After an 18-year career in the majors, Johnny Damon feels he was forced to leave the game of baseball before he was ready to hang up the spikes. The reason for that, according to Damon, is because he never used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).
In an interview with 810 CBS Sports, the 40-year-old was asked to consider his place in baseball history. In addition to the stats and the accolades, Damon said the following should be considered:
I played it clean. That's what everybody's going to be looking at. I think I'm one of the only players to come out and say, "I guarantee you there is nothing I've done that enhanced my baseball career."
Over the course of those 18 years, Damon played with a handful of notable players tied to PED use. To name a few: Manny Ramirez, Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Andy Pettitte, David Ortiz, Roger Clemens, Magglio Ordonez and Gary Sheffield.
He makes an interesting case for his enshrinement amongst baseball's greats. With 2,769 hits, a .284 average, 1,139 RBI and two World Series championships (2004 and 2009), Damon certainly had an above-average career with the Kansas City Royals, Oakland Athletics, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Indians. With no evidence or speculation contradicting his claimed cleanliness, he might just have a case for Cooperstown.
However, that debate is for another day. The rest of the interview was far more notable and worth talking about, as Damon looked at more than his own career, focusing on some of the problems with Major League Baseball as the game tries to move past the PED era:
The game today, it's a slap on the wrist for people, and it sends a bad message to kids, the families. You can't fault someone who has a chance to make $20 million, $50 million, $100 million for going against the system to get to where they are. You can't fault them.
There are certain guys who cheated the system and they're still being patted on the back. That's not great for our kids, especially my son. He's playing high school baseball now and these kids are very influenced, and if you tell a kid, "You do something and you're going to have a chance to make $100 million," people are going to sign up.
I don't want my son or anybody else's kid to get involved with it. But it seems like Major League Baseball is allowing it.
Now, who might Damon be talking about? Who fits that mold of getting a slap on the wrist for cheating the system? A few players come to mind, including Jhonny Peralta, Nelson Cruz and Melky Cabrera.
After being suspended 50 games in 2013 as part of the Biogenesis scandal, Peralta signed a lavish four-year, $53 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals this past winter. Cruz, who was also suspended as a part of the scandal, signed a more modest but still generous one-year, $8 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles. And after being suspended 50 games as a member of the 2012 San Francisco Giants, Cabrera agreed to a two-year, $16 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.
These players cheated the game, yet following their suspensions, they were welcomed back with open arms and millions of dollars. Damon is right—that does send a bad, bad message, especially to youth ballplayers.
Two of those guys came back to make an average annual salary of $8 million, while the other, Peralta, got over $13 million a year. In what other profession can you break the rules and hurt your organization, yet somehow get such a grand reward?
Any young ballplayer, whether he be in high school, college, the minors or the 25th man on the big league roster, is looking at these cases and thinking, "Hey, this (PEDs) is worth it. Even if I get in trouble, I'm going to get paid. I could make millions."
This, as Damon said, is something Major League Baseball needs to look at. The league needs to strengthen its substance-abuse policy, because as much as it says it cares about cleaning up the game, the way Damon and so many others see it, it's still beneficial for players to cheat. The consequences have yet to outweigh the rewards.
That means going beyond suspensions and public shaming and hitting players where it hurts, their pockets. One way to do this that frequently comes up is to limit suspended players to a certain salary, say the league minimum, come their next free-agent contract. It's a great idea, one that would truly make players pay for their actions and would tell other players to stay clear of PEDs.
The problem with this is that the player's union would never agree to it, because, well, there are still cheaters out there. Those cheaters want to get paid if they get caught, just like Peralta, Cruz and Cabrera did.
The best option available, as far as cleaning up the game goes, is for the league, its teams and its players (the clean ones) to take a moral stand against PED use. Back in November the Arizona Diamondbacks made headlines for their tendency to avoid players with ties to PEDs.
Arizona's Brad Ziegler made his personal thoughts known as well following the Peralta signing:
People really don't understand how this works. We thought 50 games would be a deterrent. Obviously it's not. So we are working on it again.— Brad Ziegler (@BradZiegler) November 24, 2013
This is what Major League Baseball needs. More players, active ones, have to come out and shame those who disparage the game of baseball. More teams have to refuse to bring these guys aboard. The suspensions do no good if teams are still lining up to pay the cheaters.
Damon is onto something here. Baseball is sending mixed messages about the pitfalls of PED use. Getting caught is not teaching players the lesson the league wants them to learn. It's time the MLB as a whole got on the same page and started sending the right message.
There can be no reward for cheating the game.
All stats were obtained via Baseball-Reference.
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