Editor’s Note: The following comes to us via guest submission, thank to Mark Donald, a freelance writer and an avid reader of Jays Journal, our Toronto Blue Jays site here at FanSided.
By not banning Alex Rodriguez and other PED users for life, professional baseball has committed an error of truly historic proportions, writes Mark Donald.
This is truly baseball’s summer of discontent. My beloved Toronto Blue Jays are 15 games out of first place in the A.L. East. And somehow, disgraced Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez, despite a 211-game ban for using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), has managed to compound my misery by getting himself on TV to tell the world that it’s people like me, the witch-hunters, who are the real bad guys. Obviously, the travails of using, lying about using, and concealing the use of PEDs has been really hard on him. (Author’s note: As a lawyer by profession, I appreciate that A-Rod is innocent until proven guilty, but the fact that he didn’t use his primetime press conference to actually deny using steroids leaves me pretty certain of which horse I’m betting on).
If I were Baseball’s Commissioner for a day, two executive fiats would be issued: (1) interleague play would be summarily terminated; and (2) all confirmed PED users from Alex Rodriguez on down, if proven beyond a reasonable doubt, would receive lifetime bans from baseball, and Hall of Fame consideration. Because of the bitter morass that the interleague debate has become, I’ll confine my comments to something more pedestrian: players who cheat.
Many observers remain hostile to an absolute statistical purge of baseball’s PED users. Their argument goes that while PEDs were explicitly outlawed by MLB as early as 1991, the league didn’t begin testing for them until 2005. Ipso facto, say moderates, PED use wasn’t actually illegal during the height of the steroid era. As Scott Bradley, a former major leaguer who now teaches the history of baseball at Princeton University described the steroid era: “There was nobody checking. It was a little bit more of a grey area.”
But the fact that a law is poorly-enforced doesn’t make it any less of a law. The practical result of this half-baked legal philosophy is a world wherein citizens have the right go buckwild at the precise moment when they require the most constraint (at law school the prof called this the “society gone mad” defence).
If you buy-into the theory that justice is derived from communal standards, then it’s pretty clear that PEDs are straight-up illegal in organized sport. Despite all the retrospective talk of MLB policy being a “grey area”, players clearly understood the fact that PEDs breached one of the game’s engrained social mores – they just wholly ignored it. The very reason that steroid use was professional baseball’s “worst kept secret” in the ‘90s, the reason we never saw Jose Canseco juicing in the dugout during the seventh inning stretch, was because players understood there’d be some blowback.
Pursuant to Article XI, Section A1b of Baseball’s Collective Agreement, baseball’s Commissioner has the power to dispense bans in order to “protect the integrity of the game” – a provision that seems tailor-made for players like A-Rod, who have achieved the mythical trifecta of cheating, perjury and obstructing an investigation. Sure, there are many colours in the cheating rainbow that don’t result in first-offence capital punishment (like corking bats, for example), but PEDs are almost unprecedented in their ability to distort the game’s statistical integrity, as the ridiculously-inflated numbers of the late-1990s demonstrate. In fact, the closest offence to PEDs in terms of their prospective effect on a sport’s outcome is gambling – an offence where the Major Leagues have historically adopted a “ban first, ask questions later” policy (see Pete Rose and the 1919 Chicago White Sox).
Equally important is the destructive effect that leniency has on baseball’s all-important historical narrative. Now usually, I’m loath to bring up morality in any debate but for love of the game, let’s do this thing…..
Now clearly, baseball isn’t exactly an unwavering champion of social progress. That being said, its historical arc on the subject is unmistakable, and unavoidable when discussing the game. Baseball is unique in that it’s both a diversion and an historical prism for social relations in American, and, by cultural osmosis, my own Canadian society: in 1938, Hank Greenberg almost broke the single-season home run record despite pervasive anti-Semitism. In 1949, at the onset of Cold War paranoia, National League MVP Jackie Robinson publicly befriended journalist Edward R. Murrow, in spite of right wing accusations that the newsman was a Red fifth-columnist (because apparently, life wasn’t already hard enough for the first black player in baseball). In 1974, Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record against the backdrop of death threats by the Klu Klux Klan. North of the 49th parallel, British Columbia’s World War II-era Japanese population preserved their community and social cohesion in the face of Ottawa’s institutionalized xenophobia by playing organized baseball while locked-away in internment camps.
In contrast, the greatest obstacle that Alex Rodriguez has ever faced is the fallout from our collective realisation that he’s a bit of a jerk.
While you might not like my particular brand of athletic puritanism, without it, baseball is a clubhouse divided. We’re now witnessing the first generation of ballplayers to be indicted for PED use before the twilight of their careers, meaning we’re denied the luxury of seeing them shuffle-off into silent, ignominious retirement. The fault lines are already showing. Just this week, the Angels’ Mike Trout , Boston’s John Lackey and Blue Jays legend Joe Carter vented their frustration at the fact that the PED users suspended in MLB’s Steroid Fest ’13 will eventually have the chance to once more step onto a professional diamond.
As if to prove the point, while I’m editing this article on a glorious Saturday afternoon, A-Rod is denying breaking media reports that he (and/or his entourage) fed evidence to investigators that implicated other PED users. I don’t much care whether the story is true, but the cognitive dissonance of Rodriguez’s denials is what gets me. I know enough about baseball’s “code” to surmise that the clubhouse is essentially pro ball’s equivalent of Vegas – what happens there, stays there. Still, there are few more misguided displays of omerta than the one that A-Rod subscribes to.
Recall that it was exactly because of the cone of silence around locker room PED use that the steroid era was an “era” at all. If you find yourself cringing every time your mind drifts back to the Sosa/McGwire/Bonds home run chases of the late 1990s – there’s your reason. Sure, if true, this latest incident also serves as an exclamation point on Rodriguez’s mercenary tendencies, but c’mon, we already knew that.
The more troubling questions is whether baseball’s esprit de corps still accepts the validity of burying transgressions like PED use which undermine the game itself. I suppose that either prospect, (a) that A-Rod sold his teammates down the river, or (b) that PED users can still expect to find sanctuary in the clubhouse pretty disturbing, but the ultimate lesson is that unless A-Rod is banned outright, Major League Baseball will continue to be at war with itself.
This internecine conflict is happening at the same time that baseball’s history is taught in schools to explain topics as diverse as civil rights, gender diversity and health science. You don’t need to understand the infield fly rule to know that these two narratives can’t be reconciled. And yet, the very fact that A-Rod is still wearing Yankee pinstripes shows that Major League Baseball has abdicated its responsibility to mete-out a brand of justice worthy of this tradition. In so doing, MLB has compromised the history of progress and justice that make baseball so compelling. Saddest of all, it has also marginalized the game’s ability to be such a powerful communicator of teachable moments.
Mark is a member of the Bar in Toronto, Canada, an aspiring litigator and a freelance writer on his three great loves: the law, international relations and baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @markdonaldnz
Topics: Alex Rodriguez