Major League Baseball took a huge step forward in 2005 when it implemented a new system of punishments for those who are caught using performance-enhancing drugs.
Fifty games for first-time offenders. One hundred games for second-time offenders. Permanent ban for three-time offenders. Three strikes and you're out.
Steroid use maybe. But PED use? Not even close.
Major League Baseball has come a long way, but additional changes need to be made to get the league to where it wants to be regarding PEDs. More drastic measures are required.
Four major-league players have been suspended for failed PED tests this season, the most recent of the bunch being All-Star Game MVP and MLB hits leader Melky Cabrera. MLB announced on Wednesday that Cabrera had tested positive for testosterone, and that he was hit with a 50-game ban.
The San Francisco Giants will thus be without their star left fielder for the rest of the season. Cabrera has admitted his "mistake," but he's not going to fight his suspension. He'll take it like a man and then go looking for a new contract once the season is over.
Rest assured, he'll find one. He probably won't get a multi-year deal worth eight figures a year, but it's not hard to imagine a team signing him up for one year at a salary roughly equal to the $6 million he's making this season.
He is, after all, still only 28 years old. And though he turned into a great player while cheating in 2012, Cabrera was never a truly bad player before this season. He's still worth an investment of a few million bucks, and what's a few million bucks to a baseball team these days?
Translation: Cabrera's career has been dealt a blow, but it hasn't been killed. He'll live to fight another day.
Arizona Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson didn't mind admitting that he thinks Cabrera got off light. He pointed out to MLB.com that Cabrera knew full well what he was doing, and that the penalty for such cheaters should be "much more severe."
He went on to elaborate:
Part of me says that, enough already. We've made a commitment to stopping that kind of activity and we still from time to time find that people are still trying to fool the system. Maybe they should consider a much stricter penalty. It's just bull. I would say the majority of the people who are in this game care about the integrity of the game. We're all committed to that and cleaning it up. Obviously there's not a big enough deterrent if it continues so I think the penalty needs to be much more severe.
The track record of PED suspensions backs up the notion that MLB's penalties aren't severe enough to be a deterrent. Since 2009, there have been 10 50-game suspensions and two 100-game suspensions handed out, according to Baseball-Almanac.com. Suspensions presumably would have been much more rampant back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the fact that there are still users out there goes to show that there are still more than a few players who figure using is worth the risk.
And if Victor Conte is to be believed, there's really not much risk for testosterone users like Cabrera. It's very easy for them to beat the system.
“I’ve been saying that synthetic testosterone is the biggest loophole in drug testing for several years now,” Conte, the founder of BALCO, told the New York Daily News on Wednesday.
Conte told both the Daily News and USA Today that testosterone use is easy to get away with because it's a fast-acting drug that exits the body in just a matter of hours. Players can therefore use it one day and take a drug test the next day without triggering a positive test.
He estimates that as much as 50 percent of ballplayers today are using testosterone. The only people who get caught are "the dumb, and the dumber."
MLB vice president Rob Manfred dismissed Conte's 50-percent estimation as a mere "guess," and he insisted that MLB's testing procedures consist of the "very best, most sophisticated methodologies that are available.''
Conte has a point about there being a "loophole" in the system, though, as all savvy ballplayers have to do is avoid the 4-1 testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio that triggers a positive test for testosterone (normal ratio is 1-1). And this is to say nothing of the loophole in the system that Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun exposed this past offseason.
So, Major League Baseball essentially has two options going forward. They can either deny that there's a problem and simply deal with PR nightmares like Melky Cabrera when they come along, or they can admit that the league's tough testing procedures and penalties just aren't tough enough.
Door No. 2 is a no-brainer.
Step one should be implementing more sophisticated testing to curb the use of testosterone, which is without a doubt MLB's biggest enemy in its war on PEDs. Fortunately, there is something the league can do to fight it.
According to an article Conte wrote for the Daily News earlier this year, CIR (Carbon Isotope Ratio) testing is the best way to screen for synthetic testosterone use, and right now, MLB is only using it as a follow-up confirmation test.
CIR testing is more costly than the initial testing procedures MLB is already using to weed out testosterone users, but not absurdly so. The cost is about equal to the blood test for HGH that has been used in the minor leagues. Since testosterone is a more potent PED, according to Conte, it's very much worth MLB's time and money to make the CIR test its primary method of testing for testosterone.
But MLB shouldn't stop there. Tougher testing will serve as a deterrent if MLB pursues that route, but it's pretty clear by now that players aren't scared enough of a potential 50-game ban to avoid using PEDs altogether.
So instead of a 50-game ban for first-time offenders, the ante should be upped to a full-season ban.
Take the Cabrera situation, for example. His reputation has been sullied, but he's still going to be able to get a contract this winter just like a normal free agent. He'll miss out on millions of dollars, but there will still be enough millions waiting for him.
If he had been suspended for a full season, as in a full 162 games, he wouldn't be available to sign with another team until next August. There would not be millions of dollars awaiting him, and he would have to come back and perform well after a full year off from baseball in order to earn a contract to his liking next winter.
That wouldn't be a mere blow to his career. This would potentially be a killing blow to his career.
A full year off without pay and a significantly lowered chance of finding good pay in the future. That's exactly the kind of deterrent MLB needs to clear PEDs from the sport completely.
To be sure, there will still be ways for players to beat the system. There will always be ways for players to beat the system. But those who don't—the foolish ones such as Cabrera—will pay a very, very steep price. After paying this price, a second chance may not be forthcoming.
It's worth the risk to try to beat the system now. It won't be worth the risk any longer if MLB flexes its muscles even more than it already has.
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