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I’m not that into sports. I’m not a member of any fantasy leagues, I don’t watch the drafts hoping my favorite college player gets a big contract, and I definitely don’t argue about the merits of expanded instant reply with my friends. I’m probably not even qualified to have an opinion on performance enhancing drugs, but I do, so here it is.
First a long-winded disclaimer: I am a lifelong fan of the Baltimore Orioles. I was born in Maryland the same year they won their last World Series. With a few exceptions in the ’90s and the past two seasons, they haven’t been all that competitive since. But I still love them. I have fond memories of family trips to watch Cal Ripken Jr. play at Memorial Stadium, then at Camden Yards. My wife and I enjoyed going to Camden Yards over the past several years and we try to make the 150-mile drive up there at least a couple times a season. It’s been fun coming back to the sport as an adult, but, like many, I stopped paying close attention to major league baseball in the late ’90s and early ’00s—right around when all the steroid stuff was big news. I might have a different take on this had I remained a die-hard fan through that era. Maybe not.
The Orioles are my team. It follows, naturally, that I hate the Yankees. As our division rivals, it’s my obligation to dismiss their stellar accomplishments and make sweeping generalizations about the players as well as their fans. But, if I’m honest with myself, the Yankees have some incredible talent in their lineup that deserves to be acknowledged. Robinson Cano’s contribution to the team this season has been admirable and he’ll serve as a wonderful team captain after Jeter hangs up his jersey. Ichiro is a class-act and despite his wacky batting stance, a joy to watch. And anyone who doubts that Mariano Rivera is one of the greatest pitchers ever to hold a baseball is insane. The Yankees have a very important legacy and their contribution to America’s pastime should never be marginalized.
I only mention all this because I don’t want what I’m about to say to be misinterpreted as an overreaction to a petty rivalry. I like to think that I’d be equally upset if one of my beloved Orioles were caught up in a PED scandal. But (so far) they’re not.
Alex Rodriguez is. And here’s why he should never be allowed to play professional baseball again, especially not while his appeal is pending.
Once a cheater
I obviously don’t know A-Rod personally. I barely know anything about his long career and I don’t even care enough to look it up on Wikipedia. He may be an amazingly generous person, a model citizen, and a great teammate. From what I’ve heard, he’s mentored many young players who dream of playing in the big leagues, including my current favorite rookie, Manny Machado.
But A-Rod is still a cheater, and that’s all that matters to me at this point. He was a cheater before, he’s (allegedly) been cheating for at least the past couple seasons, and there’s no reason to believe that he wouldn’t still be cheating had he not been caught.
A few of the other 13 players suspended for their involvement with the Biogenesis clinic have spoken out about their situation, expressing regret and apologizing to their teammates and fans. Others have remained silent and I have to assume there are some legal restrictions on what they can say to the media.
I don’t want any of this to be taken as a judgement of any of these players as people, including A-Rod. They each had their reasons for taking PEDs. Some of them might be very sympathetic reasons. There are very few injuries that would suddenly and severely alter my career, so I won’t pretend to understand the pressure these athletes deal with season after season. I honestly can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t have made the same choices had I been in their situation. Regardless, these players made a poor choice to use banned substances and have accepted their (very lenient, in my opinion) punishment.
Except, of course, A-Rod.
Presented with the evidence against him, A-Rod had the opportunity to come clean, maybe even try and justify his actions to the press, take a suspension as a “first-time” offender under the new regulations, and return to his team next season. Instead, he (allegedly) interfered with the investigation and attempted to cover up his mistakes. What’s worse, and this is what has me all riled up, is he found a loophole that allowed him to return to the Yankees as if nothing was wrong and contribute to a very competitive Wild Card race.
If you’re going to tell me that A-Rod’s return and the Yankee’s miraculous late-season comeback is a coincidence, I don’t buy it. Of course there were other factors like the return of Soriano, Jeter and Granderson coming of the DL, or Cano’s continued dominance. But if you think that getting A-Rod back wasn’t a big boost to the team, you’re not giving him enough credit.
In what sport is it okay for a player to be identified as a cheater, then return to finish out a season—potentially his last meaningful season given his current health issues—and lead his team to the post-season? In a game where every inning, every run, every hit can significantly affect a team’s momentum, especially this late in the season, what kind of example does that set?
Major League Baseball missed an opportunity to prove its commitment to cleaning up the game. 50-game suspensions are not enough. There needs to be a zero tolerance policy and someone needs to be made an example. Otherwise an increasing number of honest, hard-working, clean players will turn to PEDs as their only chance to level the playing field.
Anything less than a lifetime ban for all 14 players implicated in the Biogenesis scandal is an insult to every drug-free player in the major and minor league. But wait, you might ask, how can you ban someone for taking a drug twice just to recover from an injury? I’ll explain.
First, I’ll admit that I don’t know all the finer points of how steroids, HGH, testosterone, or other PEDs actually effect the human body. Obviously there are a wide variety of banned substances and they vary in both short-term and long-term impact to a player’s performance.
Clearly, drugs meant to build muscle mass are going to have lasting effects on the body. Shorter-lived effects of PEDs are more problematic. Once a player discontinues use of a banned substance that may have helped speed recovery but offers no long-term benefits, have they really cheated?
Here’s my problem with it. As soon as a player takes a banned substance, they create a situation where it’s impossible to tell if their achievements are legitimate or a result of the unfair advantage.
In an alternate dimension where Barry Bonds didn’t juice, would he have hit all those home runs? Maybe. It takes a lot of skill to hit that many home runs. But maybe that extra muscle mass he put on is the difference between 73 home runs and 65. Sure, 65 is an accomplishment worthy of praise and would still top Roger Maris, but we’ll never know what he would have done had he been clean.
In the same alternate universe, where a player took some extra pain killers to help themselves push through an injury, does that negate a lifetime of hard work? Of course not. But had their injury not healed on its own schedule, using the same medicine available to other players under league guidelines, would they have missed more games? Maybe their team loses 10 games in a row, drops into last place, is forced to make a series of trades to improve their defense, and now the player finds himself playing with the Houston Astros’ farm team. Does that suck? Yes. But that’s the risk that all players face. Taking a shortcut to put yourself above the other players is still cheating.
That’s why I believe that all records set by a player discovered to be using PEDs should be removed from the books for any and all seasons in which the banned substances were taken. No exceptions.
Congratulations, Roger Maris, your record still stands.
Here’s the Deal
Here’s the deal: as a major league baseball player, you make somewhere between $500,000 and $300,000 a year to play a game (by the way, how perfect is it that A-Rod gets paid the most?) and in return we get to live vicariously through your physical conquests.
I know, it’s not an easy job—I’m not saying I could do it. Even if you’re blessed with natural talent, it’s a lot of work to hone those skills, keep your body in peak physical condition, study opponents, and contribute to your team’s success game after game.
But still, you get paid to play a game. The least you could do is play it fairly.
There are lots of ways to cheat in professional sports. It’s going to happen. With that kind of money on the line, there are players who will look for ways to gain an advantage. It’s part of the game that goes back to the very beginning. But somehow letting A-Rod back on the field after all this reaches a level of injustice that is beyond my comprehension.
Mariano Rivera is retiring this year with grace and dignity befitting a Hall of Fame player. Even as a Yankee hater, I have to respect his career and I will be sad to see him go. When A-Rod retires (most likely during his suspension) I will do a little dance, laugh at his misfortune, feel a little guilty about it, shrug it off, and say “good riddance.”