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.