Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a 10-part series commemorating baseball’s new commissioner with advice for his tenure. To read more about this series, click here.
The first-pitch sinker from Steve Trachsel was hit so straight, a surveying laser could likely recreate the ball’s path from the moment of contact to just over the fence in left field. The engineer of the line drive didn’t even know it was gone until he saw his first base coach jumping up and down. Then, as he rounded the bases, every member of the opposing team’s infield congratulated him before he pointed to heaven, touched home plate and hoisted his bat boy son in celebration.
A hitter can do nothing better with a plate appearance than turn it into a home run, and in 1998, Mark McGwire produced more of the best possible outcomes than any batter in the history of baseball to that point.
For a sport still reeling from a labor dispute that cut short the 1994 season and threatened to derail the following year, McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s pursuit of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record represented a deus ex machina for Major League Baseball. However, instead of ending a tumultuous period with a happily-ever-after conclusion, the league’s willful ignorance of what was behind its sudden offensive increase eventually caught up with it.
After five years of boosted power hitting, a plethora of extra-base hits and the grotesque offensive numbers accumulated by Barry Bonds, something happened to put the legitimacy of these heroic achievements into question. Dr. Wade Exum, the former director of drug control administration for the United States Olympic Committee, leaked 30,000 pages of documents to Sports Illustrated revealing more than 100 covered up positive drug tests for U.S. athletes from 1988 to 2000.
American sports fans were presented with a disturbing revelation: The use of performance enhancing substances wasn’t merely the practice of Italian cyclists, German footballers and former Eastern Bloc Olympians. Athletes from the United States were cheating with the same regularity as their competitors.
In response to this loss of innocence, MLB moved quickly to condemn that to which it had turned a blind eye just long enough to enjoy a revival. In 2003, random drug tests (with exemptions for players on the 40-man roster) were introduced. A year later, the tests became mandatory.
Meanwhile, a federal investigation into BALCO—Victor Conte’s California laboratory that provided undetectable banned substances to numerous athletes—prompted Congress to invite several baseball players to testify before a committee looking into performance enhancers in sport. To quell a potential public relations disaster, Commissioner Bud Selig delegated former senator George Mitchell to investigate the use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone in baseball.
As a result of the inquiry, suspensions for positive tests became more severe, and baseball went from blatantly ignoring a potential problem to vehemently prosecuting players confirmed to be using banned substances. What was once the unofficial savior of the sport transformed into its verified villain in fewer than five years.
More recently, MLB’s undeterred pursuit of players resorting to chemical convenience as a means of improvement led it to procure evidence at both financial and moral expense. The league’s investigation into Biogenesis—a Miami anti-aging clinic run by Anthony Bosch, revealed by a report in the Miami New Times to be a banned substance provider—was fraught with accusations of witness intimidation, extortion, impersonation of police, an affair between an MLB investigator and a Biogenesis nurse, and even the purchase of evidence from an alleged arms dealer currently facing federal charges.
The dubious investigation that resulted in the lengthy suspensions of 15 baseball players was led by Rob Manfred, who on Jan. 25 will take over as the commissioner of Major League Baseball.
If deception procreated with manipulation, the result would be ulterior motives. Actions compelled by intentionally hidden desires are more disrespectful than full-on confrontation. At least with the latter, there’s an openness and honesty to the engagement. The former doesn’t even grant its target the decency of being direct. Instead, it assumes you’re a puppet for a purveyor of manipulation, someone whose existence is only worth exploiting for gain. When it comes to its policing of performance enhancing substances, this is how Major League Baseball views its fans.
During closed hearings between MLB and Alex Rodriguez, Manfred was asked by Joe Tacopina, the third baseman’s attorney, whether providing legal aid to Bosch (as part of the agreement for his testimony and evidence) matched the league’s “public policy goals.” His reply: “I believe those goals were advanced by disciplining players who had used performance enhancing drugs, and thereby set a terrible example for young people who might be tempted to do the same thing.” It’s all about the children. Only when it isn’t.
Earlier in the same hearing, when asked about trusting the testimony of Bosch—who, among the many allegations against him, was accused of selling steroids to minors—Manfred replied, “Whether or not Mr. Bosch had distributed drugs to minors was not of paramount importance to me.”
The double standard is characteristic of MLB’s history of dealing with performance enhancing substances. While the league would like to promote its policies as altruistic, the truth is that its public stance against steroids, HGH and other banned materials is motivated solely by self-interest.
Sports leagues depend on public perception because their business models are built on extracting attention and a little amount of money from a great many people. Unfortunately, the public that MLB looks to remains largely ignorant when it comes to performance enhancing substances.
Dr. Exum’s whistleblowing in 2003 was so impactful because doping scandals in the United States were relatively rare. Performance enhancing drugs were first brought to the American public’s attention as a form of propaganda during the Cold War.
As Eastern Bloc athletes began defecting, their tales of systematic drug use were identified with a sense of rivalry that extended beyond the political realm and into the world of sports. Each salacious story of state-prescribed drug regimens strengthened the association between performance enhancers and evil-doing. As an object of ideological opposition, steroids became yet another way in which the Soviet Union and East Germany were fighting dirty. Never mind the fact that Western athletes were using the same substances as their Eastern Bloc competitors, the power of this first impression resonates today.
We associate steroids not just with cheating, but with a form of immoral behavior, while simultaneously justifying Michael Pineda’s far more impactful form of on-field deceit with the “if he ain’t cheatin’, he ain’t tryin’” platitude. We feign concern that players are shaving years off their lives through performance enhancing drug use while laughing at a hunk of smokeless tobacco dripping from Pablo Sandoval’s mouth. We label steroids as an unfair competitive advantage while ignoring Hunter Pence’s paleolithic diet and forgetting about how nicely paved the road to professional baseball is for those of a certain socioeconomic class.
We paint all banned substances with the same brush while imagining it to be a Gummi Bear elixir that magically produces outstanding results for any user. We pretend it’s a black-and-white issue while ignoring its complexities. The result: major league players dealing with criminals to achieve an edge in performance.
As the 10th MLB commissioner assumes office, it seems incredibly unlikely he’ll try to overhaul the league’s policies pertaining to performance enhancing substances. Given public perception, an honest and effective approach that accounts for the health of players and exhibits genuine concern for impressionable youth isn’t something that’s within reach.
It’s doable, but it would have to begin with an unlikely admission: Perception doesn’t always match reality. Instead of being puffed up with pride over the introduction of in-season testing for a substance that hasn’t been proven to benefit performance in elite athletes, MLB actually could consider the potential value of dispensations for the therapeutic use of HGH.
It’s easy to lump all the so-called performance enhancers in one category, but doing so fails to recognize nuance. Human growth hormone isn’t derived from the secretions of somatotropic cells within the pituitary glands of demons. It’s not brewed in a witch’s cauldron. Real-life doctors of the non-quack variety prescribe HGH every day to treat their patients.
Used properly, HGH could bring our favorite players back from injury faster and extend their careers. We’ve seen it at work in the arm of Andy Pettitte, who on separate occasions in 2002 and 2004 received multiple HGH injections in order to recover faster from elbow injuries. There’s also 41-year-old Bartolo Colon, still pitching after taking a year away from the game in 2010 when he underwent an experimental medical procedure to repair damaged tissue in his right shoulder. This specific therapy involves stem cell transplants and typically is coupled with controlled doses of HGH.
Colon would go on to test positive for synthetic testosterone in the summer of 2012 and get named in the Biogenesis scandal the following year. In doing so, he further exemplifies the arbitrariness with which this issue is governed. Science is allowed, but only to a point. Stem cell transplants are acceptable as long as HGH isn’t used with them, while synthetic testosterone is an abomination that must be condemned.
But it feels as though no one has really stopped to ask why. Or, if they have, they’re not hanging around to learn the answer. It doesn’t seem as though that’s going to happen anytime soon, anyway. Instead, MLB will continue to manipulate its fans into believing a stand is being taken against cheaters. It will go for player suspensions and public relations wins rather than research the potential therapeutic benefits of HGH or increase its understanding of the effects of steroid use. And it will do very little to stop the league’s players from pursuing competitive advantages by any means necessary.
This is the league that Rob Manfred inherits, and this is the league that he will, by all evidence, go to extreme lengths to maintain. After all, a flawed status quo doesn’t appear awry when it ensures as much as $9 billion in revenue for those in charge. Judging by his handling of the Biogenesis case, Manfred seems the perfect man for the job.
References and Resources
- Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez, Biogenesis, and the Quest to End Baseball’s Steroid Era by Tim Elfrink and Gus Garcia-Roberts