Over the summer I penned a sarcastic column about the fallout from the Biogenesis suspensions, mocking Bud Selig for taking a victory lap after the dozen 50-game suspensions doled out in August. Selig did get one trophy fish as a result of the investigation — Ryan Braun — a couple decent catches — Jhonny Peralta and Nelson Cruz — and a bunch of minor league minnows. Selig’s personal white whale, Alex Rodriguez, has yet to serve an inning of his 211-game suspension as the case drags out in the arbitration courtroom and media.
As I wrote back in August, what exactly did all this saber-ratting by Selig accomplish? A-Rod kept playing. Peralta came back to play for the Tigers in the playoffs, batting over .300, while showing no signs that the 50-games on the sideline slowed him down.
A few weeks later Peralta is a very rich man. On Sunday ,the Cardinals inked the 31-year-old to a four-year, $52 million deal.
So if you’re a kid playing baseball somewhere in the world, what weighs more when the thought of injecting a potentially banned substance into your body… a 50-game suspension or $50 million? Of course we don’t know the details of what Peralta took — in his case we don’t even have a failed test. All we have is the circumstantial evidence how he bounced back from a subpar 2012 where he went .239/.305/.384 at the plate to an All-Star 2013 with a .303/.358/.457 line. Granted, Peralta was an All-Star the year before in 2011.
At least one Major Leaguer has gone on record, well Twitter, questioning the entire process. Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Brad Ziegler wrote what many people were thinking: “It pays to cheat.”
Granted Ziegler, a sub-marine throwing journeyman 34-year-old, isn’t a household name. He is, however, the Diamondbacks player rep and last week broke the news MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner’s passing. He continued on Twitter wondering what baseball can do to deter guys from bending the rules?
This makes a two members of the Arizona bullpen on record against their peers taking PEDs. Earlier this year David Hernandez made his feelings known, saying cheats should be thrown out.
Is peer pressure and internal clubhouse policing the only way to ensure baseball is “clean” or to out cheaters? Chemists will always find a way to stay ahead of the testers. MLB has had its testing program in place since 2006 and players still wind up with suspensions, yet many more slip through the cracks. It’s fairly clear the 50-game suspension for a first offense isn’t as strong as a deterrent as MLB and Union anticipated.
Look at it this way if you’re a kid out fresh out of high school or a teenager from the Dominican Republic trying to work your way up the minor-league system, competing with dozens of other places for a job, you might be tempted to take something which could help you gain an edge. Your risk is a lot lower without worrying about a teammate “outing” you.
It would be illuminating if there were an anonymous poll of baseball clubhouses to get their opinions on PEDs. Are guys like Ziegler and Hernandez outliers or part of the silent majority? Do players see it as a necessary evil? Are they annoyed only baseball players are under scrutiny for PEDs when they are used in almost all other sports? Do they, for the most part, simply not care?
We know that organizations themselves don’t seem too upset about inking players who PEDs in their past. The Phillies rewarded veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd with a two-year $16 million deal, after he served a 50-game suspension in 2012. The Brewers still have well over $100 million invested in Ryan Braun and will likely welcome him back with open arms. Hell, Bartolo Colon started a playoff game for the Athletics in October. The list goes on.
Those are the high-profile names and chances are we’ll never hear of most of the minor leaguers caught by testing, but failing a drug test isn’t some sort of scarlet letter which ostracizes a player. Maybe a player is booed for a spell, or fans will bring clever signs with syringes on them, but after a while you forget. Boston fans had no problem handing David Ortiz the key to the city following his outstanding World Series, despite links to the Mitchell Report nearly a decade earlier.
If guys like Ziegler and Hernandez are indeed the majority in baseball, then they have to speak up and push for harsher testing. Instead of 50-games, make it a season-long suspension for a first failed test. Spread the message that cheaters are taking money out of the pockets of clean players. As Ziegler wrote, the owners are going to look the other way so long as they can sign players who help out their teams. There’s not going to be any stigma from other owners by those who sign players who’ve failed a PED test. If I were a clean player I’d be pretty pissed off a guy like Byrd, 35, is making big money and taking a roster spot after failing a test. [Mini update: On Monday, Cards' GM John Mozeliak said he isn't the "moral police" and was fairly certain it was an isolated incident with Peralta.]
The irony here is the players and their union dragged their feet during the late 1990s and early 2000s, fighting against any form of testing. Now it might be in the hands of the players themselves if they want a “clean” game.
As it stands right now, the reward for guys like Peralta far outweighs the risk.