Stop me if you've heard this before, but Major League Baseball has a performance-enhancing drug problem.
Such was the gist of a recent column from Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated. He noted that there were seven PED suspensions this year, the most in a single year since 2007. To boot, the last 12 months have seen four prominent players test positive for testosterone, and the league is now understandably worried that synthetic testosterone has become the new drug of choice among its players.
The good news is that the league is looking to do something about this problem. Verducci says that MLB has engaged the players' association in discussions about what can be done to combat the sudden rise in testosterone usage.
It's most certainly a good thing that some cheaters have actually been caught and punished, but the league is rightfully worried that more cheaters may be beating the testing and generally thumbing their noses at the powers that be.
And this is probably the case. The league managed to secure positive tests for Ryan Braun, Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and Yasmani Grandal within the last year and handed out suspensions to Cabrera, Colon and Grandal—Braun, of course, escaped punishment due to a procedural error in his case—but indications are that MLB got lucky when it caught these players.
The truth is that testosterone users are very hard to catch because it's a drug that enters and leaves the human body very quickly. The cycle takes less than 24 hours, according to Verducci, and the payoff is benefits like "strength gain, muscle recovery and the prevention of tissue breakdown."
What's really troubling is how quickly testosterone can leave a player's body. BALCO founder Victor Conte told USA Today after word of Cabrera's suspension came through in August that testosterone can leave the body in about eight hours, making it very easy for savvy cheaters to avoid getting caught.
"The only people that get caught are the dumb, and the dumber," said Conte.
Via an article in the New York Daily News, Conte made his opinion known way back in November of 2011 that MLB's testing for testosterone isn't thorough enough. More sophisticated testing is needed, even if it means MLB has to spend a little extra money to upgrade the testing it's already using. Otherwise, the league's testosterone problem may never go away.
Since the league is already discussing the matter with the union, I think it's fair to expect that something will get done sooner or later. Eventually, MLB will augment its testing for various forms of testosterone, more and more players will be caught and the problem will slowly dissipate.
Here's the thing, though: No matter what the league does to curb the testosterone problem, it will never be able to curb its PED problem. There will never be a point in time when performance-enhancing drugs are not part of baseball.
I don't say so because I want everyone to believe that doom and gloom are forthcoming, or that we have already entered the dawn of a new steroid era. I say so because it's the simple reality of the situation.
Ballplayers are always going to find ways to get an edge. Way back when, they cheated by throwing spitballs and by doctoring equipment. Then came steroids and amphetamines—or "greenies"—which Mark Kreidler of ESPN.com once wrote went together with baseball "like hot dogs and apple pie." After these things came testosterone. After testosterone will come something else.
And make no mistake, there will always be something else for would-be cheaters to use in order to get an edge. There are dozens and dozens of drugs on Major League Baseball's list of banned substances, yet we only know a couple of them by name. There are no doubt plenty of substances on the list that probably should be more widespread than they are. If one player discovers one of them makes a difference, other players will surely follow his fine example.
And since testosterone is hard to test for, it stands to reason that there are other substances on the list that are hard to test for. Plus, you have to think the list itself may never actually be complete.
This is the 21st century, after all. We humans have a whole periodic table-full of elements and all sorts of fancy lab equipment to work with, and there's always money to be made. If there's a PED that hasn't been discovered yet, it probably will be discovered before long.
The drugs will always be there, and there will always be players who are willing to take them. For them, the potential reward will always outweigh the risk.
The three guys MLB has suspended in the last few months are perfect examples. Cabrera was in a contract year, and his .346 batting average and various accolades (i.e. All-Star Game MVP) surely would have resulted in a multi-year contract worth millions upon millions of dollars had he not been caught. He stood to make the payday of a lifetime.
Cabrera may still yet make the payday of a lifetime. He could sign a one-year deal this offseason, do well, and get his coveted multi-year deal next offseason. He's only 28, so there's still plenty of time for him to make a fortune in baseball.
Colon, meanwhile, has already made a lot of money in baseball throughout his career. But he, too, was performing to get paid when he was caught in 2012. He had a 3.43 ERA through 24 starts and had pitched 152.1 innings, numbers that put him in line for a decent one-year contract even despite the fact he'll be turning 40 years old early on in 2013.
And as it turned out, he got paid anyway. The Oakland A's re-signed Colon to a one-year deal worth $3 million, a $1 million raise over what he made in 2013. Incentives could push his 2013 salary as high as $6 million.
But it's cheaters like Grandal that MLB should be really worried about: Up-and-comers who see cheating as a way to start earning big paychecks earlier in their careers than maybe they otherwise would have.
Had he not been caught, Grandal could have continued to put up big numbers and perhaps signed a nice contract extension with the Padres. He probably would have found himself in line for a very nice pay raise when he finally got to arbitration.
If we take it for granted that Braun actually cheated last season, his juicing also makes sense. He was trying to live up to a contract extension that he signed early in the 2011 season, and the Brewers' push for the playoffs gave him even more incentive to cheat.
The point: There's no such thing as a cheater with nothing to gain. Players who put up numbers stand to earn paychecks with a lot of extra zeroes, and accolades are icing on the cake.
And indeed, with so much money being pumped into the game thanks to lucrative TV contracts nowadays, players know that there's more money to be had than ever before.
We'd all love to believe that public shame is a deterrent, but it's really not. The only real deterrent is professional shame, as it can hit players right where it hurts: their wallets. The bad news is that cheaters are only going to have to deal with public shame when they are caught and suspended, and that does little to solve the problem since not enough players are being caught and the penalties themselves aren't harsh enough.
Verducci noted in his article that the threat of a 50-game suspension just isn't scary enough to keep players in line, and I have to agree with him. I also agree with Verducci that a full one-year ban for first-time offenders needs to be put in place, a notion that I called for after Cabrera was suspended in August. I believe a one-year ban is needed even more so now after the suspensions of Colon and Grandal.
But even a one-year ban for first-time users probably wouldn't stop cheaters from cheating altogether. There will still be jobs waiting for known cheaters when they're ready to return, as there was for Manny Ramirez in 2012 for the A's after his self-imposed one-year ban in 2011.
The only way MLB can prevent the cheaters from coming crawling back is by banning them for life. It takes three strikes to get such a punishment now. Perhaps it should be two.
But for the time being, it sounds like this is a fool's hope. Verducci noted in his article that there are no discussions taking place about possibly changing the league's system of punishments to be harsher than they already are. And even if MLB does come to the conclusion that harsher penalties are needed, my guess is that the league's ideas will be met with strong resistance from the players' association.
Regardless of whether we're talking about new testing or new punishments, the problem is that change will come slowly. Major modifications to baseball's drug-testing procedures and the punishments themselves will not happen overnight. And by the time changes are made, some guy in a lab coat somewhere may have already created a trendy new PED that is both really effective and really hard to detect.
So don't expect to ever watch a baseball game comprised entirely of clean players. Such a thing does not exist now, and it never will. The game will never become totally clean. It will only ever become cleaner.
But this doesn't mean you have to turn in your baseball fan card. It may often feel like baseball is the only sport with a PED problem, but it's not. PEDs and sports go hand-in-hand.
Goodness knows what professional football players are getting away with, and you can rest assured that there are PEDs in basketball, hockey, soccer, all the combat sports and every other sport from cycling all the way down to competitive Starcraft. It actually wouldn't be much of a surprise if somebody determined one day that MLB is one of the cleaner leagues in the world.
You don't have to like it, and you certainly don't have to condone it. On the contrary, people should never stop being outraged.
But hey, this is how it is.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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