If you’re a fan of honest sports competition, you could regard Monday as a very good day. Major League Baseball lowered the boom on 13 players whom it says got performance-enhancing drugs from a Miami clinic, and 12 of them agreed to 50-game suspensions without pay.
Among them were all-stars like Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers and Jhonny Peralta of the Detroit Tigers. Then there is the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, who will be allowed to play while appealing his suspension for 211 games - which would keep him off the field through next season.
All this comes on top of the action last month against Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, who was sidelined for 65 games. Commissioner Bud Selig is sending a message that players who resort to forbidden drugs will be caught - even if they don’t fail a drug test. These players apparently turned up on lists of clients that MLB got from a former employee of the Biogenesis clinic.
But if you’re a fan of honest sports competition, Monday was also a very bad day. The investigation makes it clear that some players continue to cheat, seven years after MLB and the players union agreed on a tougher drug-testing system.
Rodriguez could serve as the poster child for what’s wrong with professional sports. In 2009, following a report that he had failed a confidential drug test in 2003, he admitted using forbidden drugs for two years, explaining, “I was young, I was stupid, I was naive. And I wanted to prove to everyone that I was worth being one of the greatest players of all time.”
A-Rod is now 38, way past the age when he could plead youth and naivete. Yet here he is again being implicated in the use of a banned substance. Apparently the only things he learned from his previous experience are that cheating works and you can get away with it.
It’s possible he will beat the rap - though the willingness of the other players to accept their fate suggests the evidence obtained from Biogenesis is pretty strong. Given his age and his injury-prone body - he played his first major league game this season Monday night against the White Sox following January hip surgery - Rodriguez may figure a 211-game suspension could end his career. He may figure he can get the number reduced so he can return before 2015. Or maybe he just can’t resist a chance to hog the spotlight.
Major League Baseball has come a long way from its blithe disregard of juicing back in the 1990s, which produced a surge of offense that was good for ticket sales but ultimately left many fans disillusioned. Over the past offseason, the union agreed to the first-ever testing for human growth hormone and synthetic testosterone, giving baseball the toughest testing system in American professional sports.
But as long as competitors feel the need to gain an edge and believe they have a good chance of eluding detection, some of them will cheat. These suspensions, which force the guilty players to miss just a couple of months, may not be enough to change behavior. Former Commissioner Fay Vincent notes that a single breach of the rule against gambling “results in permanent expulsion from the game” and thinks the same sanction should apply to PED-users.
Stiffer sentences would be a more potent disincentive to using banned substances. Whatever you think about the players caught this time, it is unrealistic to expect they’ll be the last.