Last week's agreement on a new program for steroid testing was met with equal parts applause and derision, proving once again that for some people, baseball can't do anything right.
I've not been an advocate of testing, largely because I find the practice of random drug testing abhorrent, a violation of individuals' rights where sobriety isn't a public-safety issue...I'm not going to argue that point here; I mention it only because that opinion informs my view on the issue as it relates to baseball. I recognize that the argument has been lost, perhaps permanently, as proving innocence becomes what we do in this society, but I'll continue to object to the practice.
That said, I also respect the bargaining process, and if the Players Association wants to give up certain rights in that process, they can do so. What I hate to see, however, is an agreement that is reached under duress. As in 2002, the MLBPA had its hand forced by a press and a public not eager to see the nuance in a complex issue. With the argument reduced to "Drugs bad, testing good," there wasn't much room for the players to do anything but accede to a tougher program. It appears that a plurality, perhaps even a majority, of players are happy with the agreement.
One thing that's interesting to note is the coverage, which largely paints this as an agreement driven by the players themselves rather than the union leadership. That's not necessarily untrue, but if the players are capable of taking control on this issue, isn't it an indication that the MLBPA is not, as it's been portrayed, under the control of its leadership? Isn't the change of position by Don Fehr and Gene Orza, their willingness to negotiate, a sign that the MLBPA really is a player-driven organization?
It will be interesting to see if this strength is remembered in 2006, when the press is accusing Fehr of being an ego-driven czar more concerned with his own issues than those of his players.
To the extent that this agreement helps the game, it's in being a public-relations gambit. That's really what drug-testing is: a sacrifice of individual rights in exchange for positive press. It's helped the NFL, which has a testing program that publicly sacrifices a player every now and then, considerably. I've said it before and I'll say it again; testing programs aside, if there really was a groundswell against performance-enhancing drugs in major professional sports, in what league do you think it would make the most sense to start looking?
In the first year of survey testing, 2003, fewer than 100 players turned up positive, just above the 5% standard that triggered random testing in '04. We just completed an '04 season in which there were no announcements of positive tests. (That's not to say they didn't occur; that information is supposed to be as secure as grand-jury testimony, and should never find its way into the media.) Despite two years of tests, power numbers were up league-wide in '03 over '02, and '04 over '03. That was perhaps the most underreported story of '04: steroid testing didn't lower power numbers.
However, I guarantee you that any drop from those figure in '05 will be laid at the feet of the tougher testing. The story has already been written, whether the facts fit it or not.
Which is a pretty good metaphor for the entire situation.
The difference between being a free agent and not gets put into stark relief in January, when players who lack the ability to negotiate with multiple employers begin signing contracts.
Aaron Rowand, who might have been the best center fielder in the AL last year after Carlos Beltran was dealt, signed a two-year, $5MM contract that could end up worth as much as $10MM over three seasons. He'll play next to Jermaine Dye, an inferior player who will make that same $10MM over the next two years, a contract he obtained on the free market.
Scott Linebrink signed with the Padres for $2.275MM over two years. Dustin Hermanson, with an ERA more than a run higher than Linebrink's over the past two years, got two years and more than twice the money from the White Sox. Dan Kolb will make $3.4 million next season as the Braves' closer; Armando Benitez, meanwhile, got $21 million over three years from the Giants.
Alfonso Soriano signed a one-year, $7.5-million deal with the Rangers. There weren't many second basemen on the market, but one nearly ten years older, Jeff Kent, got two years and $17 million from the Dodgers. Orlando Cabrera, a player of comparable value to Soriano, got four years and $32 million.
As much as owners bitch and moan about the arbitration process, they'll never, ever give it up in favor of earlier free agency for players. The advantage of being the sole entity with which a player can negotiate far outweighs, for ownership, whatever negatives come with the system. The cost savings compared to market rate is staggering, especially when you consider that the market seems happy to treat guys with one good season--Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano--like superstars.