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August 5, 2013

Manufactured Runs

Biogenesis and Baseball's Post-Human Present

by Colin Wyers

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The announcement was mostly anticlimax. Twelve players accepted 50-game suspensions for their involvement with the Biogenesis clinic, and Alex Rodriguez is looking at a longer suspension pending appeal. Some of the names are a surprise, but not the name that everyone is talking about.

The Biogenesis story has, admittedly at the urging of MLB, become primarily about Alex Rodriguez and his massive contract, and Ryan Braun and his improperly handled sample. It is understandable, in that they’re both big stars and the storylines around them are indeed compelling. But there’s a larger story here that’s mostly being missed.

What Biogenesis revealed is that there were a collection of major-league players who had found a way to violate the terms of the Joint Drug Agreement without being detected during the ordinary enforcement mechanisms of that agreement. Now, ignore for a second that some of those players have stuck in the craw of MLB for some time now. If Biogenesis is the only such clinic, then… well you don’t really have to finish that thought, because of course it isn’t. Biogenesis is simply the one that’s the worst at keeping its dirty laundry out of the public eye.

MLB’s conduct against these players becomes both more and less understandable in that context. If you view Biogenesis as not an isolated incident, but as an indicator of a systemic problem that threatens the integrity of the entire JDA, then it’s a much more serious issue than two highly paid jerkweeds being jerkweeds. In that context, MLB’s enthusiasm for punishment makes quite a bit of sense.

But if Biogenesis warrants swift and severe action from MLB, it would also seem to call for sustainable action. If the integrity of the JDA is threatened by Biogenesis, then the most pressing question facing MLB is how to locate other clinics that supply players with substances that violate the JDA but are undetectable in the drug testing regimen. When seen in that light, it seems that MLB’s behavior is counterproductive at best.

There’s a reason that prosecutors tend to be forgiving to drug users in order to get at drug dealers. MLB, instead, has made deals with drug dealers in order to get at drug users. Then MLB went after those users at, at the very best, the absolute limits of due process under the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the JDA. Nothing MLB has done here is a long-term sustainable way of handling these kinds of cases in the future.

What everyone (except for Rodriguez) seems to want is to put this situation behind them. To have it be over. But this isn’t over, and it will not be over, and it will never be over. Welcome to baseball’s post-human future. Athletes in pursuit of the greatest advantage will always find pressure to seek help from any and all corners. Chemists and biologists will always come up with new advancements that can be illicitly applied to improve the human body, whether by intent or in the course of other research. A regime of testing and punishment will discourage offenders. But even under the current regime, there are players that will use substances against the rules of baseball. Some of them were punished today, but the reasonable assumption is that at least as many if not more were not, and unless something changes, they will likely get away with it.

This isn’t to say that policing baseball is hopeless or pointless. But when the police arrest a drug dealer, nobody hopes that drug dealing is behind us forever. We understand that rules and laws will be broken, and that some will be caught and punished. MLB and its fans need to accept that there is no “steroid era,” that there are simply just steroids. They need to plan for a future where ballplayers will cheat and get caught and get punished, and stop waiting for baseball to find a cleanliness that it will never have again. Different people can have differing opinions over how we deal with that new reality, and we should be frank and open about those differences and try to find some common ground. But the conversation needs to start happening in the context of reality, not a fantasy that we can put this behind us once and for all.

And right now, MLB and the Players Association are no better prepared for the next Biogenesis type of clinic than they were for this one. One day, Alex Rodriguez’s career will be over and done with. He won’t be forgotten, but some day he will be in baseball’s past. Performance enhancing drugs won’t be. By focusing on A-Rod, we’ve been distracted from the larger problem.

On MLB Network, discussing the suspension, Harold Reynolds said, “These players have damaged the game of baseball.” But you know what? They haven’t. They’ve hurt their teams, and their fans, and themselves. But baseball itself? Baseball itself is fine. Baseball itself will endure. Performance enhancing drugs are simply not an existential crisis for baseball. But right now, we’re allowing them to overshadow the game itself. Baseball certainly can survive being overshadowed by PEDs, for a time. But baseball will be healthier if the use of PEDs is put into the appropriate context – a part of the game, but not more important than the game itself. Constant hysteria is unsustainable. The question is whether or not we can move on from it.

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

Related Content:  New York Yankees,  Steroids,  PEDs,  Biogenesis

21 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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sho044

Something I'm not clear about... didnt Grandal, Melky Cabrera, and Colon (and Braun technically) actually test positive for testosterone? Was that tied to use from Biogenesis, and if so, is that not indicating that testing is working on some level? If not, why are they getting a free pass on this one?

Aug 05, 2013 11:24 AM
rating: 3
 
boards

I haven't seen the announcement yet, but I believe it was mentioned previously that those players had already served suspensions for testing positive (except Braun of course). The reasoning is that those suspensions were Biogenesis-related and therefore the violations we are now hearing about were already dealt with on those specific players. No double jeopardy in a sense.

Aug 05, 2013 12:06 PM
rating: 1
 
onlyalad

"Performance enhancing drugs are simply not an existential crisis for baseball"

Amen. Frankly I'm tired of so much moralizing on the part of sportswriters. If they wanted to get into the morality business they should have been philosophers or priests or at the very least not focused on sports. Cheating in sports affects relatively few people adversely in any material way. It hurts plenty in a "psychic" or "spiritual" way, but the only people harmed materially are other ballplayers and maybe gamblers. Teams still get the revenue that theoretically resulted from the offending players' performances, so I find it a little hard to accept the owners and their representative Commissioner engaging in such grandstanding after-the-fact.

And what really is harmed, anyways? What is the result here? Steroids did not ever pitch an inning for Roger Clemens. HGH never hit a home run for Barry Bonds. Those players still did what they did. They did it with an advantage, but exactly how much of an advantage is pure speculation, given that we simply can't know how a player's performance was affected by PEDs. Baseball's statistics are too subject to random variation to just say "well Braun had a 30% increase in OPS or WARP or whatever from this year to that year, so clearly that was all the steroids." Adrian Beltre had a great increase in his hitting stats starting in his age-31 season, unprecedented except for his age-25 season, but I don't hear many people throwing around steroids accusations for him. Nor should they. Individual baseball players have weird turns in their careers.

So my point is that all this stuff about how the game is tainted or how the rulebook's purity is gone or how some adult sports fans "lost their innocence" because they were naive enough to believe that in a league in which players still get caught for corking their bats and scuffing the ball, the players would avoid gaining an advantage pioneered by other athletes in other sports -- all of that is nonsense. It was cheating, yes, but it really wasn't any worse than all of the other stuff ballplayers do to cheat and have done since the game was invented. Just mete out the punishments and move on. And save the vitriol for the Matt Garzas of the world.

Aug 05, 2013 13:13 PM
rating: 5
 
jafessenden

"There’s a reason that prosecutors tend to be forgiving to drug users in order to get at drug dealers. MLB, instead, has made deals with drug dealers in order to get at drug users."

I've made this point many times. If MLB, the players and the media have either lost sight or don't care about the basic issue: player health and safety. Instead they make it some moral litmis test about cheating and integrity.

Aug 05, 2013 13:54 PM
rating: 6
 
mikebuetow

The basic issue is a matter of perspective. Clearly players who have for years ignored any health risks presented by HGH, steroids or other PEDs have set the tone. Is MLB fundamentally wrong, then, to follow their lead?

That said, there are many, many examples that player health and safety are not at the top of MLB's list. Witness the lack of padded walls, the reluctance to fit pitchers with cap liners or other protection, the refusal to call catchers for interference when blocking the plate without the ball, etc. These are just basic adoptions that would significantly lessen the risk factor and the severity of injuries without in any way necessitating a philosophical debate.

I do think we worry too much about certain kinds of cheating, or at least, futilely try to compare and even rank them.

Aug 05, 2013 15:12 PM
rating: 1
 
bbuvinger2004

I'm so sick of this. Since everyone but Braun were Latin American players, what does this mean for baseball? Won't MLB's efforts to further decrease the amount of money going to International signees put even greater pressure on these players to do anything to get an edge? Use them then spit them out seems to be MLB's policy towards Latin American players.

Aug 05, 2013 16:17 PM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

Francisco Cervelli?

Aug 05, 2013 18:14 PM
rating: 0
 
bbuvinger2004

Yep! Turned him into a great hitter.

Aug 05, 2013 20:11 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

Is actually from Venezuela. Not that I think that MLB's PED enforcement should be based on the race or country of origin of the player.

Aug 06, 2013 08:56 AM
 
bbuvinger2004

I guess my question would be why the vast majority of people getting suspensions have been from Central and South American countries. I don't believe that the MLB is deliberately targeting these players, but I'm not sure Management or the Union are taking appropriate steps to understand why this is the case. The price of failure for a player from the D.R. is greater than that of a college educated player drafted in the US. The results of failure is a return to the poverty of the islands.

Aug 06, 2013 10:07 AM
rating: 1
 
andrews

I agree with the main thrust of the article. The best way to deal with it is to increase the penalties to such a degree that players are dis-incentivised from using peds.

Announce that from some point in the future any player involved in a systematic doping program will be banned for life, this will prevent players getting punished for inadvertently taking a "supplement" but punish the pre-meditated use of peds.

This wouldn't be applied retrospectively so any player knowingly risking their career would have no one to blame but themselves.

Aug 06, 2013 02:35 AM
rating: 0
 
Behemoth

Except that many of the players involved in Biogenesis were fringy guys with not so much to lose. I doubt that even lifetime bans stop PED use, given that many of the users are on the verge of not having a career anyway, and those that are getting PEDs from better sources than Biogenesis will be confident that they can beat the test anyway.

Aug 06, 2013 08:39 AM
rating: 2
 
mikebuetow

Keep in mind that those who were caught this time were nailed not because of testing but because Biogensis imploded. In other words, the guilty parties fell into MLB's lap. MLB couldn't manage to suspend Ryan Braun even *after* he failed a test. And most analysts believe there are many, many more outfits like Biogenesis out there. Logically, there's little reason to believe that other top-tier athletes aren't doping too. It's tough for me to hang this on fringe players with nothing to lose.

Athletes are going to cheat. Baseball officials are going to look the other way. The media is going to hyperventilate. A scorpion is a scorpion.

Aug 06, 2013 08:47 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

There is already a lifetime ban in the JDA for someone caught using for a third time. I'm unsure as to how your proposal differs materially from what there is now.

Aug 06, 2013 09:00 AM
 
bbuvinger2004

I agree the penalties are more than adequate both from a monetary standpoint and the amount of negative attention that the players have to endure. I expect future earnings will be significantly affected.

Aug 06, 2013 10:11 AM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

Today was a great day for baseball.

The three biggest things to come out of this are

1) MLB (and Bud) finally being proactive in addressing the problem

2) The support of the union in applying the penalties

3) The clean members of the 'rank and file' expressing themselves in a way never seen before.

"What everyone (except for Rodriguez) seems to want is to put this situation behind them."

Not me.

Hopefully this is the new day where MLB will no longer look the other way, the union will no longer defend cheats at the expense of those playing fair, and the non-guilty will be free to speak up in their majority (and perhaps call out other cheaters).

"Cheating in sports affects relatively few people adversely in any material way."

really? Check the tweet of Dan Meyer who was beaten out of a job in 2011 by Bastardo and who is now is out of baseball.

Aug 06, 2013 10:58 AM
rating: -1
 
grubio
(202)

1) MLB (and Bud) using questionable evidence to suspend players who have not failed any drug tests nor been prosecuted for crimes.
2) A union who turns its back on its own CBA and throws its players under the bus.
3) The clean members never drink, take uppers, smoke dope, or any of that stuff, right?

Aug 07, 2013 15:06 PM
rating: 2
 
jjw

There is no way that testing will reveal all the PED users. As Colin (and many others) have noted, the science will always be one step ahead of the tests. And no matter how severe the penalty (lifetime ban for first offence?), the pressure to make the majors (note now many minor leaguers were caught, and continue to be caught by testing - just the tip of the iceberg, as they say), to hang on for a few more years in the majors/keep your job as a regular (Clemens, Colon, etc), or to make the jump from average player to all-star (Melky etc) are simply too great, with the rewards so huge (again, think Melky and his contract ambitions or, for minor leaguers, making the majors where the average salary is over $1M) that it unrealistic to expect this threat to all-but-eliminate the problem. I actually think the most promising targets for investigation and punishment, with significant results possible, are the dealers - the kinds of guys with whom MLB has made deals to get at the players. We should all see by now that none of those dealers were getting rich from this - even BALCO was making dinky-dink compared to the riches Bonds and their other customers were pulling in. And certainly this is the case with Biogenesis - talk about a dinky-dink operation! Go after the whole sad sack underworld of these 'laboratories' and try to significantly dry up the supply, to make their cost of doing business too high, their rewards too meagre to take such risks. That, plus perhaps more severe MLB penalties for offenders, seems the most useful strategy.

Aug 06, 2013 11:23 AM
rating: 0
 
nyyfaninlaaland

I blame Bob Costas.

His incessant drumbeat on this issue on every baseball broadcast of which he is a part has become tedious to the point of distraction.

I was favorably disposed towards him in the past. He now seems to me to be acting like the choir boy he seems to somehow resemble despite the passage of time.

HGH Bob? Kidding, of course.

Appreciate your take Colin. I've been saying the same to fellow fan friends for the last few days - despite abject frustration with the A-Rod circus. But I understand in our short attention span culture people will tend to gravitate to the quick take.

Aug 06, 2013 11:27 AM
rating: 4
 
stepck

We have a sport where tendons from right arms (or other locations) are surgically placed in left arms to allow players to continue playing. (And then we celebrate their perseverance while rehabbing.)

We celebrate Gaylord Perry and Whitey Ford who admitted cheating in their autobiographies. Why is the cheating that PED users did different? I guess we could make the argument that rules on the field are different than those off the field, and any associated legal issues with drug use, but I don't see the arguments presented in that fashion. They are presented in terms of "look at the records these guys put up while cheating."

Aug 06, 2013 14:39 PM
rating: 4
 
leh1935

Bob Costas is only one of the choir boys. How about Verducci,
Jim Bowden, and Casey Stearns just to mention a few other
examples. Bowden and Stearnes have been espcially crazy over
the past two weeks

Aug 09, 2013 21:57 PM
rating: 1
 
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