The objective of a drug policy in professional sports is to deter its use. And yet, there have been 80 violations of baseball’s drug program in the minor and major leagues in 2012 – including 20 alone in the month of August.
The objective of suspending players is in part to have them serve as an example for what can happen if somebody cheats, regardless of the potential rewards that await the player on the other side of the rainbow (and syringe). And yet, the San Francisco Giants’ Melky Cabrera chose to artificially inflate his muscles, which led to him competing for the National League batting title, launching his team into a divisional title race, winning the All-Star Game MVP Award, helping the National League claim home-field advantage in the World Series and setting himself up for the contract of his free-agency dreams.
This is when it’s easy to come to the conclusion that baseball’s drug program doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Suspensions need to be longer: One year with the first positive test. There have been enough warnings and enough education about what can and can’t be used.
Maybe more important, the people who run this game — and any sports league — need to start looking at penalizing teams for using illegal players.
I’m talking about taking away wins.
The NCAA does a lot wrong in its enforcement, but one thing it does correctly is it punishes programs that use ineligible players, vacating victories and sometimes championships. The problem in college athletics is that by the time the investigation has been completed and the punishment comes down, the season is over. It becomes more of a symbolic gesture, even if it leaves a permanent grease spot on the program and some individuals.
That’s not the case here. Even if Cabrera, who was suspended 50 games last week for mutant-like levels of testosterone, doesn’t play another game for the San Francisco Giants, the team already has benefited from his ballooned a .346 batting average. Cabrera isn’t the cartoon that Barry Bonds morphed into late in his career, but he was a career .275 hitter before this season. (We can debate whether he was even clean last season with Kansas City, when he jumped from a .255 average, four homers and .354 slugging percentage with the Braves in 2010 to .305, 18 and .470 with the Royals.)
In Cabrera’s last game with the Giants on Aug. 14, he doubled and scored a run in a 6-1 win over Washington. The Giants were 64-53, tied for first place in the National League West. Cabrera played in 113 of the 117 games. If this was college, the Giants would lose any victory among those 113. A less extreme approach would be for baseball to come up with a standard formula: For example, 20 percent of all wins Cabrera played in. But some penalty is needed as a deterrent.
I would love to hear an argument against this — something beyond, “You just can’t do that.”
A Major League Baseball official declined comment, other than to point out that any increased player suspensions would have to be collectively bargained. He left open the possibility for further measures against Cabrera, but he said MLB has never considered vacating wins.
Baseball was in denial about performance-enhancing drug use for years. It implemented its first serious testing program only after officials and the players’ union were humiliated by Congress in 2005. Are we really to believe teams didn’t know about rampant PED use that led to shattered records (as well as wins and potentially World Series titles)? Why do teams skate?
The obvious downside to vacating wins is that clean players and coaches and certainly fans would be unfairly punished. But such is the case now with NCAA sanctions.
The threat of increased penalties could force teams to step up their own policing of the drug program. The resulting peer pressure among players also presumably would have a ripple effect, down to the minors (where 76 of the 80 positive tests occurred).
Commissioner Bud Selig would like to get past the ugly Cabrera episode. But it’s worth noting it was his plan to have the All-Star game winner gain the home-field advantage in the World Series. Cabrera helped the National League win. He also cheated. So Selig effectively is not only enabling cheating, he’s rewarding it.
Baseball could overturn this by simply giving home-field advantage to the team with the better record. But maybe that’s considered too radical of an idea.
By Jeff Schultz