Baseball has passed the point where it has drug scandals. No one is “scandalized,” or even much surprised to discover that Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez and about 18 other big league players may have cheated. Instead, 25 years after the first reports of steroid use in baseball, these PED storms are actually the sport’s good news about drugs. Awareness is so universal, and efforts to catch cheaters — by law enforcement, media or drug testing — are so routinely cheered that a culture of intolerance and punishment now exists.
That’s probably all we’re ever going to get: a climate of hostility to cheating and a pattern of severe punishments for those who are caught. That’s all baseball, or any other sport, probably needs.
But does any other major U.S. sport have even that?
Some athletes will always cheat if the potential reward could be tens of millions of dollars. The question is whether the institution with the ineradicable problem truly wants to catch the cheats, then make them an example to everyone else: This is what happens if we nail you, in specific penalties as well as lost reputation and future earning capacity. And we really want to nail you.
In this week’s developments in the Biogenesis story, MLB apparently has sued and hounded Tony Bosch with all the might a multi-billion-dollar industry can bring to bear on one low-rent pill and potion peddler.
Baseball doesn’t have subpoena power, but it has lawyers. It looks like Bosch, under financial and legal duress, has cracked and will roll over on his clients, much as PED-provider Brian McNamee was the centerpiece of Mitchell Report revelations about Roger Clemens in 2007 and bookie Ron Peters was squeezed until he ratted out Pete Rose’s gambling in 1989.
Can Bosch provide physical evidence, or credibility in any form, to justify MLB in giving 50- or 100-game suspensions? If MLB gets nothing more than Bosch’s words and hand-written notes, the league will face criticism if it hands out stiff penalties, even though any business has a right to discipline employees who break its rules and to decide penalties based on the internal procedures agreed to in that industry.
Compared to legal cases, rules of evidence and procedure are not as stringent before arbitration panels like one that would eventually rule on Biogenesis suspensions. But don’t over-estimate MLB’s hand. Bosch has motivation to lie to get MLB off his back. And baseball has never suspended a player in the absence of a positive drug test. Jonathan Vilma gained leverage vs. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell with defamation accusations.
The MLB Players Association, maybe the strongest union in the country, surely will attempt to exonerate the players or mute any penalties. It’ll take months. Few people can dream of having such legal muscle behind them. Some will wring their hands for the Biogenesis cast. I doubt that I will.
What matters most here is that no one doubts that baseball truly wants to investigate Biogenesis and punish anyone who cheated. Baseball’s drug testing may be mediocre. But it’s not entirely lame. You’ll hear: “Why didn’t MLB’s tests catch these guys?” In ’11, it appeared to catch Braun, a rich star, who tested positive but got off on a chain-of-custody screw-up.
But few doubt MLB’s intentions. The sport will soon institute blood tests to detect human growth hormone. Until recent years, few thought the MLBPA would ever evolve to the point where it agreed to try to protect its members from its most serious work-place health issue: PEDS. But it has.
Baseball turned a blind eye to its steroid issues for 15 years. It didn’t change because it’s noble but because it got caught and exposed. Right now the NFL is finally being forced to face its shame with concussions and degenerative injuries to retired players; for decades those were dismissed like crazy-aunt-in-the-attic rants. Eventually, dirty secrets come out. That’s good, not bad.
Though baseball has been hounded into basic change, it still deceives itself. In 2010, Selig had his own mission-accomplished moment with these befuddled words: “The use of steroids and amphetamines amongst today’s players has greatly subsided and is virtually nonexistent, as our testing results have shown. The so-called steroid era . . . is clearly a thing of the past.”
The “era” of epidemic use appears over. The ballplayers I see every week look, as a group, like they have been deflated from the players of a decade ago. But the presence of cheaters will never end. We just have different levels of knowledge of who is breaking rules and risking their health at various times.
The realistic goal of a pro sport, a modest and perhaps depressing one, is to create sufficient PED intolerance, apprehension and punishment that athletes who don’t want to compromise their health can say, “No playing field is perfectly level. But it’s close enough that I don’t have to cheat.”
What baseball has now is a halting, flawed and agonizing solution-in-progress. Biogenesis is just the next, and far from the last, step in making baseball an increasingly uncomfortable sport in which to cheat, even for those who won seven MVPs, seven Cy Young Awards, the ’11 NL MVP or who seemed destined to break the career home run record.
Other sports see MLB this week and think, “Thank heavens we’re not in baseball’s shoes.” Don’t be so sure they aren’t.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.