CREDIT: USA Today
Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig laid down the biggest drug-related suspension in baseball history Monday when he slapped Alex Rodriguez with a 211-game penalty that could cost Rodriguez more than $30 million and may ultimately bring his career to a final, whimpering end. Right now, though, Rodriguez gets to continue playing thanks to baseball’s appeals process, which is a good thing but is certainly coming to the chagrin of baseball fans everywhere.
The appeals process likely won’t end until the off-season, according to MLB Players Association head Michael Weiner, which means that before all is said and done, the Biogenesis scandal and fall out may last nearly an entire year. For Selig, the appeal of the heavy penalties — he also suspended 13 other players — is clear: it makes him look strong on steroids and could bolster his legacy as his career wraps to an end, and it lets him avoid looking less-than-serious about drugs the way he did for the first half of his tenure.
Here’s my question, though: was it worth it? Baseball couldn’t afford to conduct a “see no evil” cover-up of performance enhancing drugs like it did in the 1990s, but there’s a middle ground between looking the other way and pretending this is an epidemic. So I wonder if Selig, by floating trial balloons about lifetime bans and insisting upon handing Rodriguez a punishment he wouldn’t accept, blew up the scandal in a way that made it seem worse than it would have been otherwise. This wasn’t the 1990s, and drug use, as far as we know, isn’t rampant throughout the game like it was then. Baseball says it has progressed to the point where drug use is isolated and not a problem, yet it treated the Biogenesis scandal as something with deeper roots, not as 14 players going rogue. If it was an isolated incident, and hopefully it was, is continuing to sell itself as a game dealing with a problem more advantageous that selling the game itself?
Baseball, after all, is in pretty good shape and has plenty of appealing players and storylines to sell. In a column about why we should forget about steroids and focus on what makes the game great, Grantland’s Jonah Keri focused on young stars like Yasiel Puig and Mike Trout, incredible stories like Ed Lucas, and the amazing run of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have shed their status as one of baseball’s most beleaguered franchises and now sit atop the National League’s Central Division.
There’s even more. With 50 some-odd games to go, the second place team in four of baseball’s six divisions is within four games of first place and there are 16 teams within seven games of a playoff spot. There’s more financial parity in the game than ever, and the standings show it: six of baseball’s 10 biggest payrolls are out of the playoff picture, and four of them are in either fourth or last place in their divisions. The teams with the 26th, 27th, and 28th-largest payrolls — Pittsburgh, Oakland, and Tampa, respectively — would make the playoffs if the season ended today, two of them as division winners. Those three teams combined spent $40 million less than the Yankees.
There are also guys like Chris Davis, who’s on pace to hit 60 home runs for Baltimore this year, and Max Scherzer, who won his first 13 decisions and is now 16-1 on the season. Some dude named Chris Johnson is leading the National League in batting average, which is remarkable considering he was such an afterthought in the biggest trade of the off-season that he merited only a single mention in ESPN’s story about it. Davis has been a story of the season, but how many baseball fans have even heard of Chris Johnson or know what he and Scherzer are doing? Would baseball be better off making sure they did?
Instead of talking about any of those players or stories, we’re talking about drugs again, because baseball insiders including Selig have apparently determined that the future of the game depends on looking authoritative on that issue more than any other. Selig shouldn’t have looked the other way and let the offenders walk. But would the game be worse off if it handed Rodriguez a milder suspension he may have accepted, like the one it gave Ryan Braun, than it will be because it chose to incite a months-long battle by trying to take him to the woodshed? Rodriguez is 38, remember, and he’ll be gone soon enough anyway. Would empty charges of “sweeping PED use under the rug” from columnists be worse than actually sweeping the fantastic elements of the current season under it instead? For baseball, the answer was apparently “yes,” so instead of appreciating accomplishments we’re back to wondering if we should doubt them all and instead of talking about the Pittsburgh Pirates and pennant races and record chases, we’ve been talking about due process and Selig overreaching on a suspension and Alex Rodriguez.
Selig spent the All-Star Break telling anyone who would listen that baseball was in its “golden era,” and he wasn’t wrong. Baseball attendance may be down slightly this year, but it’s still up over the last decade, and the game is appealing to fans in new ways every year. Its revenues grew from $1.4 billion in 1995 to $7.5 billion last year. Both owners and players are so happy with the game’s economics that a game that saw eight labor stoppages in 22 years up until 1994 is now on the brink of going 22 years without one. Baseball is thriving, and it will continue to, because Alex Rodriguez isn’t what made us fall in love with the game and he isn’t what will make us fall out of love with it either. We long ago realized that baseball is an excellent game played by flawed humans, which is why we may turn against the humans but never against the game even after gambling scandals and strikes and steroids and everything in between. The people who might have been upset about “going soft” on A-Rod would have come back too, especially once they realized what they were really missing by walking away.
I’m with Keri in wanting to focus not on drugs but on all the great things about baseball, because “baseball’s golden era” isn’t just a sales pitch, it’s the truth. That baseball decided to turn the conversation back to drugs so vigorously, though, has me wondering if anybody in the front office actually realizes that.