Following the Chris Colabello and Dee Gordon suspensions, both for PEDs and coming within a week of each other, it's fair to start asking questions. Is baseball -- the collective forces of MLB, MLB owners, and the MLBPA -- doing enough to stop PED use in the sport? What more can they do?
Three of us on the MLB Daily Dish staff (me, Michael Bradburn, and Mike Bates) sat around a virtual roundtable today and discussed exactly that.
How does this even happen? How does a player even bother at this point?
Bopp: I have to admit my first reaction to the Chris Colabello and Dee Gordon suspensions is disbelief. Not disbelief that they specifically could be guilty, just general disbelief that multiple players could be trying to get away with this stuff at this point. They're either actual baseball villains or just remarkably dumb, right? RIGHT? How does this happen?
Bates: Looking at anybody playing baseball as a "villain" is so foreign to me. I mean, unless they're actively hurting someone else. But, I'd have to assume that most players who are caught felt like they had figured out a way to beat the system. I don't think Dee Gordon and Chris Colabello are dumb, necessarily, but I think they were too trusting of whatever system they were using.
Bradburn: After seven years of team control, I don't begrudge an athlete trying to make the most possible money they can before fading into retirement or -- worse -- getting blamed for being overpaid and retiring early. What does strike me as villainous is that they offer the excuse that they 'don't know how it got into their system.' If PEDs help you overcome injury and insure your financial stability through retirement than so be it. But I'd like players to own it.
Bates: What does "owning it" get them, or us, Michael?
Bradburn: More transparency into the game I suppose. Denying it makes it harder for baseball to recover if -- or when -- it is learned that they took PEDs on purpose. If a player came out and said 'I did it, I'll accept my 80 games and I'll never do it again,' I'd have a lot more empathy. I'd respect that. Not that players are trying to earn my respect at all.
Bates: That's a fair point. I suppose it does damage the integrity of the game slightly if a player lies to us, and we know it's a lie, and we know we can't trust them. And I do think people should hold themselves accountable for their actions. But it doesn't change my opinion of what they did at all.
Bradburn: For what it's worth, if I knew I could take PEDs in a safe environment, surrounded by training and medical staff, and I knew it would make me better and therefore increase my pay, I would absolutely do it until I got caught the first time. Even if it was just to recover from injury quicker, that could represent a substantial pay difference.
Bates: I think most people, if they're being honest with themselves, would. Especially if it was the difference between a little money and a life-changing amount of money.
Are the current punishments not enough?
Bopp: Ok, I think we agree that getting suspended for PEDs does not make these players villains because they're not actively trying to hurt others, never-mind the way they handle it in the media after the fact.
The nuance here is that somewhere between villainy and being, like REAL DUMB, is that there's millions and millions of reasons -- as Bradburn just points out -- to take these at least until getting caught. So what do you think about the current punishment system? Clearly you both think that if the incentive is outweighed by the initial punishment, then it's not enough ... right?
Bates: I don't, in fact, think the incentive outweighs the punishment. If it did, I think we'd see many, many more players out there getting caught. Instead, we're talking about five Major League guys who have been caught since January 1, the majority of whom are fringy. If the incentive were actually greater, more players would be using, and using more recklessly.
Bradburn: I've thought about that pretty hard. And yes, based on my response, it's not harsh enough. Compared to other sports, missing half a season is quite substantial. However, baseball kind of incentivizes this behavior with the service time rules.
If players got paid more fairly during the first years of their career, there would be less incentive to chase that big free agent contract in year eight. That's largely a different topic, but it's all related. In all, 80 games does seem a tad light to me.
Bates: 80 games is only too light if we believe that PEDs are rampant in Major League Baseball. I just don't see how this is a major problem right now. What indication do we have that we're being overrun by PEDers?
Bradburn: Another lost consequence is the fact that Dee Gordon will be tested more frequently now, having to submit to a system when he actually may never try to cheat again. That's definitely an unfair consequence in my opinion.
How many players getting caught would indicate a rampant, remaining problem?
Bopp: Bates, I think your point that it's fringy types getting caught is astute. Bradburn's point that if early financial incentives were a bit more fair we might see an even smaller incentive is solid, though. Let me answer this last question of yours with a question: How many players getting caught is too many? I was operating from the assumption that ONE player getting caught meant the incentive isn't mitigated enough. Perhaps I'm wrong?
Bradburn: And to answer Bates' question, we don't. But as a baseball fan only, I appreciate the fact that the sport I cheer for is the one that has been the most proactive. It's setting the bar for all other sports, and they continue to not follow it. I think PEDs and drug use are a problem in general, and I think it's -- perhaps unfortunately -- incumbent upon sports to show us that a) drug use should not be tolerated, and b) athletes shouldn't be role models.
Bates: I'm not sure where, exactly, the line is. But it's more than the 10 MLBers who have tested positive since the start of 2014. There are always going to be people who try to cheat; there are always going to be outliers.
Do super-rich and highly-successful players reacting publicly hurt the cause?
This PED shit is killing me. If u test positive u need to not play. You shouldn't be allowed to effect games while appealing.— Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) April 29, 2016
Bopp: Apologies for the segue, but speaking of role models -- Justin Verlander's reaction on Twitter is an awful look isn't it?
The MLBPA can't have one of its most successful players on one of baseball's biggest contracts shouting down to a player trying to get his, right? Should the MLBPA come down (or even privately chastise) Verlander for doing this in public?
Bates: It is a bad look, but I understand Verlander's frustration, assuming that he's clean.
I don't think the union should do anything specifically about Verlander's comments, except that I think it really needs to try to get its members on the same page and explain why those emotional outbursts don't help their cause or the negotiations that will be coming up this offseason.
What's the bottom line? Is this as good as it gets for baseball on PED usage?
Bopp: So here's what we've learned: The players involved are probably not villains, they might be dumb thinking they won't get caught but in either case there are some bottom tier of players where the financial incentive outweighs the risk of punishment. That certainly applies to both Chris Colabello and Dee Gordon.
The question is whether this bottom tier could ever have enough incentive NOT to use PEDs that could ever make sense for both the MLBPA and MLB owners, and my reading is that if there is such a negative incentive we're certainly close to it with the current model.
Union has two apparent weapons at its disposal re: PEDs: 1. Void a player's multi-year deal after + test 2. Stop 'supporting' players busted— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) April 29, 2016
If MLBPA is serious about cleaning up the game, positive tests should result in teams having the option to terminate contracts— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) April 29, 2016
So my last question for you is this: Is that it? Baseball has figured this out and we're seeing the system work? What more could baseball (both MLB and the MLBPA) do other than have its players shaming each other on twitter? Voiding contracts -- as some reflexive media friends of ours are discussing at this moment -- is not the way to go, right? So what's the way to go, status quo?
Bradburn: I like their current approach, yeah, but I'm not committed to it fully. Frequently I don't have the answer unfortunately. I would like to see the MLB take a more proactive approach with PEDs in high school, college and in international scouting.
A lot of that goes completely under the radar, and those kids aren't necessarily doing it with a good training staff around them which can get pretty dangerous. I honestly don't know what that entails; making guilty players go on tours during their suspensions telling young athletes not to cheat. Educating and re-educating people about the dangers of sports. About the likelihood of making the majors even after they've risked themselves bodily harm? I'm not 100% sure, but that seems important.
Bates: I think we are seeing the system work. That players are being caught isn't a sign the system is broken. You're always going to have a few bad actors. But we have widespread drug testing. Use is seemingly way down. The integrity of the sport seems to be strong.
Like, we're not immediately suspicious of the homers Giancarlo Stanton or Miguel Sano hit. Serial violators, such as Jenrry Mejia, are in danger of being kicked out of the sport entirely. Because of this, I think the penalties are totally appropriate at this point. I agree with Michael that Major League Baseball can do much more to educate young players about what they're putting in their bodies and what the effects of those are.
In particular, I think it needs to intensify its efforts to reach players from the Dominican Republic about how to properly train in the offseason to protect themselves. Because I do think there's still a legitimate danger that players could be accidentally ingesting PEDs there in the offseason, not that those players shouldn't be responsible for what they put in their bodies.
But voiding contracts is a non-starter. For one thing, it would undermine the integrity of the testing process. The Red Sox would be spiking Pablo Sandoval's water the moment that became a real thing. Or, at least, people would assume they did if Sandoval tested positive. The union will protect the integrity of the contracts players sign; if it doesn't, it will undermine everything the MLB Players' Association has done over the last 45 years. Don't listen to the dummies who think it's a realistic possibility.