The emergence of the Biogenesis scandal over the last few months has been Major League Baseball's call to fight another battle against an all-too-familiar foe: performance-enhancing drugs.
Baseball is surely hoping for a decisive victory this time, one that will rid the game of PEDs once and for all. If Biogenesis founder Anthony Bosch gives the MLB what it needs to suspend Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and the other players linked to the now-shuttered clinic, perhaps PEDs will disappear from baseball entirely.
Pardon the spoiler, but that's not going to happen.
Call it a wild guess based on the MLB's track record. The league doesn't have a long history of trying to rid the game of PEDs, but the various efforts it's made to de-juice baseball have all been met with varying degrees of failure.
The narrative goes a little something like this.
Early 1990s: Didn't You Get Fay Vincent's Memo?
Based solely on appearances—i.e. players the size of houses and balls going over the fence at absurd rates—you'd think that steroids weren't against the rules in the 1990s.
They actually were.
In 1990, Congress cracked down on anabolic steroids with the Anabolic Steroids Control Act, which effectively made them an illegal drug. The next year in 1991, MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent made it clear in a memo that this was very much relevant to baseball.
The possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by Major League players and personnel is strictly prohibited. Major League players or personnel involved in the possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance are subject to discipline by the Commissioner and risk permanent expulsion from the game…
This prohibition applies to all illegal drugs and controlled substances, including steroids or prescription drugs for which the individual in possession of the drug does not have a prescription.
Like that, the league was put on notice that using steroids was against the rules. Any players who read the memo knew what the deal was.
However, they also would have realized that the memo never said how juicers were going to be caught. Players weren't going to be tested for steroids, and the memo said that players with drug abuse problems would be kicked out of the league only after rehabilitation efforts were carried out.
The memo might as well have said: "Steroids are illegal now, but do us all a favor and just don't get caught, guys."
The 1991 season saw noted juicer Jose Canseco lead the American League with 44 homers. Three years later in the strike-shortened 1994 season, the league's slugging percentage rose to .424. The last time it had been that high was 1930, the year Hack Wilson set the single-season RBI record.
It was apparent that something unnatural was going on, and it would only get more obvious in the years to come.
Late 1990s: Didn't You Get Bud Selig's Rehash of Fay Vincent's Memo?
There was plenty of power to go around in 1994, but it was a mere appetizer for what would happen later in the 1990s.
The 1996 season proved to a historic one. A total of 17 players hit at least 40 home runs, a mark that still stands as a major league record. Brady Anderson, whose previous career-high had been 21 homers, launched 50 homers. Ken Caminiti came into the season with a career-high of 26 homers in a season, and he proceeded to launch 40 homers on his way to winning the NL MVP.
Early in the 1997 season, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig issued a memo that essentially rehashed what was said in Fay Vincent's 1991 memo. According to Tom Farrey of ESPN.com, the memo stated that steroids were illegal in baseball and it urged clubs to make sure players knew it.
But there was still no testing and no clear-cut punishment for using steroids. The open invitation to use them was still, well, open.
Naturally, the power surge didn't subside. A dozen players hit at least 40 homers in 1997, with Mark McGwire leading the way with 57. The next year saw as many as four players hit at least 50 homers for the first time in MLB history, with McGwire and Sammy Sosa both breaking Roger Maris' single-season record of 61.
A bottle of Androstenedione—a substance banned by the NFL, NCAA and the Olympics—was spotted in McGwire's locker midway through the year, but the ensuing controversy was only minor and it didn't get in the way of him hitting a record 70 home runs.
The power surge continued after 1998. McGwire and Sosa both topped 60 homers again in 1999, and the league's slugging percentage equaled that of the 1930 season. In 2000, the league's slugging percentage rose to a record-high .437.
By 2001, MLB knew it needed to do something. There just wasn't much the league could do besides aim for an easy target.
April, 2001: Testing (in the Minors) Begins!
Major League Baseball couldn't implement drug-testing at the major league level all on its own in the early 2000s. That would have required an agreement with the MLB Players Association, which at the time was charged with protecting the interests of a long list of juicers.
So the MLB picked on a defenseless institution instead: the minor leagues.
Per MLB.com, all players not on a major league club's 40-man roster were subject to random testing for PEDs and drugs of abuse starting in 2001. The system of penalties was as follows:
- 15-game ban for a first offense.
- 30-game ban for a second offense.
- 60-game ban for a third offense.
- One-year ban for a fourth offense.
- Permanent ban for a fifth offense.
The five-strikes-and-out system didn't do much to deter minor league users. In 2005, baseball revealed that it had suspended a total of 38 minor leaguers in the years since testing had been put in place.
Meanwhile at the major league level, MLB's warning shot was largely ignored.
The 2001 season saw Barry Bonds break Mark McGwire's single-season record with 73 home runs, Sammy Sosa top 60 homers for a fourth time and Luis Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez both top 50 homers. Bonds and Sosa were on the juice at the time, and A-Rod eventually admitted in 2009 that he was too.
Major League Baseball still had a problem on its hands, and it wasn't until the next year that the union agreed that something needed to be done about it.
2002-2004: Testing (with very light Penalties) Begins in the Majors!
By the time the 2002 season rolled around, the suspicion over steroids in baseball was growing. As much as they were enjoying the remarkable feats of Steroid Era stars, fans were becoming increasingly wary of how these feats were being accomplished.
That summer, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated helped turn the whispers into shouts.
With a little help from Ken Caminiti and other players, Verducci penned an article that contained the following punch to the gut:
Steroid use, which a decade ago was considered a taboo violated by a few renegade sluggers, is now so rampant in baseball that even pitchers and wispy outfielders are juicing up—and talking openly among themselves about it. According to players, trainers and executives interviewed by SI over the last three months, the game has become a pharmacological trade show.
Baseball's reaction was swift. When MLB and the MLBPA struck a new labor deal later that summer, part of the agreement was to begin random testing for steroids and PEDs.
The testing got underway in 2003, but it was only "Survey Testing." The tests were to be anonymous and would carry no punishments. The purpose was simply to find out how many players were juicing. Baseball would only take the next step if more than five percent of the league was using.
In November of 2003, the results were in. Sure enough, more than five percent of the league was dirty.
That was MLB's excuse to start mandatory testing in 2004, but the new policy was light on deterrents. According to MLB.com, here's what happened in the event of a positive test or two:
Any player testing positive would immediately enter the 'Clinical Track' to be treated for steroid use. If a player under treatment fails another test, is convicted or pleads guilty to the sale and or use of a prohibited substance, that player would immediately be moved to the 'Administrative Track' and subject to discipline.
So still no punishment for first-time offenders. On top of that, offenders wouldn't even have their names made public until they were disciplined, meaning users would be able to avoid public shaming as long as they only got caught once.
Despite the new testing procedure, 2004 panned out to be a typical Steroid Era season. Nine players hit at least 40 home runs, and the league's .428 slugging percentage was actually higher than the league's slugging percentage during Barry Bonds' record-breaking 2001 season.
The league had taken a step forward with its PED policy, but the open invitation for players to juice was still very much open.
2004-2006: Penalties Upgraded from Nonexistent to Laughable
While the MLB was busy organizing a long overdue witch hunt in the early 2000s, the government was carrying out a witch hunt of its own.
In 2003, Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds were invited to tell a grand jury what they knew about BALCO. In the winter of 2004, the San Francisco Chronicle published accounts of what they and other MLB players had said in their testimonies, and what was said didn't exactly dispel the notion that baseball had a serious PED problem.
That was Bud Selig's cue to urge the union to consider a stricter PED policy, which he did in December of 2004. It didn't take long for then-union chief Donald Fehr to agree that it was a good idea, and a few weeks later a deal was struck for the following:
- 10-day ban for first-time offenders.
- 30-day ban for second-time offenders.
- 60-day ban for third-time offenders.
- One-year ban for fourth-time offenders.
On top of the penalties, the agreement called for first-time offenders to have their names made public. It took a long time for the MLB and the union to get around to it, but the two sides had finally decided that PED users needed to be both hammered and shamed into submission.
It didn't work out so well.
The writing was on the wall early on in 2005 that it was going to be a long season for PED suspensions. Four players were busted in April, and Selig was already pushing for a harsher system of punishments by the end of the month.
For the MLB, 2005 was at best a bittersweet season. The league finally had a system of penalties in place to deal with PED users, but the high amount of suspensions revealed that A) players were still using and B) that 10 games for a first-time offense wasn't going to be enough to convince them to stop using.
Knowing this, baseball decided to go all-out.
2006-Now: Tougher Penalties, the Mitchell Report and More Troublemakers
Immediately following the conclusion of the 2005 season, MLB and the union signed off on a much harsher system of PED penalties that called for:
- 50-game ban for first-time offenders.
- 100-game ban for second-time offenders.
- Lifetime ban for third-time offenders.
The MLB and the union also added amphetamines to the banned list, with multiple positive tests for those potentially resulting a lifetime ban.
Officially, the purpose of Mitchell's investigation was strictly to study. Unofficially, it was a clear witch hunt designed to dig up names and strike fear into the hearts of past users and would-be users alike.
The Mitchell Report was released in December of 2007. Among the names tarnished were those of Roger Clemens, Miguel Tejada, Andy Pettitte and Eric Gagne, and the gist of the report was summed up in this passage:
The illegal use of performance-enhancing substances poses a serious threat to the integrity of the game. Widespread use by players of such substances unfairly disadvantages the honest athletes who refuse to use them and raises questions about the validity of baseball records.
The good news? It's that stricter penalties and the Mitchell Report have had a positive effect. The league's power numbers have fallen considerably in recent years, and you no longer see players bulking up and playing at a high level deep into their 30s. The PED culture that existed in baseball in the 1990s and early 2000s has clearly dissipated.
The bad news? Although it has dissipated, the league's PED problem isn't dead yet.
There are still a few PED suspensions every year, and MLB happens to be coming off a particularly troublesome year on the PED front. Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and Yasmani Grandal were busted for testosterone in 2012, and 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun only managed to escape a suspension of his own because of a chain-of-custody snafu.
Now Braun, A-Rod, Cabrera, Colon and Grandal are among the players in the middle of the Biogenesis mess. It's still uncertain whether anything can be proven about their alleged ties to the clinic, but their being linked to the clinic at all doesn't exactly look good in light of their past ties to PEDs.
It's going to be a while before the Biogenesis mess is resolved, and it's probably not going to be resolved before the league and the union engage in a nasty fight over possible suspensions. The Biogenesis scandal has the potential to be by far the ugliest PED scandal baseball has ever faced.
Going forward, it bodes well that both Selig and players are calling for stricter PED protocols. The league most certainly has gotten cleaner, and it's only going to get cleaner if the penalties for juicing become more severe.
But there's clean and then there's spotless. The MLB hasn't figured out how to achieve the latter, and it's doubtful that it ever will.
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