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An Outline for Fixing Baseball’s Steroid Problem

Columns — By Scott Ham on February 13, 2009 12:14 pm

Various people in the media over the last week have been asking the members of the Major League Baseball community to come clean and tell the truth.  With Alex Rodriguez owning up to using steroids, a new fervor has been created about what exactly is right and wrong with baseball and it’s policy towards steroids.

To this point, baseball has done one thing correctly and that is institute a strong testing policy.  The penalties are harsh and the tests random which is hopefully leading to diminished usage amongst the players.

There’s greater issues here, though, that have yet to be addressed.  In all of these cries for honesty, for acceptance of responsibility, the argument has always been that everyone is at fault.  The commissioner Bud Selig and owners, the Player’s Union led by Donald Fehr and Gene Orza, and the players themselves all share in the blame for allowing steroids to become as rampant a problem as they have been in the sport.  And obviously, the motivation for all of this wrong-doing is money.

Under the current policy, the only people in baseball who face any consequences for future problems are the players.  It is the players who are tested.  It is the players who are suspended.  It is the players who’s entire careers come into question.

Now, this is fair in one sense, in that it is the players themselves who are choosing to take PEDs and they should be penalized for their judgment and actions.

My question is, why aren’t the owners receiving any type of penalty?  The argument has been that the owners and teams sat around and did nothing while trainers and pushers like Brian McNamee and Kirk Radomski walked freely through their clubhouses, in essence harboring criminal activity.  And yet, the owners still bear no responsibility for what happens in their clubhouse or what activities their employees participate in.

It’s nearly impossible to get the truth about what has happened with PEDs in baseball over the last ten or fifteen years with so many people to blame.  The sport is caught in a “Mexican standoff” of sorts, where everyone is pointing their fingers at someone else.  One group taking the high road and admitting fault would only embolden the other groups to stay silent, deflecting the blame.

The current policy doesn’t change that scenario.  The current policy is based on laying all of the blame at the players feet by making them the only party to bare any public responsibility or penalization due to continued usage.  Conceivably, the owners could continue to be looking the other way, hoping their players won’t get caught, then pocketing their salaries for the 50 days they might get suspended.

All of this is made all the more possibly by the fact that HGH is currently undetectable in the current testing process.  It is also reasonable to assume that there are steroids being created that haven’t truly been discovered yet, therefore making them undetectable as well.  While the testing program is in place and is doing an adequate job, it’s safe to assume that there is a lot that is probably going to be missed.

In ten years, we could find ourselves asking the same questions we are today: how is it that player X took PEDs and we didn’t know?  Why did it take the arrest of their PED provider to suddenly reveal all of this information?  Where were the owners?  Where was the player’s union?  How can the commissioner say he’s doing everything he can?

Therefore, I submit these three proposals to try and alleviate some of these questions.  We’ll never get the answers to all of our questions about the past, but we might be able to limit the questions we have in the future.

  1. Bud Selig needs to step down. It was a conflict of interest when an owner became the Commissioner of Baseball and it remains a conflict.  Selig has accepted zero blame for what was fast becoming a major problem in his sport under his watch.  To claim he knew nothing when multiple players were sounding the bell as early as 1999 and 2000 is simply Bud trying to save face.  Clearly, the owners interests are Bud’s interests and that’s not what the game needs right now.
  2. Tougher testing and stronger regulation. Testing has to go beyond urine samples and become blood and hair testing.  Players will claim it’s a violation of their rights, but if they haven’t done anything wrong, they shouldn’t have anything to worry about.  Also, blood samples should not be destroyed, but kept on file by an independent lab.  As more PEDs are discovered, the lab should have the ability to check samples from previous years.  This should have a strong impact on players who feel they can take a drug now because it can’t be detected.  Players should also be subject to criminal charges if they are discovered to have taken an illegal substance.  Also, teams and the commissioner’s office need to regulate the use of private trainers and team trainers.  If a player wants to use a specific trainer, that trainer has to be approved by MLB and subject to background checks and an audit.  Any supplements have to be registered with MLB.  If a player is found to be using supplements without registering them with MLB, they will be suspended.
  3. Teams have to be penalized when a player tests positive.The teams themselves have to take responsibility for their players.  It’s becoming increasingly apparent that in the past, teams have had PED “cultures” in their clubhouses that simply could not have gone unnoticed by management.  The fact that teams have let this behavior go on in their clubhouses is a crime in itself.  When a player tests positive for PEDs, the team should face three penalties:
    1. the players salary (previously unpaid) will go to charity.
    2. the team will pay a fine, which will increase with each positive test.
    3. the team will lose a first round draft pick to the team with the lowest record in the league.  In the case of the lowest record team being penalized, it will go to the team one slot above them.

These three steps would put Major League Baseball in a better direction regarding steroids.  Greater responsibility needs to be taken from everyone in the sport, not just the players.  Teams need to be liable for the actions of their own players.  If there is to be any progress in rehabilitating this sport, the people closest to the problem need to take responsibility.

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11 Comments

  1. She-Fan says:

    I like the idea of the player donating salary to charity! Works for me.

  2. Ung Bull says:

    This article gave the simple facts, not the fluff. Your 3 proposals could truly be implemented and they are extremely intelligent solutions. The draft pick punishment seems like there can be many potential flaws, but overall, Scott, greatly informative article.

    • Scott Ham says:

      Ung,
      Thanks for the nice words.

      The draft pick penalty would be difficult to implement, but I think it could be done. The biggest problem is compensatory picks and teams losing first rounders due to free agent signings. It would be weak to lessen the punishment by taking away a second round pick, or even a sandwich pick. At that point, do you roll it over to the next season? I think it could be worked out.

  3. Ung says:

    Yeah I understand. I’m an avid baseball fan and I’m doing a project on steroids and how to eradicate them from baseball (it’s affect on baseball, background, and potential solutions). Quick question, do you think steroids will remain a major issue in the actual game or will they gradually diminish in the sport due to all of the negative publicity and what not?
    You’ve been a great help so far, truly.

    • Scott Ham says:

      I think the everyday fans apathy towards the issue is growing, to a point where the continued coverage is becoming an annoyance. I think they will remain a major issue for awhile for a few reasons.

      First, I don’t think there is any end in site to the trickling of new names that come out. A-Rod by far is the big fish, but (and this is pure conjecture) if someone like Griffey were exposed as a user, or Derek Jeter for that matter, people’s faith in the game would be irrevocably damaged.

      The other reason is because of the numbers. People don’t care so much about steroids in football because the records don’t mean that much. In baseball, where people are constantly trying to figure out who the best players are across all eras, steroids have created an era that makes it even harder to figure out who truly was the best. As if it wasn’t hard enough to compare a player from the 1940’s with a player from the 70’s or 80’s, now you have an entire decade plus where just players raw stats alone don’t tell you what they were truly capable of. Combine that with the home run records being broken and the 500 home run club being less exclusive, people have a hard time judging offense from this era.

      This is something we’re living with now, but thirty or forty years from now, when people look at the history of the game, they will still have to acknowledge that the 1990’s and part of the 2000’s were the steroid era. It will be a factor in every discussion of that period now and forever.

      Now, we may get to a point in the future where the effectiveness of steroids is somewhat debunked, which may change the view of this era. We could also find out that it has more of an impact than we ever realized. There is still a lot we don’t know.

      At some point, the casual fans will stop caring and just take the game for what it is. The avid fans, such as yourself, will be the ones it effects the most.

      Hope that helps. If you want to take a conversation off the site, drop me an email at the address on the sidebar and I’ll write you back.

  4. anonymous says:

    this shit is whack

  5. hutch says:

    Mr. Ham,
    Do you believe that the use of PED’s threaten the integrity of the game?

    and, instead of random testing in the MLB, do you believe that testing should be done on a more regular basis? Say once a month or something of that sort?

  6. Scott Ham says:

    Hey hutch,
    Thanks for reading the article.

    I think PEDs definitely threaten the integrity of the game. The questions that surround the “steroid era” leave a lot of unanswerable questions about what was real and what was enhanced. Major records have fallen with the likely enhancement of steroids. It will be almost impossible to put the 1990s and early 2000 period in any type historical comparison, which is part of what makes baseball so interesting.

    Part of the issue is that no one knows definitively what effect steroids and HGH have on a players performance. And much like certain conditioning, etc, it would probably vary based on the individual. If there is ever a point where those effects are better understood, we might be able to gain a little more perspective, but we’ll still have questions over who used and who didn’t.

    Regarding the testing patterns, I question putting players on a testing schedule because it makes them aware of when they will be taking the test. If Player X knows that the first of every month he will be tested, what’s to stop him from seeking out enhancements that will not be detectable before his next test or are easily masked via other agents? I think part of the effectiveness of random testing is the fear of not knowing when the test will come. It’s more of a gamble on the players part to take a substance in hopes that they won’t get tested.

    I don’t know exactly how often players are tested but I would suggest that the more often, the better. If once a month equals seven times a season (from March to September), then seven random tests would seem reasonable. The more the merrier as far as I’m concerned.

  7. hutch says:

    I completely agree with the “more the merrier” technique when it comes to the drug tests. Your second point or proposal stated, “Players will claim it’s [drug testing] a violation of their rights, but if they haven’t done anything wrong, they shouldn’t have anything to worry about,” is a major point that i am trying to prove in a research paper about how steroids ultimately diminish the integrity of America’s pastime and how more mandatory drug tests should be done on a regular basis.

    Do you believe that the use of PED’s are more widespread than MLB officials realize? Also, what do you think should be done about the number of players who use these substances and do not get caught/face the punishments and media scrutiny of players like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds?

    Can you explain to me exactly how tests are done now.

    Thank you so much for your time!

    • Scott Ham says:

      Regarding how the testing is done, you can find that info here on page 18, assuming this is a real document. Essentially, the player has to be observed by the collector approaching the testing area, urinating into the cup, and bringing the cup to be verified. I don’t believe this document represents the very latest as the punishments for positive tests seem out of date, but I would imagine the procedure has not become more relaxed.

      The “violation of rights” quote you cite was in reference to blood tests in place of urine tests. For some reason, blood tests have always carried a stigma with them that it is somehow a greater violation. One can certainly gain a lot more information about a person from such a test, but I would assume that the main objection is that blood is harder to mask because one can judge white blood cell counts along with other factors rather than just looking for a substance. Those readings could be indicative of other agents in the player’s system.

      Regarding widespread usage: What do MLB officials realize? Isn’t that part of the problem? I don’t think anybody except for Bud Selig really has a grasp on how much Bud knows (and knew in the 1990’s for that matter) in comparison to what has been publicly acknowledged. Bud will tell you baseball has been very active in their drug testing program and that it’s working. Of course he’s going to say that. He was asleep at the wheel and it took congressional grandstanding to get him and the union to actually do something. Bud’s not going to acknowledge a lingering problem.

      The problem with steroids lies in the nature of the drugs themselves. They’re illegal, so most of them are illegally made. People develop them specifically to not be detected. A player could probably bounce every four months to a new drug (provided it’s available) knowing that MLB has no way of finding it. That’s why I think blood tests are important because they can be revisited in later years. Players need to operate under the belief that even if they don’t get caught today, their present actions could still be proven a year or five years from now through blood tests.

      I think there is still more usage than the commish is acknowledging. It has probably diminished greatly, but I don’t think it will ever completely go away.

      Players like McGwire, Sosa, etc who have no tangible evidence against them can’t really be punished by MLB. The court of public opinion will certainly have it’s day in court, as we’ve seen with McGwire. It will be interesting to see the handling of Sosa by the BBWAA when he’s up for the Hall. There has always been suspicion about him but less circumstantial evidence than surrounds McGwire. Sosa may very well be the litmus test for how fringe players from this era will be judged.

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