Too Large for Worry, Too Strong for Fear

Unreal meets a guy who's Optimistic about Iraq, laments the banning of ephedra and listens in on an argument between sports columnists; plus we help you (yes, you!) enter the P-D essay contest

Crash and Burn

Citing 155 American deaths, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week pulled dietary supplements containing ephedra or its synthetic derivative, ephedrine, from the shelves of every nutrition center, gas station and truck stop in the nation. Ephedra (also known as ma huang) has been used medicinally by the Chinese for thousands of years but more recently gained popularity here as an appetite suppressant, asthma reliever and athletic training aid. And oh yeah: You can stay awake for days on the stuff, provided your heart doesn't explode.

In the sparse downtime between jabbing safety pins at the weevils crawling under our scalp and screaming at the helicopters hovering outside the window of our cubicle, Unreal caught up with William Russell, a local chiropractor, licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist whose 1990 diplomatic residence at the Olympic Training Center in Beijing gave him access to some ancient Chinese secrets.

Unreal:I know it kills baseball players, but what's so bad about ephedra?

William Russell:Ephedra is a plant used in Chinese medicine as part of complex formulas for conditions that need an increase in energy levels as part of their treatment. Typically, there are one to three main ingredients in a Chinese formula, with a number of modifiers to direct the effects of the medicine to a specific energy meridian and to counteract unwanted side effects, such as potential liver damage. The way of administering the medications is traditionally through the use of teas or elixirs, not ingestion of the whole herb. This also affects the various compounds extracted from the herb.

Why can't the American medical establishment figure out how to make ephedra safe?

Chinese methods of treatment have been developed over hundreds of years of clinical observation. A new acupuncture point is one that has only been used for 500 years. In the West, we tend to find the effects of a single ingredient used in a Chinese formula and exploit that aspect of it with little knowledge or concern about possible negative long-term effects or any real knowledge about appropriate dosages or length of use.

The guy behind the counter at GNC told me that supplement manufacturers have come up with "safe" substitutes for ephedra. Wasn't ephedra a safe substitute for crystal meth?

A salesperson at the local nutrition store with no background at all may recommend products to you. And in the U.S. any licensed practitioner can prescribe for and treat conditions from the simplest to the most complex from the first day they open an office. In China practitioners of traditional medicine only treat conditions that are within their level of competence. It is generally acknowledged that it takes seven to eight years to begin to understand why you use a particular formula for a particular patient, and twice that long before you're competent enough to devise your own formulas. This goes against the American concept of instant expert. The final problem is that many of the herbal remedies sold don't have what they state that they have in them. One must always be on guard when profit is the motive behind the product. That doesn't mean there aren't good products put out by reputable people, but one must always be sure of the source.

What are the long-term effects of being terrorized by chicken ghosts?

I don't have an answer for that one.

The Luddite's Retort

Much like the Cardinals, with whom it shares an owner, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's sports section boasts no staff ace. Bernie Miklasz and Bryan Burwell are fine human beings and more than capable sportswriters, but what with tripling up on television and radio obligations, they're in no shape to hurl a complete sports-page game in these multimedia noughties. Which brings us to page 2's Dan O'Neill. With his throwback mustache and pedestrian grit, O'Neill is the P-D's Jeff Suppan. And just as the ex-Pirate is obligated to take the mound every fifth day with a fastball that rarely sees the speedy side of 90, O'Neill is called upon to trot out his "At-Large Column" every week or so.

On March 21, Dan-O took a knife to a sacred cow: Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, the penny-pinching, statistics-obsessed subject of Michael Lewis' best-selling Moneyball. Underneath the headline "Baseball Is Flesh and Blood, Not Numbers," O'Neill argues that Beane's much-ballyhooed number-crunching had nothing to do with landing the A's big-three starting rotation of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder. Instead, the columnist credits scouts, whose "memory is not measured in gigabytes, but in calluses, tobacco stains and stirrup socks."

Three days afterward baseball analyst Rob Neyer called O'Neill out in his ESPN.com column. Wrote Neyer, an unapologetic Beaneaologist who has tapped the A's to win the 2004 World Series: "What a lot of these addle-minded writers refuse to acknowledge is that some scouts don't know what they're doing. That shouldn't be hard to understand; there are incompetent scouts, just as there are incompetent doctors, incompetent tree-trimmers and -- yes, Dan -- incompetent columnists."

Ouch.

Miffed, O'Neill whipped out his trusty keyboard and fired back. "Can't tell you how disappointing it is to be considered 'incompetent' by one with such depth and integrity," he responded in a screed Neyer posted (without comment this time, on his personal Web site, www.robneyer.com). "I'm not sure what your motivations were for the vindictiveness, but I certainly am enjoying the e-mails from all the stat Nazis."

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