Baseball: You Have To Want To Get Clean

Either Major League Baseball wants to clean up the pro game once and for all, or it doesn’t.

Bulletin: it doesn’t.

Plea bargains, half measures, and suspensions don’t scare mega-millionaires. It’s a serious version of the old stand-up comic joke about those roadside signs that say, “Speeding $200 fine.” Guy says, “Yeah; I can afford that,” and down goes the pedal. Or the plunger on the hypodermic. Doesn’t matter.

Yankees star Alex Rodriguez is appealing a 211-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use.

Yankees star Alex Rodriguez is appealing a 211-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use.

The latest news in the never-ending, someone-always-doping world of Major League Baseball is the suspension of New York Yankees infielder Alex Rodriguez for using performance-enhancing drugs and then obstructing the investigation into it. Armed with incontrovertible evidence, Monday the league slapped a 211-game sit-down on Rodriguez, one of MLB’s biggest stars — essentially for the rest of this season and all of 2014. But Rodriguez will appeal, and started last night’s game in Chicago. The arbitrators won’t be able to make a decision until November, so A-Rod will be able to finish this season before even thinking of having to serve any suspension. As for the rest of his career, and his $28 million annual contract, it remains to be seen when, if ever, the 38-year-old veteran will play in the big leagues. Or whether he will suffer even a little for his transgressions.

Also Monday, a dozen other players accepted 50-game suspensions for similar transgressions. Last month, Milwaukee Brewers star (and former National League Most Valuable Player) Ryan Braun was suspended for 65 games for PED use, this less than 18 months after escaping a similar ban on a technicality. Braun lost his endorsement deal with sporting goods giant Nike, but the eight-year, $105 million contract extension he signed in 2011 is presumably still in effect.

The mental gyrations over contracts, agents, lab technicians, owners, who knew what when, and all the rest of it could start a separate hot stove league. You can talk about them endlessly and arrive exactly where you started. (My favorite sneer-worthy argument is the oft-repeated, “Well, ballplayers have been cheating for generations.” Oh, yeah; I feel better now. That makes it alright. Just usher Pete Rose right into the Hall of Fame because he only got caught gambling. Errrrrryone did it….)

See, we all thought — we had a right to think — that this was all over after the 1998 and 2001 home-run-fests, the Seasons of the Big Pecs, the entire Barry Bonds-Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa fraud. Add Rafael Palmeiro and Roger Clemens and the real-heroes gallery got pretty thin. MLB commissioner Bug Selig all but promised us up-to-date, fairly enforced doping procedures, as in other world sports. But no. Another lab name has surfaced, more achievement has been tainted, more faith in what could be a beautiful game without artificial heroics has been…wasted.

Only way this problem is ever going away is to ban guys in their prime. Make huge, thunderclap, weepy examples of them; make them face the world and admit they never had an inkling this could happen to them. And then stick to it. But the league has been unwilling to do that. Remember Manny Ramirez? Veteran of a 50-game drug-related suspension in 2009, Ramirez “retired” in 2011 rather than face the music on new charges of PED use. But at last report, Ramirez has been working his way up through the Texas Rangers farm system and planning on returning to the big leagues, maybe even this season. So all he had to do was dodge and wait? Doesn’t sound like enforcement, justice, or even serious punishment.

Oh, I know, I know: the players’ union. Collective bargaining. But is the current crop of doping baseball stars worth the recurring nausea of this fraud? Even if you’re not a lifelong baseball fan, even if the integrity of the ancient game doesn’t keep you up at night — wouldn’t honest be better?

Of course it would. So break the damned union. Or ask its honest members (there are many) to come along, to refuse to accept cheating, to police it at the clubhouse level. And if the union balks and won’t play ball — well, then they don’t have to. Dismiss them. Get scabs. Get unagented college players. You know how much young talent is coming out of the sun belt states alone these days? In a year or two, we wouldn’t even notice that Braun is gone, that A-Rod was a fraud, that home run numbers are down. Faced with the simple, stark decision of playing or not, most players will clean up and stay in the game. Their agents will make them do it.

What we’d notice, once and for all, is a fair game played by rules that are respected. The beauty of baseball would emerge again, at the highest level. Baseball wouldn’t continue careening into the pit where world bicycling has just taken up residence next to professional boxing.

Otherwise…I’m going to high school games.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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