Thursday, May 12, 2011

Bartolo Colon's Stem Cell Surgery: Sports Medicine or Cheating?

37-year-old Bartolo Colon has been an excellent surprise this season for the Yankees.  Signed to a minor league contract in the off-season, Colon, who struggled in recent seasons with inconsistency and injuries, is 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA.  His strikeouts per 9 innings are up considerably from the previous few seasons - he's striking out a batter per inning, something he hasn't done in years.  Why are his Ks up?  One reason is that he's throwing the ball 95 miles per hour again.  And why is that?  Here's one strong explanation:

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Major League Baseball is examining a procedure performed on Yankees right-hander Bartolo Colon last year that involved stem cells being injected into his painful shoulder and elbow, according to The New York Times.

Joseph R. Purita, an orthopedic surgeon in Boca Raton, Fla., told the newspaper he flew to Colon's native Dominican Republic and helped a team of doctors there with the treatment on the 2005 AL Cy Young Award winner. He said he has used Human Growth Hormone in the procedure before, but not in this case with Colon.

HGH is banned by Major League Baseball.

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Purita told the Times he took fat and bone marrow stem cells from Colon and injected them back into his elbow and shoulder.

"This is the future of sports medicine, in particular," he said. "Here it is that I got a guy back playing baseball and throwing pitches at 95 miles an hour."
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Let's assume that Colon did not receive HGH.  Is the stem cell surgery itself a source of concern? 

There is no question that stem cell surgery has done wonders for a lot of people with serious injuries or disabilities and holds great promise for medicine.  And like the innovation of Tommy John Surgery 35 years ago, stem cell surgery might allow pitchers and eventually batters to continue careers that would otherwise be shut down due to injuries, wear and tear or old age.  Maybe we'll see more guys playing at a high level into their late 30s and even 40s.  More Julio Francos wouldn't be a bad thing.  Fans would get to see their favorite players play longer.  And players, knowing that they could have 15 to 20 year careers, would likely take longer-term perspectives in how they view issues in collective bargaining.

Of course, steroids can also do wonders for people with various ailments.  The same is true of HGH, which helps people recover faster from injuries.  Steroids/HGH can also prolong big league careers that would have otherwise ended.  But that hasn't stopped Baseball from viewing them as means of cheating.

Does the authoritative moniker "surgery" for stem cell surgery make it more acceptable than injecting someone with a steroid?  Or are we okay with stem cell surgery because it takes cells from one part of the body and merely relocates them to another part (as opposed to a steroid which uses as an external substance to change the body chemistry)?  Are the lines between medicine and cheating really clear?

For a few related posts, see Bryce Brentz and Teams Requesting that Players Use Medical Devices for Abnormally Good Health (from July 20, 2010), Alan Milstein's Clip, Clip, Baby! (from May 30, 2010), Howard Wasserman's Why is Steroids Use Considered Cheating (Oct. 10, 2006) and Greg Skidmore's Performance-Enhancing Surgery and Sports (April 21, 2005).