PHILADELPHIA — This planned show of force by Major League Baseball is quickly devolving into farce.
If Alex Rodriguez plays baseball Monday night in Chicago, within hours of being suspended for 50 or 150 or 214 games, commissioner Bud Selig’s attempted display of strength will serve only to remind everyone how weak MLB has been throughout the steroid era.
That is fitting, because Rodriguez apparently has been cheating in plain sight throughout his career, just as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire cheated in plain sight.
That was supposed to be impossible once MLB finally awakened to the crisis and started testing with consequences in 2004. But it turns out it wasn’t just possible, it was easy. The message in the Biogenesis scandal, which reportedly will result in a mushroom cloud of suspensions on Monday, isn’t that MLB has finally gotten the drop on cheaters. The message is that its testing program is woefully inadequate and its schedule of punishments is no deterrent.
Players continue to cheat because the financial rewards are enormous and because beating the tests is relatively easy.
MLB didn’t bust Rodriguez and Ryan Braun and the rest of Team Biogenesis because of its state-of-the-art lab work. It busted them because a disgruntled employee turned incriminating records over to a Miami weekly newspaper.
Like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens before him, Rodriguez can truthfully claim that he has never failed a drug test since MLB officially implemented its program.
But then, Bonds got busted only because a track coach named Trevor Graham sent a syringe to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. That led to an investigation into the BALCO lab near San Francisco, and that led to Bonds.
Clemens got busted only because his drug dealer, Kirk Radomski, flipped on him and exposed his cheating to the commission that produced the Mitchell Report.
For every BALCO and Biogenesis, chances are there are a number of other enterprises with equally long and impressive client lists. Selig can bring the hammer down on Rodriguez and Braun, but he’s stomping on the roaches running across the floor instead of wiping out the root problem.
Clearly, players employ chemists and trainers who know exactly how to provide the benefits of PEDs while avoiding detection. That allows them to convert testosterone into statistics, which translate into enormous guaranteed contracts.
In 2007, the Yankees signed Rodriguez to a 10-year contract worth $275 million. In February 2009, he tearfully admitted to using steroids up until 2003, coincidentally the last year there were no MLB penalties. About nine months later, Rodriguez helped the Yankees beat the Phillies in the World Series.
If the Biogenesis evidence is as convincing as it appears to be, it means Rodriguez was cheating in 2003 and just never stopped. He was rewarded with that 10-year contract for numbers he amassed through fraudulent means. But the Yankees have no recourse, no way to invalidate the deal, just as the Milwaukee Brewers are on the hook for $113 million owed to Braun through 2020.
Rodriguez hinted that the Yankees may actually be rooting for a long suspension, because it could save them tens of millions of dollars. It is a reasonable assumption. Since he’s 38 and coming off hip surgery, there’s a chance Rodriguez’s career could be over if he’s suspended through 2014.
So he is expected to appeal any suspension, especially if it is longer than the 50 games mandated by the collective bargaining agreement. And he would be allowed to play until an arbitrator ruled on his appeal.
Braun beat a positive drug test on appeal last year, getting off on a technicality involving the handling of his urine sample. The worst thing that could happen to MLB is for Rodriguez to win on appeal. Whether he gets a long suspension shortened or skates free, he will make a mockery of Selig’s long, long, long overdue attempt to show real strength on this issue.
If Selig is able to make a long suspension stick, that will be a symbolic victory for now. But MLB still has to find a way to change its culture with effective, year-round testing, punishments that outweigh the rewards, and a mechanism for voiding contracts of dirty players.