of anticipation. In the desensitized, impatient world we currently live in, where everyone rushes to the last page of the book, there is no longer an appetite for anticipation.

If fans don’t appreciate the game’s pace, then maybe baseball doesn’t need fans. Although COVID-19 has challenged this country in many more important ways, we are only now realizing the void created by the absence of spectator sports. Even if baseball doesn’t need fans, fans need baseball, regardless of its pace. Prior to the pandemic, we were overscheduled and rushed. Then the world stopped, and we were forced to be bored. In retrospect, baseball now looks exciting.

Baseball forces us to be mindful, in a time when mindfulness has never been more needed. Noë points this out in a chapter entitled “In Praise of Being Bored.” Any attempt to change the pace of play would fundamentally change the game. Baseball, at its best, requires players and fans alike to engage in deep, critical thought while simultaneously taking in the game at an unconscious level. Baseball is an altered state of consciousness.

Infinite Baseball is a book of philosophy, not sports, and I felt the content could at times be abstruse and unnecessarily repetitive. But it will appeal to the true baseball fan who enjoys pondering the sport’s relevance for our culture. Noë packs heavy philosophical ideas into quick, manageable segments that can be digested in any order. In its short length, the author opens up readers’ minds to a field of speculation about baseball that will occupy their thoughts every time they enter the ballpark or turn on the TV.

Vito Chiaravalloti

Vito Chiaravalloti is a retired professional
baseball player. He won the NY-Penn
League Triple-Crown in 2003.

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