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January 31, 2013

On the Beat

The Unclean Game

by John Perrotto

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One of my best friends growing up was an all-state offensive lineman in Pennsylvania, one of the most talent-rich football states in the country. By his own admission, he probably wasn’t good enough to make it to the NFL. However, he was plenty good enough to land a scholarship to a NCAA Division I-AA program.

My friend was one of the hardest-working and most dedicated people I’ve ever been around. He never missed a workout, stayed in top shape and did everything possible—under the law—to maximize his physical gifts.

Getting a redshirt as a freshman, my friend spent five seasons in a program that was good enough to twice reach the NCAA playoffs. Yet for as talented and dedicated as he was, he never started a game. He only saw the field for special team duty and to serve as a mop-up-reliever-type role when games were out of hand.

Once my friend had graduated and returned home for the summer, we sat and talked one night, and I asked why he thought he was never able to crack the starting lineup. Never one to make excuses, he gave a matter-of-fact answer: There were five offensive linemen in his recruiting class. He graduated at basically the same weight as when he left for college. The other four finished their college career 40-50 pounds heavier because they used steroids. The coaches in the program never directly ordered their players to use steroids, but they strongly suggested that it would give them a much better chance at playing time. My friend refused to do it because of the potential health risks—his mother was a nurse—and also because he felt it was unethical.

So what is the point in writing the first four paragraphs about an offensive lineman for a website called Baseball Prospectus? Well, because this conversation occurred more than a quarter-century ago. So if players at one rung below the top level of college football were using steroids in the early- to mid-1980s, it stands to reason that Major League Baseball players were indulging in PED use long before “The Steroid Era,” which is generally assumed to have started in the latter stages of the 1990s.

Based on the latest revelation, reported by the alternative weekly newspaper the Miami New Times, PED use is still going strong in baseball. In the report, Alex Rodriguez, Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon, Yasmani Grandal, Gio Gonzalez, and Nelson Cruz were fingered to have allegedly bought human growth hormone or other PEDs from an anti-aging clinic in Coral Gables, Florida. Eight players were suspended by MLB for using PEDs last season, including Cabrera, Colon, and Grandal. That is as many players as who were suspended in the previous three years combined.

Though both sides had to initially be prodded by Congress, MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association should be applauded for putting together what is now the second-most stringent drug testing policy in sports, behind that of the Olympics. The latest improvements include in-season blood testing for HGH and mandating that each player undergo a baseline testosterone test to make it easier to determine higher levels of the hormone.

While MLB is, presumably, having more success than ever in catching dopers, one can’t help but wonder what percentage of players is still using banned substances. In a survey of 10 front-office types, the guesstimates ranged from 10 percent to 50 percent.

“Let’s take Ken Caminiti’s claim to Sports Illustrated that as many as 75 percent of the players were using steroids at the beginning of this century,” said one National League FOT, whose guess was 25 percent. “Well, I’m sure it’s not 75 percent now just because of the stigma attached to testing positive and getting suspended. I’d like to believe there are enough guys playing this game who have too much pride to have the stigma of being a drug cheat next to their names. I would like to think that is a deterrent.”

The deterrent should seemingly be the suspensions that MLB imposes for positive tests—50 games without pay for a first offense, 100 games without pay for a second offense, and a lifetime ban for a third strike. However, an American League FOT who thinks 40 percent of players are using feels the penalties should be strengthened.

“If you get suspended for 50 games, it’s a financial hit, but it’s not a death blow with the way the game’s salary structure is,” the AL FOT said. “Now, you take a kid like Grandal, who is only making a little over the minimum salary. I’m sure a suspension is going to hurt him somewhat financially. But, let’s just say—for the sake of speculation—that A-Rod would get a 50-game suspension out of this. For him, that’s like losing some change between the cushions of his couch. It might be a red mark against his name, but he already has a red mark against his name for admitting he used steroids in the past. I don’t see a suspension being a big deterrent for a lot of guys.”

So what would be a deterrent? The baseball version of a death penalty, said the AL FOT.

“One strike and you’re out,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re going to eradicate PEDs from the game. I think anyone would think long and hard about doing anything if they knew their career was on the line. That being said, it will never happen. The union will never agree to that.”

---

The Yankees are reportedly looking at all the possible ways in which they could void the final five years and $114 million of Rodriguez’s record 10-year, $275-million contract. However, one AL front-office type whose job it is know all the minutiae contained in contracts says there is almost no way the Yankees will be able to pull that off.

“It would take something drastic, something really terrible, because all player contracts are pretty much ironclad,” the AL FOT said. “A player would have to do something really heinous, a lot worse than getting PEDs from an anti-aging clinic. The Yankees’ best bet is to try to win an insurance claim.”

Rodriguez had hip surgery earlier this month and is expected to be out through the All-Star break. The Yankees have insurance on Rodriguez’s contract and reportedly would receive $100 million if the deal were terminated. However, the AL FOT warns that getting an insurance settlement is also going to be nearly impossible in this case.

“For starters, it would have to be a career-ending injury, and it certainly doesn’t look that way because the doctor has been saying all along that the surgery was successful,” the AL FOT said. “Even if it were a career-ending injury, the insurance company would fight it tooth and nail, and you’d have a battle in court with the insurance company’s doctors against the team’s doctors. It would get ugly and messy, and also very expensive.”

There have been some suggestions that the Yankees might swallow the $114 million and release Rodriguez so they can be rid of the perpetual headaches he causes. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but one former Rodriguez teammate gave a Yogi Berra-like explanation as he laughed off any suggestion that A-Rod might retire and walk away from the $114 million.

“A-Rod is embarrassment-proof,” the ex-teammate said. “Oh, he cares about public perception, probably more than any player in the game. The problem is A-Rod’s perception of public perception doesn’t match up with the true public perception of him. For a guy who is as image-conscious as he is, he can be the most totally unaware person in the world.”

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Veteran third baseman Scott Rolen has yet to make a decision on whether he will play an 18th major-league season or retire. The 37-year-old was limited to a combined 157 games with the Reds over the last two seasons because of injury, hitting just .244/.301/.397 with 13 home runs in 599 plate appearances and contributing just 0.6 WARP.

The Reds haven’t closed the door of bringing him back, but that is more of a courtesy to a well-respected veteran because Todd Frazier would likely see the majority of playing time at third base even if Rolen were re-signed. However, the Dodgers have interest in Rolen and view him as possible insurance in the event journeyman Luis Cruz cannot handle playing third base on a regular basis. One NL scout doesn’t think it’s a good idea.

“I’m not sold on Cruz playing every day because, for me, he’s a utility infielder,” the scout said. “But I don’t see anyway Scotty can even come close to playing every day anymore. He has had a great career, but his body is shot and he can’t catch up to good fastballs anymore. “

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With Braves right-hander Kris Medlen dropping off the United States provisional roster for the World Baseball Classic because his wife is due to give birth in March, the Americans are left with a starting rotation of right-handers R.A. Dickey of the Blue Jays and Ryan Vogelsong of the Giants and Rangers left-hander Derek Holland. Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte has also decided not to play, and Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander wants to wait to see how his arm feels during early spring training throwing sessions before he makes his final decision.

Therein lays a big problem with the WBC. Many of the top American players do not want to play, especially pitchers who are concerned they may be injured by straying from their regular spring training routines. Thus, such stars as Rays left-hander David Price, Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw, Giants right-hander Matt Cain, and Angels right-hander Jered Weaver won’t be on Team USA.

In theory, the WBC is a great idea. However, for practical purposes, it is never going to really work as long as the top American players resist participation.

“The problem is that there is no good time for it,” said one AL FOT. “Guys aren’t ready for full-bore competition in March, so the games aren’t as good as they could be. If you wait until after the World Series to play it, you’re either going to have players who are tired from just going through the postseason or rusty from not having played in over a month. Basically, it’s just not doable and it’s a pain in the ass for all the major-league teams because it disrupts all of our camps. If you polled all 30 GMs and gave them truth serum, I’d be willing to bet the vote would be 30-0 against the WBC.”

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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