MLB's vigilant PED testing sends strong message
Baseball wants a clean sport. Baseball wants an even playing field. Baseball will test. Baseball will punish. Every player who wears the uniform should understand this by now. So should the millions of kids who dream of wearing one.
Yes, it's OK to play by the rules. That's the bottom line in all of this, and no matter how many layers of the story are peeled away, it's all that matters. No other professional sport has come close to Major League Baseball in terms of testing players for performance-enhancing substances or pursuing those who cheat.
This is a good thing, a noble thing. Let's not make this an owners-vs.-players issue, either, because that's incomprehensibly insulting to the vast majority of players. They're the ones who work hard and play by the rules, the ones who do not want these drugs in their sport.
Rank-and-file players are furious that a small number of players put the sport in a bad light by allowing their ambition to overtake their judgement. Players understand there is no gray area for most of these players. To use performance-enhancing substances, a player must find a dealer to sell them and someone to tell them how to train to maximize their benefit.
This is unpleasant. Thanks to a few players, there'll be a flurry of headlines about baseball and steroids in the wake of reports that players who obtained banned substances from a Florida clinic could be suspended.
Pennant races may be impacted. The Tigers may lose their shortstop (Jhonny Peralta), the Rangers their right fielder (Nelson Cruz). Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, the National League's 2011 Most Valuable Player, will take another hit to his reputation.
Some will wonder why baseball is picking a fight with some of its biggest names, including Alex Rodriguez. Why not look the other way while continuing to clean up the sport? Or simply look the other way, period.
When baseball announced last winter that it would do in-season blood testing for human growth hormone, it stood in contrast to the National Football League, which does no testing for HGH.
Baseball has never hid from the fact that it once had a problem with performance-enhancing drugs. In the decade since testing for steroids began in the Major Leagues, baseball has acknowledged there'll be a constant game of cat-and-mouse between those being tested and those doing the testing.
Almost 15 years ago, Commissioner Bud Selig asked a team of doctors to give him a report on steroids. That request came in the wake of the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race and amid reports that one or both players had used steroids.
Several months later, those doctors delivered a lengthy report. Among the sentences that struck Selig was this one:
"If you don't do something, players will die."
He ordered that all Minor Leaguers be tested, and he insisted that steroid testing be included in the 2002 labor agreement. Baseball's testing program has been strengthened and toughened several times through the years, most recently with the announcement of in-season blood tests for HGH last January.
In 2005, Selig asked George Mitchell, a distinguished former member of the U.S. Senate, to investigate the history of baseball and performance-enhancing drugs.
He said he wanted the story told as completely as Mitchell could tell it. He said he wanted people to understand baseball had nothing to hide.
"Some people thought it was a bad idea," he said recently. "I think history will show it was the right thing to do. I thought so then and am even more convinced now."
Twenty-one months later, in December 2007, Mitchell handed Selig a report that both named names -- Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Miguel Tejada -- and made recommendations.
Did Mitchell tell the whole story? Of course not. How silly. He only made a good-faith effort to lay out as much of it as he could uncover during his 21-month investigation. More important than the details was the effort itself and the message that was sent.
Baseball has adopted virtually all the recommendations, but baseball also does not view the world through rose-colored glasses. As long as there are competitive people in the sport, there'll be those who seek an unfair advantage. That's true in every sport on earth.
Baseball's challenge is to identify those players, to punish them and to discourage those who might be tempted to cheat. One striking thing in recent years is how angry many players are when a high-profile player tests positive. One player reflects poorly on every player. That's not fair, but that's life.
In recent months, dozens of players have said they want tougher penalties for first-time offenders. Some have suggested a one-year suspension rather than 50 games.
The message is that this is their game, that their reputations are on the line and that they will not tolerate the ones who cross the line. As this latest story plays out, there'll be a flurry of opinions and reaction.
However, the one thing no one can dispute is really the only thing that matters. Baseball is going to be vigilant in its pursuit of players using performance-enhancing drugs. Baseball intends to do the right thing.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.