Will baseball dopers finally pay price?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 3, 2013

If most working stiffs were found to be using drugs on the job, they’d be out on the street quicker than you could say “infield fly rule.”
But then, most working stiffs aren’t Major League Baseball players. They aren’t protected by a players’ union. They aren’t coddled by team owners and upper level management quick to sweep things under the turf in pursuit of increased ticket sales or playoff chances. They can’t negotiate for $275 million contracts.
That’s the 10-year take for Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who by the time you read this may have gotten his pink slip. Or so one can hope.
Rodriguez isn’t the only player implicated in a major crackdown as baseball’s wise men finally acknowledged they have a drug problem. (Wow, who’d have guessed?) Milwaukee Brewer Ryan Braun — the 2011 MVP winner — received a 50-game suspension, and at least eight other players were on the MLB punishment list. But A-Rod is the highest profile target, one whose fame and on-field performance might once have made him immune to the sort of consequences that ordinary mortals invite when they violate company policy, cross ethical boundaries or even break criminal laws.

A-Rod, of course, denied there’s a problem, and you can hardly blame him for thinking this would blow over quicker than his dalliance with Madonna. While we often criticize Congress for its feckless posturing, it appears downright industrious compared to how MLB has handled the steroid problem.
It has been more than 10 years since the BALCO scandal broke, implicating Barry Bonds and others who were clients of a San Francisco doping business, including Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones. (She went to prison and had to give up her medals; Bonds retains his homerun record.)
It’s been eight years since slugger Mark McGwire, summoned before Congress, basically pleaded the Fifth, declining to answer questions rather than publicly acknowledge steroid use. (Three years ago, he finally admitted what we all knew; he used banned substances, and did so over a long period of time.)
In the interim, doped up players continued to demolish records and rack up accolades, with outsized salaries to match their outsized muscles.
That’s the crying shame about Major League Baseball’s dithering for more than a decade when it knew the performance-enhancing-drug problem went far beyond a few high-profile cases. The record book is cooked. The stats are stained, the titles tarnished. Alongside the unquestioned achievements of un-enhanced players like Hank Aaron or Willie Mays or Chipper Jones, we have the so-called “asterisk” lineup — a rogues’ list that is now likely to grow quickly as players who’ve remained silent about substance-abusing teammates feel emboldened to vent their anger and frustration and name names.

Supposedly, the tide has now turned, and Major League Baseball will henceforth pursue cheaters aggressively and deal with them harshly. Perhaps so, but I’m still skeptical, given the history. Harshness isn’t a 50-game suspension, or docking a megamillionaire a year’s pay. Harshness isn’t making a player sit out a season for a second offense, which is what the rules now mandate. Players aren’t banned from baseball until a third infraction, although that may be about to change.
In this case, I agree with Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson, a former major leaguer, and others who think a zero tolerance policy is in order. During a recent broadcast, Simpson drew a parallel with baseball’s absolute prohibition against gambling, citing the example of Pete Rose’s lifetime ban.
If players who gamble on games are damaging the credibility of the sport, isn’t the same true of cheaters whose use of performance-enhancing drugs has affected the course of games, careers, playoff races and even championships? If fairness and a level playing field constitute the ultimate goal, steroids and similar substances skew the landscape just as surely as a Las Vegas bet.

Baseball’s steroid era has given us a lot of negative messages — about how we define success, about the deification of celebrity athletes, about the illusion that there should be no limit to the competitive urge that would make us ever faster, stronger and more dominant. Worst of all, it has influenced a whole generation of younger athletes who view doping as an inevitable part of the game, even if they’re smart enough to reject it themselves.
A-Rod needs to go. So do all the other players who think conventional rules don’t apply to them, who believe that only suckers play fair — or get caught when they don’t. If MLB is really serious about ending the steroid era, then it should impose a lifetime ban upon first offense. The integrity of the sport demands it, and the effectiveness of the ban on gambling points the way.
Sometimes cheaters deserve a second chance, but this isn’t one of them.
Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.