Glowing tributes were the initial reactions to Andy Pettitte’s retirement, but since then a deeper look into his admitted use of HGH has begun to emerge (and Larry’s examination at IIATMS is not surprisingly one of the most thorough). Some have questioned why Pettitte has been given the benefit of the doubt regarding his admission, while others have hinted that his confession could be a black mark when his name appears on the Hall of Fame ballot. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of the post-steroid era.
Without going into too much detail on the whole performance enhancing drugs debate, there is an important distinction that needs to be made in the case of Pettitte. There is no accusation alleging or evidence suggesting that the Yankees’ lefty used anything other than HGH. That’s significant for two reasons. From a performance standpoint, there is no evidence to suggest that the drug yields a performance enhancing benefit. In fact, all of the best evidence points to the contrary. So, regardless of whether Pettitte took HGH three times or 30, and whether his motive was to heal from an injury or throw a 100mph fastball, his actions would not have had an impact on his mound performance.
There were instances, like (Yankee pitcher) Andy Pettitte’s, where they have an injury and they take HGH to try to recover more quickly. Pettitte may well have been told that it works by a trainer and fell for it. Who knows, getting an injection is an incredibly powerful placebo effect.” – Dr. Thomas Perls of Boston University, Popular Science, February 20, 2008
Secondly, the legality of HGH is a very murky topic. Under some circumstances, the drug can be used with a prescription, so distributing it is not inherently illegal. What’s more, most of the punitive aspects of the law deal with distribution, not use, so in a sense, taking HGH isn’t necessarily a crime. Because baseball’s drug policy prohibits the use of prescription drugs without a doctor’s consent, that possibility is mostly irrelevant, but it may have some meaning to those who moralize about criminal behavior (ironically, many of those same moralists turn a blind eye toward amphetamine use as well as alcohol consumption during prohibition).
There really isn’t much of a basis to suggest that Pettitte cheated, which seems to be the buzz word of the day. Although he did violate a MLB rule, his actions weren’t any different from a player taking antibiotics obtained without a prescription, and certainly more benign than one who used either amphetamines or narcotics. Also, if his stated intention is believed, his motive wasn’t to enhance performance, but heal more quickly from an injury. Again, that really isn’t morally different from seeking an unapproved treatment, which I don’t think most people would consider cheating. Of course, baseball’s morality regarding cheating is convoluted anyway, as evidenced by Gaylord Perry’s legendary status as a Hall of Fame spitballer.
One other criticism of Pettitte is that his story has changed over the years, suggesting a level of dishonesty that contradicts his reputation. That claim is also dubious. The smoking gun in this argument is Pettitte’s denial about using PEDs when quizzed on the subject back in 2006. Below is the money quote (h/t IIATMS):
I guess reports are saying that I’ve used performance-enhancing drugs. I’ve never used any drugs to enhance my performance on the baseball field before. Like I said, I don’t know what else to say except that it is embarrassing that my name would be out there with this.” – Andy Pettitte, Houston Chronicle, October 2, 2006
As previously mentioned, HGH is not a performance enhancing drug, so Pettitte’s statement above is not a lie. Even though you can question whether Pettitte was aware of the science at the time, both his ignorance of the chemical as well as his motive suggest the likelihood that he didn’t view HGH as a performance enhancing drug “on the field”. If such a claim was made about anabolic steroids, it would be much more dubious, but with HGH, it is very plausible.
Pettitte’s initial admission after the Mitchell Report was released referenced two uses of HGH in 2002, but his later confession in front of Congress referenced a third use in 2004. Some may point to that revelation as the continuation of Pettitte’s dishonesty on the topic, but again, motive becomes the determining factor. According to Pettitte, he omitted the third instance from his initial mea culpa because he received the HGH from his father. Although it was easy to protect his father in the face of the Mitchell Report, he felt obligated to be completely truthful under sworn testimony before Congress. The cynic can view that as opportunistic, but most reasonable people would probably have done exactly the same thing.
The reason Andy Pettitte has been given the benefit of the doubt about his involvement with HGH is because he deserves it. There is no blanket approach to treating those connected to banned substances. Distinctions need to be made and circumstances considered. Instead of reading too much into the events, it simply seems as if Pettitte dabbled in something about which he knew little, realized it wasn’t a good idea, and, once it became exposed, decided to own up to it. He didn’t cheat, he didn’t lie, and he didn’t enhance his performance. Pettitte did, however, make a mistake. Hopefully, Hall of Fame voters, and fans, won’t compound the error by holding it against him.