This week has seen Manny Ramirez, a modern day icon Baseball banned for 50 matches after testing positive for a banned substance. He's the third player this season to be caught using a banned substance after Romero and Mitre earlier this season.
The important issue in all of this is not if Manny really is knowingly taking drugs, as ESPN sources would have us believe.
But is the Major League starting to crack down on drug use, or is Ramirez being used as a high profile example to prove the doping agencies are still looking for cheats?
Baseball has been bombarded in recent years with drug scandals, which has led to a much tighter drug policies. They first appeared in 2002, and were revised for the second time before the 2006 season.
Under this new policy, any player testing positive receives an automatic 50 game ban, followed by 100 games with a second infraction, and then a lifetime ban for further offences.
On the surface, this policy shows baseball to be intolerant of cheaters and determined to squeeze them out.
But there are (and should be) many who doubt both baseball’s credentials as a clean sport and the desire of Major League Baseball to catch those using Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED’s).
For Baseball, this new policy is a huge step forward from a programme that, before 2006, did not name or take any action against a player caught taking PED’s for the first time. Under that system, a player would need to test positive three times in order to receive a ban like Ramirez’s.
The first major drawback to the testing system is the lack of offseason testing, which, in effect, means any player could use PED’s in the winter without any fear of being caught.
That is a far cry from cycling, wherein athletes can be tested at any time on any day—competition or not. Cyclists need to provide their location at all times to doping agencies. Get even this wrong, and the athlete could face a ban of 12 months, without even being tested.
If that isn’t enough, let’s look at the frequency of testing.
Under the new strict MLB policy, each player will be tested at least once per year, with the chance that several players could be tested on more than one occasion.
That's great news. With every player being tested, there is no way one of them can be taking drugs and not get caught. And, surely, the top performing players will be tested more frequently
But Ramirez stated in his defence that he has underwent about fifteen drug tests in the last five years.
In a recent interview with the BBC sprint cyclist and Tour de France Stage Winner, Mark Cavendish stated that he was tested 64 times during 2008. So, in three months, a road cyclist is likely to be tested for drugs more than one of Baseball’s top stars does in five years.
Baseball could head in one of two directions. It could spend millions of dollars to clean up the sport and create a level playing field. There is nothing to stop them from doing that.
Cycling has spent over 5 million Euro on a new Athlete Passport, which will cost around 3 million Euro more a year to maintain and test athletes. This new system will place cycling at the forefront of science and technology, making it almost impossible for an athlete to take drugs without detection.
Meanwhile, Baseball still sits back and leisurely tests its players, saving millions of dollars, but it still looks like it's cracking down by creating tough sanctions on those unlucky (or stupid) enough to get caught.
Baseball is a rich sport, a sport that pays players like Ramirez $25 million a year; the $7 million or so he will lose in earnings from his ban alone would pay for an overhaul in the system
But the truth is Major League Baseball doesn’t want players to be caught. As soon as Rodriguez, Ramirez, Bonds, or McGwire are caught, the game takes a dent—a huge dent. The game stops being America’s favourite pastime, and becomes a sport riddled with drug use and cheats.
You need to ask yourself: is Baseball really a level playing field, or are those using drugs just not chased down?